Cubs hoping for good things out of Valbuena
Stewart's injury opens door for well-traveled veteran
MESA, Ariz. -- Fans of the Cardenales de Lara baseball team in Venezuela love Luis Valbuena.
He was the hero on Jan. 25, when he hit a solo home run against Magallanes del Navegantes in the fifth inning to boost the Cardenales to a 3-0 victory and tie the Venezuelan Championship Series at one win apiece. In Game 6, Valbuena connected again, but World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval delivered a three-run blast for Magallanes, which won, 7-3, to force a seventh game.
Sandoval delivered another home run in the final as Magallanes won, 11-9, and advanced to the Caribbean Series. But Valbuena was a local hero in Barquisimeto, and fans there had a saying:
"Cuando llega Luis Valbuena, la cosa se pone buena."
The loose translation is: "When Luis Valbuena is at the plate, good things happen." The Cubs are hoping for the same.
Valbuena heads into the 2013 season as Chicago's starting third baseman. The Cubs were counting on Ian Stewart to bounce back after undergoing wrist surgery in July, but a sore left quad kept him out of Cactus League action. Stewart will open the season on the disabled list.
This won't be the first time Valbuena is on the Cubs' Opening Day roster. He made it last year after he was claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays on April 4. Three days later, he was outrighted to Triple-A Iowa.
Valbuena has been a popular guy on the transaction wire. He came up through the Mariners' system and made his big league debut in September 2008. That December, he was traded to the Indians and bounced back and forth between the Minors and the big leagues. He was designated for assignment in November 2011 and then traded to the Blue Jays, who placed him on waivers last year.
Valbuena thought he'd made the Indians' Opening Day lineup in 2010, but he couldn't play after he was hit by a pitch on his right hand in a Spring Training game by Cincinnati's Homer Bailey.
Now, the Cubs are counting on him.
"That's what I want -- to be an everyday player," Valbuena said.
He tuned up for the regular season by batting .306 with six home runs, 15 doubles, one triple and 39 RBIs in 51 games for the Cardenales. Give his mother, Nely, an assist for the good stats. She was at almost all of his home games to watch and critique. She was president of the local Little League, so she knows something about baseball.
"She'll say, 'Good job today,'" Valbuena said. "If I don't get a hit, she'll say, 'OK, son, you have to do better. Don't swing at a bad pitch.'"
His mother has never seen Valbuena play in the United States. She no longer runs the youth baseball league, her days filled by caring for Valbuena's grandmother. Valbuena doesn't know his father.
"He tried to talk to me when I signed with Seattle," Valbuena said. "He tried to call me, because he knew I was going to sign. I said, 'I don't want to talk to you. Now you want to see me?' My grandmother, my mother, my brother -- they're everything for me. I only know about him because my mother told me."
|"He can really catch the ball, that's the big plus to Valbuena. He's so good at third base.|
|-- Manager Dale Sveum|
Valbuena's three uncles took care of him. They all played baseball, and little Luis started when he was 5 years old.
"I liked to play basketball, volleyball, but my family played baseball," Valbuena said. "My mother took me everywhere. I was the bat boy, and I watched my friends play. I played every time I could."
He learned all aspects of the game and was a catcher, pitcher and also played shortstop. His older brother worked for the Mariners and was able to get Luis into their academy in Venezuela. He signed with Seattle in 2002.
Valbuena impressed Cubs manager Dale Sveum with his sound fundamental play.
"He can really catch the ball, that's the big plus to Valbuena," Sveum said. "He's so good at third base."
During Spring Training drills, Sveum would ask Valbuena to watch the youngsters on the field, such as shortstop Javier Baez.
"[Valbuena] is really good at positioning, and he's one of those guys you don't have to keep moving or tell them to play deeper," Sveum said. "He plays third base the way you want it played, positioning-wise and physically, too. He's one of those guys who is savvy about that stuff."
But can he produce? Valbuena batted .219 last season in 90 games with the Cubs.
"It was such a weird season for him to hit .219," Sveum said. "If you never saw his stats, you'd think he was hitting .260, .270 because he has so many quality at-bats. He is the master of fouling a lot of balls off that are good pitches to hit. He's got a great swing, bat speed, but it's a foul ball. He's swung the bat well this spring and had a great winter ball."
He approached the offseason with a plan formulated by watching players like Alfonso Soriano and Starlin Castro.
"When I started to play more third base, I would see Soriano, Castro and what they were doing," Valbuena said of their pre- and post-workout routines. "It helped me. I'd think, 'OK, I want to do this, because they do this.'"
All he has to do is check with Nely. She watches every Cubs game on television from Venezuela and leaves a message every day.
"My mom, she says, 'Why do you swing at that pitch? You have to wait,'" Valbuena said. "I said, 'C'mon, Mom, I'm not perfect.'"
Last season, Cubs third basemen combined to bat .201, lowest in the National League.
"I won't stop working," Valbuena said. "I have to work more. I want to be better and better."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.