Coming into the offseason following the 2016 season, the Angels had plenty of needs. A starter or 2, a reliever or 2, a new left fielder, a 2nd baseman and arguably a catcher were all dire needs for the team. The team addressed all of those needs to an extent but they also made more one move that surprised many: they signed infielder Luis Valbuena, inking him to a 2 year deal with a club option.
When the move was first made, many speculated that Valbuena, who has played a competent third base in recent years, would be utilized at the corner infield positions in some utility role. Shortly after the signing, Angels general manager Billy Eppler announced that Valbuena would mainly play 1st base in 2017, a spot 3 other above average/good Angels hitters could potentially play. With C.J. Cron, Jefry Marte and Albert Pujols all in the fold, Valbuena just didn’t seem like a natural fit. It’s worth noting that Billy Eppler also conceded the possibility of Valbuena sliding over to third base if Yunel Escobar isn’t brought back after the season. That seems unlikely, however, as Valbuena is coming off hamstring surgery that ended his 2016 season early, he’ll be a year older in 2018 and it’s rare to see someone play 1st base for a season then move to a tougher position. For the time being, Valbuena is a 1st baseman and it creates an interesting situation for 2017 and beyond.
Looking at 2017 alone, Luis Valbuena should find plenty of time to play. Albert Pujols, coming off yet another surgery, will likely DH 75% or more of the Angels games. C.J. Cron will get the bulk of the time at 1st base, assuming he continues his trend upward that he showed in 2016, when he displayed power while walking more and striking out less. Jefry Marte, who surprised many with a 1.5 WAR season and 114 wRC+ in 2016, likely starts in AAA as he has minor league options . Even in this scenario, things are tricky. C.J. Cron owns reverse platoon splits so far in his career, owning a 119 wRC+ vs right handed pitching and 91 wRC+ vs left handed pitching. Small sample size applies but Cron has shown he can handle righties just fine and should improve vs lefties. Valbuena is strictly a platoon guy, as he has hit righties better in his career and had a 129 wRC+ vs righties in 2016.This rules out a strict platoon at 1st base, at least in the traditional sense. Steamer Projections at Fangraphs project Cron for 0.8 WAR and a 107 wRC+ and Valbuena for 0.8 WAR and a 97 wRC+, which sells them both a bit short in my opinion. Regardless, both players are probably viewed as equal value guys, which makes playing time for both guys a tough, albeit good, problem to have. On the flip side, depth is always good. Maybe Billy Eppler is just doing lip service and Valbuena ends up playing 50 games at 1st base, 50 games at 3rd base and has some days at DH.
The next question to ask: Are C.J. Cron’s days as an Angel numbered after 2017? Cron will enter arbitration after 2017, meaning he’ll be more expensive after this year, which makes this logjam at 1st base even more interesting. Going into 2018, you could see a scenario where Cron was shipped out for MLB or MiLB help and Luis Valbuena and Jefry Marte formed a platoon at 1st base. Hypothetically, those 2 could form a platoon at 3rd base as well but that might be stretching both of them on the defensive spectrum in 2018. This doesn’t even account for the fact that Matt Thaiss, the Angels 2016 1st round pick who likely plays 1st base in the majors, could very well be in AA to end the 2017 season and may be close to MLB ready at some point in 2018. It’s premature to think anything is a given but from the outside looking in, the writing may be on the wall for C.J. Cron, especially if he has a big year and can bring back a hefty package in return.
This is a nice luxury for the Angels to have, something the Angels haven’t quite seen in the last few years. Billy Eppler created depth at 1st base/DH, he added 2 legitimate MLB left fielders and hoarded a giant collection of AAA arms with upside to add depth to a subpar pitching staff. It’s still early in Eppler’s tenure but he’s shown he has a good idea of how to maintain payroll flexibility while also boosting the depth across the entire roster. A perfect situation for the Angels, regarding 1st base, would be to see C.J. Cron and Luis Valbuena both mashed in 2017, with Jefry Marte showing growth and Matt Thaiss scorching minor league pitching. This is a good problem to have and it’ll be very interesting to see how the 2017 season plays out at 1st base.