Valbuena assumes everyday role
Tribe second baseman gets late start on expanded gig
CHICAGO -- Luis Valbuena's right hand, not Mark Buehrle's left, kept the Tribe's young second baseman out of the lineup Opening Day.But on Wednesday, Valbuena, recovered from the bruised hand he suffered on the last day of spring camp, was right where manager Manny Acta expects him to be the bulk of this season -- starting at second and batting seventh in the Indians' lineup. Acta has said he's not in the business of grooming 24-year-old kids to be platoon players, and he plans to prove it with Valbuena, who was spelled regularly by previous manager Eric Wedge when left-handers were on the mound last season. Of course, Valbuena has to back up the confidence of his new skipper with improved performance against southpaws. "I'm ready," Valbuena said. "He's going to give me the opportunity against lefties. That's what I want. We'll see what happens." The Indians have veteran Mark Grudzielanek on hand to fill in for Valbuena when the need arises. For now, Acta does not appear to be planning to use Grudzielanek the amount that Wedge used Jamey Carroll. But Valbuena's performance will largely dictate how that plays out. "We don't promise anybody [on the bench] a certain amount of at-bats," Acta said. "Bench players in the National League, with those pinch-hits and double-switches, are guaranteed at least an at-bat a day. We don't have that guarantee here." But Acta still sees ample opportunity arising for the 39-year-old Grudzielanek. "Not one guy in our infield told me he's going to try to break Cal Ripken's record," Acta said. Valbuena will probably still see his share of days off when a particularly imposing lefty is on the mound. He'll also back up Asdrubal Cabrera at short on the days Cabrera needs rest, opening opportunities for Grudzielanek at second. But it will be interesting to see how much of Valbuena's strong second half in his rookie season (he hit .281 with 14 doubles, six homers and 21 RBIs in 65 games from July 1 through the end of last season) carries into 2010. The Indians showed obvious concern with Valbuena's long-term outlook when they attempted to sign free-agent second baseman Orlando Hudson over the winter. They have doubts not just about Valbuena's ability to hit lefties, but also about his range. Valbuena didn't do much to calm those doubts this spring, as he batted .250 with a .658 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) in 48 at-bats in the Cactus League. But Acta saw improvement from Valbuena toward the end of camp. "We like the way he goes about his business," Acta said. "He works hard, and he's a tough kid. The last week, he swung the bat the way he did in Cleveland. He showed that extra-base power and had some good at-bats. We'll give him every opportunity to be our regular guy at second base." Valbuena earned that opportunity with the surprising pop he demonstrated at the plate last year. In 368 big league at-bats, he hit 10 homers with 25 doubles and three triples. "That's not too shabby, for the amount of at-bats he had," Acta said. Valbuena dodged a bullet when the Homer Bailey fastball that plunked his right hand last Saturday didn't break a bone. The Indians performed two X-rays on the hand, just to be sure. "I thought it was broke," Valbuena said. "But it's not. I'm excited. I'm ready to go."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.