Eleven-year Major Leaguer Luis Valbuena, who was a member of the Cleveland Indians organization from 2009 to 2011, was killed overnight in a car accident in his native Venezuela.
Just 33 years old, Valbuena was reportedly killed along with former Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Jose Castillo when the car that both were passengers in collided with a rock that had rolled onto a road in the Venezuelan state of Yaracuy. The driver of the vehicle, as well as fellow winter ball teammate and former Indians prospect Carlos Rivero, survived the crash according to reports out of Venezuela.
The cause of the accident is under investigation, as there is a belief that the rock in the road was deliberately placed in an effort to force cars to stop or crash so that the passengers could be robbed. Reports out of Venezuela indicate that the scene appeared looted. Both players killed were ejected from the vehicle and were not wearing their seat belts.
Valbuena celebrated his 33rd birthday on November 30. A native of Caja Seca, Venezuela, he spent the last two seasons as a member of the Los Angeles Angels. As he had done eleven times over the last dozen years, he was spending his offseason playing in the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League in Barquisimeto. Valbuena, Castillo, and Rivero had each played for the Cardenales de Lara in their 5-4 loss, with Castillo putting up three hits while Valbuena went 1-for-4 and Rivero went 1-for-2 with his fourth homer and a pair of RBI.
Valbuena signed as an amateur free agent with the Seattle Mariners in 2002, beginning a long professional career. Initially a middle infield prospect, he made his Major League debut in 18 games for the M’s in 2008 before a massive 12-player, three-team trade in the offseason between the Mariners, the New York Mets, and the Indians brought both him and reliever Joe Smith to Cleveland.
Valbuena’s time in Cleveland was spent mainly with the Indians his first two years in the organization, with trips back to Triple-A Columbus. Struggles at the plate with the Indians in each of those seasons, however, led to extended action with the Clippers in 2011, when he hit .302 with 17 homers and 75 RBI in 113 games. Those results did not translate with the Tribe, with whom he hit .209 with a solo homer accounting for his only RBI that season.
His time with the club may be best remembered for questionable decisions by manager Manny Acta in 2010 and 2011 to play him in left field for the first times in his professional career during the middle of a game, with it costing the club a July 2011 contest against the Minnesota Twins.
After the season, he was acquired by the Toronto Blue Jays in a cash exchange, but did not appear in a game for the club before he was picked up off of waivers by the Chicago Cubs following spring training. He spent three years at Wrigley, becoming a regular in the Cubs infield at second and third base while finding his power stroke at the plate. He hit a career-high 119 hits, 33 doubles, four triples, 16 homers, and 51 RBI for Chicago in 2014, then was dealt to the Houston Astros. He slugged 25 homers the next season and played in 90 games for the club in 2016 before signing a two-year, $15 million pact with the Los Angeles Angels. He hit 22 homers and a career-high 65 RBI in his first season with the Halos in 2017, but he was released last August after putting up a second straight season with a .199 average, forgoing his mutual option for the 2019 season.
Valbuena was known for his smile and clubhouse presence, but even more notably, his exuberant bat flips at the plate.
Castillo, 37, was a five-year big leaguer and native Venezuelan who last played in 2008 with the Houston Astros. He began his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, spending four years with the club before starting 2008 with the San Francisco Giants. He went on to a long career in foreign leagues, playing in Japan in 2010 and 2011 before spending six seasons in the Mexican League, all while maintaining regular action in the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League. This was his first season playing for Lara.
Rivero, 30, was born in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. He has spent the last eight offseasons playing in the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, including the last five with Lara. He began his career in the Indians organization, spending six years with the club before bouncing around the minors with five other organizations. He played four MLB games with the Boston Red Sox in 2014, going 4-for-7 (.571) with two doubles, one homer, and three RBI. Rivero has also spent time playing in Japan in 2017.
Franklin Gutierrez, the player traded by the Indians to the Mariners as part of the trade that brought Valbuena to Cleveland in 2008, was incidentally in the starting lineup for the Leones del Caracas against Lara on Thursday. The Venezuelan Professional Baseball League will suspend play on Friday and players will return with black arm bands to honor their two lost players.
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