The Angels' depth suffered a blow Thursday, when an MRI exam revealed a significant strain within infielder Luis Valbuena's right hamstring. He'll require four to six weeks of rest before returning to game action, the team announced.
The Angels said the strain was diagnosed between grades 1 and 2. There are three grades of hamstring strains, lower being less serious.
Valbuena, 31, suffered the injury in spring training Wednesday, when he exited the Angels' game after only three innings. He was unavailable to speak with reporters Thursday, and it remains unclear when the injury occurred. He ran hard to score from second on a first-inning single, but stayed in the game and batted again without issue.
One possibility is a slow-developing ailment.
He played only 10 Cactus League games while bothered by general leg soreness he said centered in his thigh.
A longtime third baseman, Valbuena had played only 10 innings at the position. He was to be the team's primary first baseman.
"We're counting on him a lot this year," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "He's a great fit for us. We're just going to have to wait until he's 100% healthy and see where he is."
Because of a severe injury to the same hamstring, Valbuena played his last game of 2016 with the Houston Astros on July 26. While working out with the team three weeks later in preparation for a rehab assignment, he suffered a setback and underwent surgery. He was having a career year, with 13 homers and an .816 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 90 games.
Valbuena played eight games in the Venezuelan winter league in an attempt to prove he was healthy, then signed a two-year contract with the Angels in January that included a mutual option for 2019.
The deal took a long time to come together. When it was finalized, Angels General Manager Billy Eppler said the majority of Valbuena's at-bats would come at first base, which pushed C.J. Cron from the lineup to the bench and into trade talks. Infielder Jefry Marte, who had a breakout season in 2016, , was likely to begin the season in triple A.
Asked then about the possibility of trading from his surplus, Eppler said he preferred to get through the spring before making a decision.
The Angels almost survived the spring without a significant injury. They break camp Wednesday, play a three-game Freeway Series against the Dodgers, and then begin their season April 3 in Oakland.
Without Valbuena until May, Cron will be counted upon, and Marte is much more likely to make the opening day roster. Both players are performing well in the Cactus League.
In the midst of the hottest stretch of Cron's career last July, an errant fastball hit him in the wrist, breaking his hand. At the time, he had driven in 17 runs eight games into a trip. He was out six weeks and finished the season with a .278 average, .325 on-base percentage, and .467 slugging mark, down some from that high point.
He then underwent a second surgery, on his thumb, a month into the off-season.
Now, he'll have another chance to excel in an everyday role.
"Hopefully, he's grown as a hitter and matured," Scioscia said. "He'll certainly be getting a lot of those at-bats at first base right now."
Veteran right-hander Bud Norris will start Friday against Seattle, in the lone night game the Angels will play in Arizona this spring. Norris has thrown two innings in each of his last three appearances. Right-hander Matt Shoemaker, on his normal start day, will pitch in a minor league game at 1 p.m and attempt to throw six innings. Orienting the starters that way allows the Angels to pitch more relievers against big league opponents. … Shoemaker remains in line to start opening day. He said he has not been informed of any plans concerning the first week of the regular season. … Similarly, right-hander Cam Bedrosian said he has heard nothing regarding the club's closer decision, although he has pitched better than the other contenders to fill the role.