Former Angels infielder Luis Valbuena, who played in Anaheim as recently as August, was killed in a car crash early Friday after playing in a winter league game in his native Venezuela.
Cardenales de Lara teammate Jose Castillo also died in the wreck, the club confirmed.
Valbuena, Castillo and former major league player Carlos Rivero were traveling from Caracas to Barquisimeto, where the Cardenales are based, when their car struck a rock and veered off the road, according to BeisbolPlay.com. Rivero and the car’s driver survived, the report said, but Castillo and Valbuena were ejected from the vehicle and died. Neither was wearing a seat belt.
Valbuena turned 33 a week ago on Nov. 30. Castillo, who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, San Francisco Giants and Houston Astros from 2004 to 2008, was 37.
Authorities said the players may have been the intended victims of criminals in Venezuela who throw rocks onto roadways to disable cars or cause crashes and then rob the vehicles’ occupants. Four suspects found with Valbuena’s and Castillo's personal belongings were arrested by police, state governor Julio León Heredia wrote on Twitter.
A team official told reporters Friday that Valbuena and Castillo had personal business to attend to and chose to transport themselves separately.
“They had appointments of some sort at the United States Embassy,” Gustavo Andrade said in Spanish. “They departed by their own means after [Thursday’s] game.”
Before signing a two-year contract with the Angels as a free agent in 2017, Valbuena had started to show promise. He batted .260 with 13 home runs and an .816 on-base-plus-slugging percentage with the Astros in 2016, but was limited to only 90 games because of a hamstring injury. He did not regain form and wound up hitting .199 in 213 games with the Angels.
Valbuena, who batted .226 in 1,011 career games, was designated for assignment and later released by the Angels in August. Like he did every offseason since 2006, he returned home to play in the Liga Venezuela Beisbol Profesional in the fall. He had a .278 average, 11 doubles, seven home runs and 22 RBIs in 45 games there.
In his last game on Thursday, he went 1 for 4 and was part of a double play with former Angels catcher Francisco Arcia, who was released earlier this offseason.
Valbuena and Castillo had initially boarded the team bus after the game, according to a series of social media posts from teammate and Philadelphia Phillies prospect Alexis Rivero. Rivero, who does not appear to be related to the crash survivor, wrote in Spanish that the players then urged Rivero to join them in the car but he turned them down because he wanted to sleep comfortably. He said he was awakened at the crash site and saw their corpses on the ground.
“I’m speechless,” Rivero wrote. “Brother, mono [his nickname for Valbuena], why is it that you didn’t listen to me?”
Valbuena was one of the Seattle Mariners’ top prospects when he made his major league debut in 2008. He also played for the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs during his 11-year career.
“We are deeply saddened by the tragic passing of Luis Valbuena and Jose Castillo,” Angels general manager Billy Eppler said in a statement. “Beyond Luis’s many accomplishments on the field, we will all remember him for his magnetic personality, radiant smile, and ability to make the people around him better. He will be truly missed by all in the baseball community. Our thoughts, prayers, and heartfelt condolences go out to both the Valbuena and Castillo families.”
The deaths of Valbuena and Castillo are the latest in a string of car crashes that have claimed the lives of baseball players in their native countries in recent years.