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Astros spring training roster battles: Third base

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Luis Valbuena will challenge Matt Dominguez.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Who will start at third base this season for the Astros?

Is it the guy who most of the media in Houston hasn't heard of? Or is the guy who could be the worst position player in all of baseball who still has a starting job?

Houston's weakest everyday position in 2014 was third base. As bad as shortstop was and as bad as Jon Singleton was at first, Matt Dominguez played nearly every game at third and wasn't very good at it.

Dominguez saw his power drop off, as his isolated power average fell 40 points from 2013. His on-base percentage, which was only above .300 once in his major-league career, fell to .256 last season. Dominguez was the first player since 1986 to collect at least 600 plate appearances and have an OBP that low.

Shortly after the season ended, Jeff Luhnow began to talk about creating competition on the left side of the infield. While Houston has a promising third baseman in the system in Colin Moran and while Dominguez is still young, the Astros needed to upgrade.

Luhnow did just that, nabbing Jed Lowrie as a free agent to play shortstop and trading for Cubs third baseman Luis Valbuena.

Valbuena is the guy Jeff Luhnow mentioned at the annual Astros media luncheon as a player most of the writers in attendance may not have heard of before he was acquired. Of course, he wasn't speaking directly of TCB, since we tabbed Valbuena as a target back in November.

For the rest of the hoi polloi, though, Valbuena may have flown under the radar. He carries a good defensive reputation, but maybe not one as strong as Dominguez has. Before last season, he had similar offensive struggles to Dominguez, failing to make consistent contact while still getting on base at a better clip than Matty D.

Last season, though, Valbuena had a mini breakout. He hit 16 home runs, a career high, while batting .249/.341/.435 in 547 plate appearances for the Cubs. That, plus average defense at third base, led to a 2.7 fWAR total that would have put him as the second-best Astros regular last season.

Will he continue to produce at that level? The Astros are betting on him to do so.

But, there are questions about him, too. For one, the projections didn't believe last season changed his outlook and have him backsliding to pre-2014 offensive levels. Valbuena also has a split that could imply a platoon. He hit badly against left-handers last season, but slashed a very good line of .256/. 347/. 463 against righties.

Pair him with Dominguez in more of a platoon, as Matty D also plays first base (which new manager A.J. Hinch said he would do this spring) and the Astros could elevate that position from being a total black hole.

Of course, Dominguez could also bounce back from his horrid offensive output. If he cuts down on his strikeouts and finds some more of his power, Dominguez could continue to start at third base for Houston.

As it stands now, it appears that Valbuena will be the Opening Day starter, as the Astros will likely see a right-hander in Corey Kluber. The lefty Valbuena, then, makes sense as the guy in the starting lineup at third base after this spring.