Former Cubs infielder Luis Valbuena killed in a car crash in his native Venezuela; foul play suspected

Former Cubs infielder Luis Valbuena and former major-leaguer Jose Castillo were killed in a car crash in Venezuela caused by highway bandits who then robbed them, officials said Friday.

Valbuena, 33, who played for the Cubs from 2012-14, and Castillo, 37, died late Thursday when their SUV crashed as it tried to veer around an object placed in the road, Yaracuy state Gov. Julio Leon Heredia said on his Twitter account. Heredia said four people have been detained after they were found with the players’ property.

Valbuena and Castillo were teammates on the Cardenales de Lara team in the Venezuelan winter league and were returning from a game in Caracas when the crash occurred en route to the city of Barquisimeto.

Third baseman Carlos Rivero was in the car and survived, according to the website beisbolplay.

“A preliminary report from the authorities at the site presumes that the rock was thrown on the road, a common modus operandi to perpetrate highway robberies,” the website reported.

As told by Reuters in February, highway robberies have soared in Venezuela, which is in the fifth year of an economic crisis that’s “worse than the Great Depression,” according to the Associated Press. Eight people died in highway lootings in January, Reuters reported, and the ring road around Barquisimeto has been dubbed “the Guillotine” by truckers because of regular attacks.

The Cubs claimed the left-handed-hitting Valbuena off waivers from the Blue Jays at the start of the 2012 season. Valbuena, who was popular with his teammates, batted .232 in 347 games with the Cubs over three years.

Valbuena, a native of Yaracuy, Venezuela, received plenty of playing time during the final stages of the Cubs’ rebuilding. He was traded with pitcher Dan Straily to the Astros for switch-hitter Dexter Fowler before the 2015 season.

Valbuena batted .226 with the Mariners, Indians, Cubs, Astros and Angels, who released him Aug. 7.

“We are saddened by the passing of former Cub Luis Valbuena,” the Cubs wrote in a tweet posted early Friday. “The Cubs organization sends its condolences to his family and friends.”

Castillo played five seasons with the Pirates, Giants and Astros. He had a .254 average with 39 home runs.

Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo tweeted: “Heartbroken to hear about Luis Valbuena and Jose Castillo. My condolences to their families as they deal with this tragedy. Valbuena was an amazing teammate and friend and will be sincerely missed. RIP”

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred issued a statement calling it “a very sad day for our sport.”

“It is clear by all the stories today that they loved baseball and made an impact on their teammates and the Clubs they represented,” Manfred said, expressing “my deepest condolences to their families, friends and fans, particularly those in their native Venezuela.”

The Venezuelan Professional Baseball League announced that all three scheduled games Friday were canceled and flags will fly at half-staff in all stadiums for three days.

League President Juan Jose Avila told Union Radio that he was evaluating the possibility of forbidding players to travel in private cars between games, saying if the players had been on the team bus, “nothing would have happened to them.”

Associated Press and Washington Post contributed.

mgonzales@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @MDGonzales

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