Amidst a season of change at all levels within the Cubs’ system, there still lies one question that is shroud in secrecy and speculation.
No, we’re not talking about whether or not Soriano will be dealt or if Dale Sveum is really the man for the management job… those questions alone demand their own columns. But in what has been a constructive season for the Cubs’ regarding infielding prospects, the hot corner still poses a serious problem for the North Siders.
The remedy wont come easily, either.
When Theo Epstein was brought in as president of baseball operations last year, one of his first moves was the trading of Aramis Ramirez out of Chicago – which was later regarded as a safe move considering his contract structure, his desire to play and his production.
With Ramirez out, the Cubs knew they’d have to find a solid player to fill the gap that was now present. From a skillset standpoint, they hit a homerun when acquiring Ian Stewart from the Colorado Rockies during the 2011 offseasons for DJ LeMahieu and Tyler Colvin. While the Cubs gave up some significant prospects in the deal, Stewart was known for being a sure handed third baseman and also a strong power hitter.
The deal was regarded as relatively safe and certainly didn’t set off any significant alarms in my head. Frankly, I was happy to see Stewart on his way to Chicago to act as a leader for the otherwise young infield.
However, things went slightly sour when Stewart re-aggravated an old wrist injury which in turn ended his season. The injury was something the Cubs had previous knowledge about and was partially a reason to Stewart’s relative affordability.
Looking back on it, the trade was a bit of a bust. Stewart’s recovery is not on a concrete schedule and will likely require a fair portion of next season to recover fully.
None of this may matter in the long run because of Stewart’s contract parameters. He was owed $2.24 million for his services in 2012 and will go to arbitration with the team in 2013. Stewart walks away with his 2012 salary regardless of his circumstances, but is it likely that the Cubs bank on him having a full recovery for next season?
In a word: No.
Stewart’s prowess at the plate came from power hitting and as many of you know, power hitters tend to take a dive once they get wrist injuries. Jose Bautista may be the most comparable case, but we have yet to see if his hitting will be impacted by injury. Regardless of the situation, Stewart will want at least $1.5 million for a season, if not more. This is something the Cubs would be insane to consider.
Now that we can safely rule out Stewart as a starter in the Cubs’ lineup in 2013, who else is viable as a replacement?
Josh Vitters spent the later portion of the season in the bigs. Could he potentially fill the void the Cubs have at the hot corner?
In another word: No.
Vitters is young, inexperienced and lacks the power that the Cubs’ batting order needs. While he does show massive upside on the defensive side of the game, his hitting leaves much to be desired. Web gems are nice, but don’t win championships alone. It was well known that Vitters would struggle once he was called up to the majors as the adjustments required to have success at that level are only learned through experience. Thankfully, he’s now seen a few games in the bigs and can start next season in AAA Iowa while building off his experiences in the Majors.
Frankly, it wouldn’t shock me to see Vitters become a trade chip in the future. He’s certainly good enough to be a sweetener in any deal.
With Vitters our and Stewart hurt, this leaves one man who can fill the void: Luis Valbuena.
Great! Lets lace em’ up and get him out there. If he’s in the bigs, he must be good enough, right?
Valbuena made his career playing second base with many different teams before being claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays. The only reason he’s seeing so much starting action in a Cubs uniform is because there really isn’t anyone else who can. Not to discredit Valbuena too much, his career defensive metrics are very solid, but that’s while he’s playing second base. Playing third is an entirely different battle all together and while he’s shown strong work ethic and a willingness to learn how the play the hot corner, he’s simply not strong enough of a player to man the position permanently.
While I’m certain he will make the start at 3rd base 0n opening day, don’t expect him to last too long in that role – he’s only keeping it warm for prospects like Christian Villanueva, Albert Almora and most notably Javier Baez.
Could the Cubs manufacture a deal in the offseason for a free agent or make a trade in the mean time to strengthen the corner infield? In theory yes, but it would only happen should market conditions be correct (which considering the amount of free agents kicking around, wouldn’t surprise me). A move would likely be forced should Valbuena be hurt or his production take a sudden turn for the worst.
Its not exactly perfect, but for now? Its the best we’ve got.
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