Doug Padilla reviews the Cubs by position this week. Today he focuses on third base.
CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs' biggest void this past season was at third base, which is saying something considering the team lost 101 games.
It’s still unknown how much of Ian Stewart’s struggles were caused by his injured wrist, which limited his season to just 55 games. Josh Vitters showed he isn’t ready for prime time after getting called up in August. In between, Luis Valbuena did what he could to hold down the fort.
The final numbers: Cubs third basemen combined for the worst batting average (.201), least amount of runs scored (50) and the lowest number of total bases (184) in all of baseball. They were second to last in OPB (.611) ahead only of the Chicago White Sox (.600).
Way back in spring training, new manager Dale Sveum was saying that if the Cubs were to have success, they were going to need significant power production at first base and third base. Bryan LaHair and Anthony Rizzo combined for 31 home runs and 88 RBIs. The Cubs’ third-base crew put up 12 home runs and 55 RBIs.
Stewart came over from the Colorado Rockies, along with pitcher Casey Weathers, for youngsters Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu and so far the deal isn’t looking hot. Colvin hit 18 home runs with 72 RBIs for the Rockies, while LeMahieu batted .297 in 81 games played.
Stewart batted just .201 with a .335 slugging percentage in 179 at-bats as his wrist gave him problems for the second consecutive season. That means that management is as much to blame since they traded a pair of prospects for injured goods.
Stewart continues to be a solid defensive third baseman and there remains the curiosity to see what he can do when healthy. But do the Cubs want to take another chance on Stewart, who is arbitration eligible and would get a raise on the $2.24 million he made in 2012 if he was tendered a contract? That isn’t expected to happen.
He could return after being non-tendered, though, if the two parties worked out a separate deal for less than what Stewart would get through arbitration. That would give the Cubs an affordable third-base option and give them a second chance to recoup some return on last winter’s trade.
One third-base option the Cubs aren’t thinking about, at least on the Opening Day roster, is Vitters, who showed he still needs to grow both on offense and defense. Vitters was overmatched in the major leagues batting .121 in 99 at-bats, while driving in five runs and striking out exactly one-third of the time.
“It's not surprising at all, coming to the big leagues a little before he was ready, not surprising to see him struggle and see him struggle pretty dramatically,” president Theo Epstein said. “I think that was to be expected. I think that will help him down the line. He's got major adjustments to make. But really, for him it's more of a process of getting comfortable.”
The Cubs are looking at Vitters’ history as an encouraging sign. He has taken time to adjust at every level he’s advanced to, so the prevailing theory is that things will eventually be the same at the major league level.
“That's sort of Josh's nature,” Epstein said. “It takes him a little longer to get comfortable. It takes him a little longer to learn. It takes him a little while to manage his anxiety level. … His strengths will play at any level. It takes him longer to adjust.”
As for Valbuena, the Cubs are interested in keeping him, but indications are that they would prefer using him as a utility player off the bench, which means making another 71 starts at third base next year wouldn't seem likely.
If the Cubs elect to part ways with Stewart, the free-agent route is always a possibility, but since they aren’t likely to spend big money on the position at this point, they figure to wait to see the list of non-tendered players before making a decision.