Friday, December 9, 2011
Cubs take a chance, get a third baseman
By Christina Kahrl
Third base and the Cubs? It’s as if Aramis Ramirez hadn’t already definitively ended the sad litany of aspirants since Ron Santo’s reign at the hot corner almost 40 years ago. But with A-Ram outbound as a free agent, finding something better than resorting to a Blake DeWitt-Jeff Baker platoon seemed like a must-do this winter. And the market isn't exactly stuffed with alternatives.
So it came as no surprise that, after weeks of speculation, Team Theo finally consummated a deal with the Rockies to acquire third baseman Ian Stewart. They also picked up righty Casey Weathers, while sending outfielder Tyler Colvin and infielder D.J. LeMahieu to Denver.
After weeks of the Cubs working up to a deal for Stewart, you might wonder if sometimes you need to be careful what you wish for. Stewart’s issue with the strike zone has been a career-long blight in the minors and majors, something that has reliably tripped up someone who once seemed like a top prospect. To be fair, he’s had to deal with inconsistent usage patterns from an organization that didn’t always have much faith in him. For a brief while, it seemed as if Jim Tracy’s arrival in 2009 would be the best thing to happen to Stewart, because it wasn’t soon after that the Rockies stopped playing him at second base. But between a slow start and the Rockies' unfortunate fascination with Ty Wigginton, Stewart's 2011 season went off the rails before an injured wrist effectively ended it.
The Cubs acquired Ian Stewart from Colorado to be their answer at third base.
Despite all that, for the Cubs there’s plenty of potential good that comes from getting Stewart. He’s a decent enough defender, and he’ll turn 27 right around Opening Day. The Cubs have him under their control for the next three seasons, or what figures to be the tail end of the most productive part of his career.
However, the thing to keep in mind in evaluating this deal is that playing at altitude depresses strikeout rates for everybody, by roughly 15 percent as Joe Sheehan noted in Baseball Prospectus. That fact has helped given us breakthroughs such as Preston Wilson -- the more strikeout-prone hitters who struggle with breaking stuff get an outsized benefit from playing in a park where big benders bend less and all pitches lose a bit of wiggle. In his brief big-league career, Stewart has struck out in 32 percent of his at-bats everywhere but Denver, but “just” 24 percent of the time when he’s been batting in Denver. Guess where Stewart won’t get to call home any more?
In contrast, this is great for Colvin, for exactly this reason. He’s a hitter who has always struggled with his command of the strike zone, whiffing a quarter of the time in both Triple-A and the majors. Getting to call Denver home half the time will give him a significant chunk of at-bats where he’s more likely to make contact instead of whiffing, in a park that rewards people who can hit balls hard when they make contact. If he gets a shot at regular playing time, Colvin’s shot at becoming a mile-high hero should come as a surprise to no one. You shouldn’t be harsh on the Cubs for that, though -- this was a benefit only the Rockies can reap, and having signed up David DeJesus, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have already picked their right fielder, come what may.
The other guy who will automatically profit from this is LeMahieu, simply because he’s a hitter going to a hitter’s park. However, his core offensive skill is making contact and plinking singles, as reflected in a career line of .317/.353/.399 in the minors. Walking five percent of the time and an ISO below .100 aren’t positives, especially if he’s playing third base instead of second. Fortunately for him, the Rockies don’t have an established answer at the keystone. If LeMahieu can prove he can handle the position to their satisfaction, he might have a shot at living up the “poor man’s Freddy Sanchez” fantasies his best-case scenarios always entailed -- thanks to the park as well as his gifts for bat control. That might sound like something -- Sanchez won a batting title, after all -- but he’s a fairly mediocre commodity, and that’s the upside. The downside is that the Rockies might get the guy the Cubs gave up: A singles hitter who can’t play second.
The other player coming over to the Cubs, Casey Weathers, is your basic hard-throwing maybe. The eighth overall selection of the 2008 draft, Weathers has struggled with command, especially since blowing out his elbow and having Tommy John surgery. That’s an unhappy reminder that not everybody comes back from the procedure, but if Weathers pans out with a change of scenery, he’ll yield outsized rewards. If not, there are other hard-throwing fish in the sea. This is an old Epstein/Hoyer standby, because with the Red Sox they’d snap up “maybe” pitchers for the bullpen like they were so many Skittles. Maybe he turns into something, maybe not, but as a ballast to even out a trade goes, you can do worse.
If it sounds like the Cubs gave up more than they got, that’s because they’re the ones taking a big risk, even with Stewart possessing the most extensive credentials in the major leagues. The risk is whether or not Stewart will hit enough to stick in the lineup now that he'll be playing closer to sea level. If he does, they’ll have gotten a regular third baseman instead of overpaying for one on the market. Giving up a corner outfielder who might do well in Denver (but not star) and an infielder who might be a filler option at second base to take that chance? That's a risk well worth taking. If Stewart works out, the Cubs will have a three-year answer to their age-old Santo question. Weathers is a flyer on the off-chance that live-armed relievers have a way of going from nobody to somebody overnight.