Third base isn't high on the Cubs priority list but there is no question it could use an upgrade.
Right now the Cubs have Ian Stewart and Luis Valbuena as options at 3B. Josh Vitters is ticketed for Iowa and Junior Lake who, despite turning some heads with a good winter league performance, is probably even further away right now.
As far as the free agent market goes in 3B, the Cubs are not pursuing Kevin Youkilis and while that's not a high starting point, there is still a pretty big drop off after that. The odds that the Cubs are getting a starting 3B from free agency is virtually non-existent. That could well leave the Cubs to look at the trade market and/or non tender market as an option, and if they can't find a starter, they may try to mix and match a little.
The market is limited but the Cubs don't need a star. They just need to bridge the gap until top 3B prospects Javier Baez or Christian Villanueva are ready to take over...or at least until Vitters or Lake can take a shot at winning the job sometime in 2013.
Is the best value "acquisition" already in-house?
What would you say if there was a 27 year old 3B on the market who hits LH, grinds out ABs, and take walks? What if he was also a plus defender? Then suppose he was also a buy low candidate, slated to make near the MLB minimum? What if he was coming off a season where he raked in AAA, only to come to the majors and put up a .260 BABIP -- a number that brought his batting average way down but is unlikely to stay at that low level? What if he was once considered a talented prospect who is lauded for his mental makeup? Lastly, what if this player went to play winter ball this year and his hitting to the tune of .341/.455/.593 (1.049 OPS)? Sounds like a good fit and a solid bounce back candidate the Cubs should consider signing off the bargain bin, doesn't it? Well, that player is Luis Valbuena and maybe he should get another chance. Bill James projects him hit .253/.330/.402 in 2013, which isn't bad, but what if the Cubs could potentially enhance those numbers by allowing him to play only against RHP, against whom he hit 30 points higher than he did vs. LHP last season?
Does Ian Stewart get a mulligan?
Most people thought that the Cubs trade with Colorado would either A) Not make a difference on either side or B) that the Cubs won the deal. It turns out A is closer to the truth. Colvin played really well against RHP, though almost all of his damage came in Coors Field against RHP. Still, it's better than what the Cubs got, which was a player that did not even hit his weight. The situation is also tricky because there was some talk that the Cubs weren't happy with Stewart's choice to stay home rather than spend time with the team. Lastly, Stewart had a serious of questionable tweets (since taken down) that may not sit well from a PR standpoint. My feeling is that Stewart is down 0-2 in the count here when it comes to sticking around this season, but with limited options available, the Cubs may have no choice but to run him out there and see if he can finally tap into the talent most scouts feel he had as a prospect. It seems the wrist was bothering him more than he let on, and there are hopes that surgery has fixed the problem. Stewart should hope that's the case, because he may be running out of chances. If healthy, he may still be the most talented 3B on the roster so it appears the Cubs are taking their time on this one.
Should the Cubs acquire a player through trade?
Acquire Lonnie Chisenhall from the Indians. The Cubs are interested and the Indians reportedly like some young Cubs players. Chisenhall gives the Cubs a much-needed LH bat who should hit lefties well enough to play everyday. His defense isn't a strength, but he won't hurt them there either. Chisenhall is just 24 and can serve as both a short term solution and perhaps a long term one if he stays healthy and finds the MLB success that has thus far eluded him.
If they want to look at a non-tender trade candidate list there is Alberto Callaspo. He's a non-tender candidate and the Angels might consider an upgrade at the position. I like Callaspo for a few reasons. One is that he's a good defender at 3B and can fill in at other positions if needed. Another is that he's a switch-hitter. Both of those traits make him a potentially valuable and versatile player off the bench. I also like Callaspo because he's better against RHP, hitting .306/.347/.417 in his career against them. If you platoon him and get similar numbers and Valbuena hits what Bill James projects him to hit, then it's not out of the question that you can get a combined .275 hitter with 10-15 HRs and good defense. He also hits RHP well enough to play everyday if Valbuena struggles again. That will do for a stopgap until either Vitters or Lake is ready. The question is whether the Angels decide to keep Callaspo or opt for an upgrade. In this thin 3B market, it wouldn't be surprising for the Angels to stick with Callaspo's excellent defense for another year.
Should the Cubs look at the free agent market?
It is a weak year for 3Bs. As mentioned, the Cubs have already said they will not pursue Kevin Youkilis. . Similar to the Callaspo situation, the Cubs option may end up being a platoon. If the Angels don't want to part with Callaspo, perhaps a free agent such as Placido Polanco or Jeff Keppinger would be options as a platoon partner. Polanco is the better defender but Keppinger may be the better hitter. There will be some demand for Keppinger from AL East teams, so Polanco may be the easier sign. Eric Chavez would fit as a platoon partner, though I don't think he'll move to Chicago and a rebuilding team to do it at the twilight of his career. Chavez has hinted at retirement if the right situation doesn't present itself and you'll have a hard time convincing me that the Cubs are that right situation. He's not looking for an opportunity to build value. Brandon Inge is another possibility though his main contributions will be limited to defense and some occasional power. Ty Wiggington provides a little sock but not much else. Then, of course, you can't forget ex-Cubs Jeff Baker and Mark DeRosa.
Do upper level prospects Josh Vitters and Junior Lake have a shot?
For opening day? No. Or at least it's an extreme long shot. Josh Vitters is the more advanced of the two. He still has that pretty swing and he was productive in AAA, albeit in the PCL, a league with a reputation for inflating offensive numbers. Vitters is still just 23, however, so it's too soon to give up, especially since the Cubs feel it takes him a bit of time to adapt to new leagues. Right now, Vitters is playing winter ball and as of this writing, he has played just 2 games, going 0 for 7. The guess here is that Vitters, like Anthony Rizzo did last year, will return to AAA Iowa for at least a half season to see if he can apply all the coaching he's received at a more appropriate level of competition. If he gets off to a good start, however, he could be in Chicago for another crack at the job. While he has a good arm and is working to improve his defense, a lot of Vitters' value is tied to that bat, so he has to hit to have a shot.
Nipping at Vitters' heels is Junior Lake. He's tearing it up in winter ball, hitting .341/.390/.484. Lake doesn't seem to have as difficult a time adjusting and transitioning into new leagues. He is also the more athletic player and should be able to contribute in more areas than Vitters, putting less pressure on his bat. What's holding Lake back is a lack of experience at the AAA level, something the Cubs like for all their prospects. He also hasn't had a chance to play 3B on a full-time basis and with Vitters slated for AAA to start the season, the Cubs will have to find a way to divvy up the playing time there. Both need reps at the position. Lake's good offseason play has put himin the picture, but right now he's just lurking in the background.
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