If we count the holidays as a sort of intermission, we're about to get into the second half of the offseason. The second half isn't usually as exciting, it's more about finding bargains and spackling in a few holes before spring training starts.
That said, I don't expect the Cubs to add much in the way of position players this offseason. They are probably set in terms of players but that doesn't mean there aren't questions at every single position.
We're going to start with the most intriguing position this spring: Third Base.
The favorite is a platoon of Luis Valbuena and Donnie Murphy but that is obviously just a temporary situation. It is very unlikely they will be the starters by 2015 and we could see them displaced even sooner than that.
As a stopgap solution, it's passable. At this point we have a pretty good idea of what Luis Valbuena will give. He's going to give you good defense and good ABs, but he probably won't hit for much in terms of power and average.
Luis Valbuena put up his second consecutive year with a low BABIP. For those of us expecting a bounce back from his .260 BABIP in 2012, there was some disappointment. Valbuena's BABIP actually went down last year to .233 and at the very least, it's apparent that he's not going to be a league average .300 BABIP hitter. The problem last year was that Valbuena had just a 15.6% line drive rate and saw an increase in the number of flyballs he hit. A return to his 2012 mark of a 21% line drive rate would be ideal, but even something around his career rate of 19% should provide a much needed bump in his batting average. Considering Valbuena walks at a very high rate (13.6% last season), he doesn't have to hit for a high average to be productive. He put up a .331 OBP last year despite hitting just .219.
That said, Oliver has an interesting projection for Valbuena. It assumes his BABIP will rise to .287 while maintaining the .160 ISO he put up last year. That translates to a .253/.350/.422 player with 19 HRs over 600 PAs. Of course, Valbuena won't play everyday so we should expect that HR total to be closer to last year's total of 12. Still, if Oliver's projections hold, that's a pretty solid role player when you factor in his good defense.
The favorite to platoon with Valbuena is holdover Donnie Murphy, whom the Cubs liked enough to re-sign after a career season in which he hit .255/.319/.530 with 11 HRs in just 163 PAs. It's unrealistic to think he can repeat those power numbers and he's a bigger question mark than Valbuena overall given his so-so defense and aggressive approach at the plate (4.9% walk rate). Murphy will be 31 as well so it's not like we should continue to expect steady improvement, but the Cubs will gladly take something close to what he did in 2013. It's always possible that he's a late bloomer. He's also shown that he can thrive with sporadic playing time. Not every player can do that, so that in itself is an asset (see Scott Hairston). All in all, he goes in as the favorite as Valbuena's platoon partner.
The MLB competition
To hedge their bets, the Cubs brought in a couple of RH options with MLB experience. The first is Ryan Roberts. His 2013 season didn't come close to matching Murphy's. He hit .247/.295/.377 with 5 HRs. However, he's had a better approach at the plate throughout his career and has played better defense at 3B. The question is whether Roberts can hit enough to make it matter. Oliver projects him to hit .222/.289/.327 next season. It should be noted that Roberts also played very well vs. LHP, hitting .305/.345/.500 in 2013, though that was just 87 PAs. His career rate of .266/.341/.444 mark vs. LHP, however, is enough to carry the short side of the 3B platoon should Murphy falter.
Another platoon option could be Chris Valaika, who was picked up very early in the offseason. Valaika is a 2B but has played a good percentage of his time at 3B (70.1). For comparison's sake he has played 127 innings at 2B for his career. It's a very limited sample size (47 PAs), but he has hit .378 with 2 HRs vs. LHP. I don't expect Valaika to leap frog Roberts, much less Murphy for that short side platoon role, but given his ability to play SS, he could hang around as a utility IF'er and could slide in if he plays well and the others falter.
Technically Mike Olt has MLB experience and he'd be a candidate for the 3B, only in his case, he'd only do that as a full-time starter. Olt is still recovering from eye issues so he's anything but a certainty. He may be the most interesting player to watch this season because his performance may provide more info than you would normally glean from spring training. For Olt, making more consistent hard contact would indicate a return to health. When he's seeing the ball well, he will hit for power. He will also give you good ABs and play good defense. The Cubs would take that from their everyday 3B, especially considering Olt's relative youth and cost control. He's the darkhorse and if he does win the 3B job -- or at least positions himself for an early 2014 call-up, it will force the Cubs to make a decision between Valbuena, who can play 2B, and incumbent Darwin Barney. Barney has regressed at the plate and is heading into his arb years. While he may not make a lot of money, there will still be the question of how much the Cubs want to play a defense-only player if he continues to struggle at the plate.
The aforementioned Mike Olt will be next on the depth chart if he doesn't win the starting job. In that scenario, he returns to Iowa where the Cubs will monitor his progress closely.
Next is Christian Villanueva, who should find himself at AAA Iowa next season. Villanueva is more known for his defense. As a hitter he's expected to provide average power, though he probably won't hit for a high average. He also hasn't taken a lot of walks in his career so OBP may not be his strength. For him it's going to be about great defense and enough pop and OBP to make him relevant on offense. He's a smart baserunner so that will work to his advantage despite average speed.
Villanueva will find himself in a tough spot if Olt doesn't win the 3B job because he will find himself splitting time with him in AAA. With Kris Bryant expected to start the year in AA, he won't be able to repeat at Tennessee. Of course, the Cubs can always hold off on promotions and keep Olt at AAA for a couple of months while Bryant spends a bit more time in Daytona. Given Bryant's performance in the AZ Fall league, however, it appears he's more than ready to move on to Tennessee. Bryant is a polished player with a good approach and excellent mental makeup, so the Cubs haven't hesitated to put him on the fast track. Some speculate he could be in a Cubs uniform by the end of 2014, though sometime in 2015 seems more likely. When ready, he'll provide good ABs, a solid OBP, and middle of the order power -- but depending on how things shake out, that may not come at 3B. Olt and perhaps Javier Baez may beat him to the majors and will get first crack at becoming the Cubs long term 3B.
Speaking of Javier Baez, he should also start the year in AAA Iowa but he'll be at SS for the time being. With a 23 year old SS already in place in Starlin Castro, Baez may have to change positions. Most believe that 3B would be his best defensive position, though 2B is also a possibility. Baez has more than enough raw power to play at 3B. There are reasons for concern with Baez, namely the high K rate and low BB rate, but both started trending in the right direction by the end of the season. The fact that Baez performed well in AA as a 20 year old bodes well for his chance at MLB success and with his elite bat speed and the highest ceiling in the system, he has a chance to be an impact player no matter where he plays.
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