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Cubs Wed May 08 2013

Valbuena Making Cubs' 3B Decision Easy

Cubs_200.pngLuis Valbuena, a no-namer to most baseball fans, fits right in when looking at the history of third basemen for the Cubs. It was a black hole position after Ron Santo retired following the 1973 season. The Cubs used 97 different starters at the hot corner, including 18 different guys to play there on opening day in the 30 years following. Thankfully, Aramis Ramirez came along to end the streak of laughingstock players that manned the position between he and Santo.

Following Ramirez's departure after the 2011 season, Josh Vitters was seen as the in-house favorite to take over the reins for the next decade. The number three pick from the 2007 draft possessed what many considered one of the prettiest right handed swings in all of baseball. The problem was he never learned how to hold back that sweet looking swing on pitches that didn't deserve it, not to mention the fact that he struggled to field the ball cleanly. His time in the majors was disastrous, and the organization isn't pinning much hope on a resurgence in the future.

The Cubs snapped up Ian Stewart in late 2011 as a former top prospect who struggled with injuries throughout his career to see if they could revive his value and either use him, or trade him for higher ceiling prospects. Unsurprisingly, he spent most of last season on the disabled list, and despite his history of DL stints, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer thought another chance might do the trick, and signed Stewart to a non-guaranteed contract that only paid him if he made the team.

Stewart didn't record a single at bat in spring training because he was recovering from his latest ailment, but the new brain trust decided to keep him on the roster and let him rehab, therefore guaranteeing his contract. It's turned out to be the worst decision they've made yet.

Stewart has just four hits (not to mention 16 strikeouts) in 44 at bats at Triple-A Iowa during his rehab assignment, and when the allotted 20 day recovery time came and passed, the Cubs were left with a decision. Bring up the struggling player they're paying $1.5 million, or go with what they've been using in his steed?

Valbuena might not be a world beater at third base, but he's certainly serviceable, especially considering the dearth of talent at the position around the major leagues. He's crushed five homers in the first 33 games, and has also drawn 14 walks compared to just 17 strikeouts. Cody Ransom has been solid as his right handed platoon-mate, but Valbuena has been the biggest surprise everyday player for the Cubs.

His offense isn't even his best skill. The power will most certainly tail off, as it's doubtful he can sustain a 30 home run pace, but his slick defense is something that will keep his name on the lineup card even if he's struggling with the stick. Despite the small sample size (3 years worth of data is recommended for this), Valbuena was the best defensive third basemen in baseball during the 2012 season according to the UZR 150 stat on fangraphs, and is continuing that type of play so far this year.

Don't like advanced stats? He passes the eye test too. Dale Sveum can claim he was in early on the guy, considering his batting order placement and plentiful, positive remarks about him during spring training.

What about Stewart? Hoyer decided to option him to Iowa so he could rehab more and basically go through his version of a late spring training. Since he's a vested veteran, he gets 72 hours to decide if he wanted to accept the assignment. Everyone thought he'd just continue playing since he was already there, and wouldn't get his guaranteed money if he didn't accept it. Instead, he chose to take a couple of days off -- irking the organization. Remember Josh Vitters? He just returned from an injury himself, and has laid claim to the third base spot at Iowa for the time being, leaving Stewart as the backup. Don't be surprised if Stewart receives his walking papers soon.

None of that matters in Chicago though. Valbuena has laid claim to third base spot for the near future. Cubs fans can only hope he isn't just one another 97 guys before the next great player mans the hot corner at Wrigley in 30 years.

 
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