The Cubs couldn’t find a way to replace Aramis Ramirez at third base this year, and have to go back to the drawing board in 2013.
They tried Ian Stewart, Luis Valbuena and Josh Vitters for the most part, with Joe Mather filling in occasionally, and none earned a starting spot. Valbuena is expected to return to the team, at least according to manager Dale Sveum, while the other three are in limbo.
Stewart, acquired from the Rockies for Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu, was handed the full-time spot before the season despite his poor numbers in 2011. He hit .201 in 53 games before undergoing season-ending wrist surgery, seldom showing any consistency at the plate.
The injury could be to blame, but either way, the trade turned out to be a relatively pricey flop. Stewart made $2.2 million in 2012, and seemingly sent out 2.2 million tweets while on the disabled list. An above average fielder with some left-handed power, he was coming off a bad season and trying to re-establish himself.
The Cubs deemed Stewart a risk worth taking, but now he’s a non-tender candidate and his return is very much in doubt. Stewart’s absence from the team after his injury didn’t help him, as he opted to rehab at home.
Vitters was a first-round draft pick who just began to show signs of becoming a productive hitter at Triple-A Iowa when he was called up with Brett Jackson in early August. His fielding was supposed to be the big question, but the defense was actually better than the offense in Vitters’ audition. He struggled from the outset and wound up hitting .121 — with an OPS of .395 — in 99 at-bats.
President Theo Epstein said Vitters and Jackson have been informed they would begin 2013 back at Iowa, where they can try to figure things out at a more gradual pace. The Cubs haven’t given up on Vitters, who is only 23, or Jackson.
Mather was signed as a minor league free agent after spending most of 2011 in Triple-A. The Cubs didn’t expect a lot, and didn’t get a lot in return. Mather basically was someone who could come off the bench and play a few different positions to give Sveum some lineup flexibility. He came in with a .228 career average and finished at .209.
But Mather made only $490,000, which the Cubs liked. Because rookie outfielder Dave Sappelt probably earned a 2012 roster spot, Mather, 30, is expendable.
Sveum alluded to the kind of player the Cubs were looking for, saying: “A lot of it is luck — getting a guy down on his luck, and you pick him up and he has a big year he’s capable of having. (A player) somebody else gave up on. Those are the kind of players you try to hit a home run on. It happens. We tried with Ian Stewart. Washington did with (Mike) Morse. Those guys are out there. It’s a matter of finding one, signing them and hitting a home run during the course of the season.”
But the pool of available third baseman in free agency is murky, with few “home runs” in the group. The list includes Placido Polanco, Scott Rolen, Eric Chavez and a few others past their prime.
Kevin Youkilis probably will be available if the White Sox decline his option, and he might be an option as a one-year stopgap if he comes cheap. Youkilis helped Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer win their second World Series championship ring with the Red Sox, so they know what he brings to the clubhouse. On the other hand, Youkilis faded badly with the White Sox, hitting .219 in September. He once remarked it was “very surprising to see with us winning that we were still second fiddle to the Cubs.”
Remember, Epstein said last year he didn’t want to recreate “the Boston show” in Chicago, meaning he didn’t need to bring every Red Sox refugee he knows to Chicago.
So which way will the Cubs go at third?
It may be the most interesting question of their offseason.