Ian Stewart had been projected to be the Chicago Cubs‘ opening day starter at third base ever since the club signed him to a one-year, $2 million deal in December. The deal was made, it seemed, to give Stewart another chance at proving himself after nagging wrist issues sidelined him for 100 games in 2012. After suffering a mild to moderate quad strain before Saturday’s spring training opener, Stewart could end up without a job here in the next couple of weeks. He’s set to miss 10-14 days with this new injury.
Stewart’s “non-guaranteed” contract means that the Cubs could actually cut him before March 16th and pay him just 1/6th of the $2 million. With that in mind, now is the time for Luis Valbuena to step up and take Stewart’s job. After belting a solo home run in the second inning of yesterday’s game, manager Dale Sveum, along with the Cubs’ front office, will need to reassess what they want to go forward with at the hot corner, and I see Valbuena as the new favorite.
Though Stewart does offer a better glove defensively, he has yet to convince anyone that he can produce as much offense as was once expected of him. When the Cubs first signed Stewart in 2012, the team expected him to hit 20+ home runs and drive in at least 75, but those projections seem more and more unrealistic with each injury he suffers.
Valbuena didn’t have the greatest 2012 season, but he did show signs of being able to handle the load at third base. The left-handed hitting Venezuelan knocked four home runs and 20 doubles, but he hit just .224. However, a huge portion of his 265 at bats came as a pinch hitter and in spot starts, which can negatively effect both a player’s rhythm and approach at the plate. If given 350-400 at at bats in a starting role, Valbuena could hit 10-15 home runs and 30-35 doubles, which would be valuable for a team so deep in the rebuilding process.
Neither option offers a whole of comfort for Cubs fans, but with a handful of younger third base prospects still needing more time to develop in the minors, Valbuena should offer more production than other qualified candidates.
Today, Christian Villanueva is in the lineup at third base against the San Francisco Giants. The 21-year-old Villanueva is the Cubs’ #12 prospect according to Baseball America, but isn’t expected to see the big league level until at least 2014. Cubs’ #15 prospect Junior Lake, who belted a home run yesterday, will get some chances to play third base this year for Triple-A Iowa, so he could be another option later in the season. Let’s not forget about Josh Vitters either, as he could end up getting another chance at third base with the Cubs if he starts hot at Tennessee.
In the meantime, the Cubs would be best served to cut Stewart before any more body parts falter, and pocket the little under $2 million owed to him. Valbuena has the ability to fill the hole for now, and the Cubs would have a little extra for their payroll. Maybe it could be used to pad a deal involving Alfonso Soriano‘s seemingly untradable contract.