(Aldrin Capulong/Daytona Cubs)
When Aramis Ramirez was traded to the Cubs 10 years ago last month, he took over a position that has been incredibly tough to fill for the Cubs. Since he has left, the position has been filled by utility players and bench players. When will one of our prospects live up to the expectations?
Ramirez stayed with the Cubs through the 2011 season, one of the longest tenures by any Cubs' third basemen in history. One of the players sent to Pittsburgh for him, Jose Hernandez, once served as the primary third baseman for five years from 1994-1999.
When Aramis burst on the scene in Chicago, marking one of the best trades of GM Jim Hendry's tenure, many, including myself, evaluated past Cubs' third basemen to see if anyone matched up. Since Ron Santo, who played for the Cubs from 1960-1973, third base has been a short-term stopgap position with very few players holding the position for more than a few years at a time.
Ron Cey, who still makes appearances at Wrigley Field and other Cubs' events, was the third baseman from 1983-1986, but he hit an unimpressive .254 in his four years with the team. Bill Mueller is another memorable name from 2000-2002, but his best years came after he left he Cubs, including a World Series title with the Red Sox.
Since Ramirez has left, the Cubs have rotated between Luis Valbuena, Ian Stewart and now Cody Ransom and Donnie Murphy. Stewart, who the Cubs acquired with first-round pick Casey Weathers for Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu, was released this summer by the team for inappropriate comments.
Valbuena has been nothing out of the ordinary for the Cubs, maintaining his .224 career average through parts of his two seasons with the Cubs. He was seen as a stopgap for Cubs top prospect Josh Vitters, who has slowly climbed the organizational ladder since he was drafted out of high school.
Vitters has been injured for much of the 2013 season but owns a .295 average with five home runs in 28 games. He has a .380 OBP and has scored 14 runs. Vitters has hit roughly the same as he did in 2012, but has shown an improved eye at the plate, in part to working on better plate discipline.
He was given a taste of major league hitting in 2012 but had a rough go at it, hitting a weak .121 through 99 at-bats. He clearly was not ready for major league hitting, and it showed. However, Vitters has always adjusted slow to new levels but continues to persevere and find success.
It will be interesting to see if the Cubs give him an opportunity in September assuming he's healthy. He will likely begin next season at Triple-A again, but he will face pressure from down the organizational ladder.
Not only is the Cubs' infield a logjam of young talent, but the Cubs most recent draft pick, Kris Bryant, is a natural third baseman regarded as the top bat to come out of college in the past year. He has power and a good approach and will likely reach Double-A at some point in 2014. He's currently in High-A Daytona batting .368 with three home runs in 10 games. There has been talk of moving him to left field if Vitters eventually succeeds at the major league level.
The Cubs recently acquired a Rangers top prospect in Mike Olt, who drew interest across the league for his impressive power. He has struggled mightily at Triple-A this season, especially since joining the Cubs hitting .156 with 3 home runs through 31 games. His season totals through 99 games are a .199 average with 15 home runs and a .294 OBP. He's driven in 40 and scored 48 times with 20 extra-base hits.
I'm concerned he may not pan out or live up to expectations as quickly, which for Olt, who turns 25 tomorrow, is a bit worrisome. Still, many believe he is in line for Rizzo-esque resurrection next season. Rizzo struggled the season before the Cubs acquired him, but the next season (2012), he went on a season-long tear, earning a mid-season call up in the process. Olt's big opportunity, and hopefully his big break, will need to come in 2014.
Christian Villanueva is another intriguing option for the Cubs, but he has hardly impressed in my eyes. He owns a .259 average with 16 home runs and a .316 OBP in 127 games. He has struck out 111 times to just 32 walks while driving in 66 runs. He also has 41 extra-base hits. It is possible he gets a chance to crack the Cubs' roster out of spring training, but it is highly unlikely at this point considering the options available.
The Cubs are expected to be more active in the free agent market this offseason, already linking themselves to Reds outfielder Shin-Soo Choo. Will they look to free agency for a third baseman or let their young prospects battle it out?
Former Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis is a free agent and would be an above-average stopgap while the Cubs let their options play out in the minors. I don't believe signing him would really help the Cubs reach their goals, but the soon-to-be free agent would come at a reduced cost for what he could bring to the team.
Another option is former Cub Mark DeRosa, known for his versatility but dogged by injuries in recent years. He would be a familiar face in the clubhouse and for fans who he endeared himself to by putting up the two best seasons of his career.
Beyond that there are very few options at third (and even the ones mentioned above aren't great).
The Cubs should spend their money elsewhere this offseason and allow their top prospects, who they've invested so much in, develop into the major league ballplayers. It is very possible that neither Vitters, Olt, nor Bryant ends up playing third for the Cubs. But the talent is there and can be seen by players, scouts, and managers at every level.
We've entered another in-between phase for third base and time will tell if one of young guns will take the position or if the Cubs will look for another stopgap while Vitters, Olt, and Bryant develop.
Fortunately for them, the Cubs aren't close to competing, so they do have some breathing room to seize opportunities earlier than they would in other organizations.