Third base combination continues to hit in Stewart’s absence

Third base combination continues to hit in Stewart’s absence
May 3, 2013, 12:15 pm
Vinnie Duber

When the 2013 Cubs were being constructed, the everyday job at third base was supposed to belong to Ian Stewart. But a month into the season, Stewart is still at Triple-A Iowa after finishing a rehab assignment while a pair of replacements have been putting some good swings on balls in his absence.

The combination of Luis Valbuena and Cody Ransom at third base certainly wasn’t envisioned months ago, or even weeks ago, for that matter. Ransom started the season as a San Diego Padre. But through Thursday’s game, the duo has combined for eight homers and 17 RBIs. Taken as one position, only first baseman Anthony Rizzo is having a comparable season when it comes to power numbers, with his eight homers and 20 RBIs.

“Right now that combination is one of the best in baseball at that position, so there’s nothing you need to change there,” manager Dale Sveum said.

Sveum seems to be cementing Valbuena and Ransom as his third basemen despite the eventual fate of Stewart, who was optioned to Iowa on Friday following his removal from the 15-day DL, where he was recovering from a strained left quad. Sveum has said in recent weeks that Stewart would have to earn his way to the everyday job he was penciled in for when spring training began.

If his performance at Iowa is any indication, however, it won’t be such an easy task.

Stewart has played 13 games so far with the Cubs’ Triple-A affiliate. In 55 plate appearances, he’s batting .091 with a .255 on-base percentage and has collected just four hits -- only one of which has gone for extra bases. He’s struck out 16 times, twice the number of walks he’s drawn, eight.

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Meanwhile, the replacements keep producing. Valbuena has contributed five home runs and 13 RBIs (he ranks second on the team, trailing Rizzo, in both categories) in 23 games, 20 of which have come at third base.

“I know Valbuena has power. He has pull power, and he has opposite-field [power]. We saw it last year in certain stints,” Sveum said. “He worked on a few things in spring training to try and get a little more pull power and think a little bit more about slugging and things like that. And it’s been paying off and he’s been doing a good job. That’s a left-handed bat that has power for a smaller-statured guy. You’ve got to take advantage of that and get it out of him.”

And Ransom, who was selected off waivers April 16, has gone 7-for-17 in his six games played with five extra-base hits including three home runs.

Ransom is getting the shorter end of the playing-time stick as he’s played in just six of 16 games since joining the team. But the veteran knows he needs to continue to show up to the park ready to go.

“You come every day and be ready to play,” Ransom said. “If you’re in the lineup, you’re in the lineup. If not, you get ready and maybe you contribute later in the game. Luis’s been playing great, so hopefully he keeps it up.”

Garza’s return will present tricky situation for Sveum

Matt Garza’s rehab assignment is underway, which means his return is not too far behind. And while that likely means more strength added to an already strong Cubs starting rotation, it also means an inevitable game of musical chairs.

Garza’s return will force someone out of the Cubs starting rotation, the unit that has undoubtedly been the team’s strongest so far this season. The question now becomes who that will be. For the moment, Sveum is calling it a luxurious predicament.

“It’s a good problem to have because we’ve got starting pitching that’s pitching really well,” Sveum said. “But obviously sometimes those things work themselves out by the time he’s ready to pitch. If not, we all know in this room, it’s going to be one heck of a tough decision on what we’re going to do.”

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The decision isn’t an envious one, but at least Sveum has a good deal of time to make it. The manager said Friday that there’s still a while to go in Garza’s rehab.

“We’d like to, at this point, see him get three more starts down there. Third start from now, probably get close to 100 pitches before he gets back here,” Sveum said.

Having been out of commission since last summer, Garza’s current rehab could be something akin to spring training for the veteran right-hander.

“In spring training, you’re starting five weeks of games, where his will be built into 20 days instead of the five weeks, so it’s a little bit condensed that way,” Sveum said. “But it’s all the same; you’re just doing the same thing, just at a lot quicker pace.”

Garza made his first rehab start Wednesday at Double-A Tennessee. His next will come Monday with Iowa.

Odds and ends

-- Injured Cubs reliever Kyuji Fujikawa will make a rehab appearance with Iowa Sunday. Sveum said the reliever -- recovering from a muscle strain in his right forearm -- wouldn’t throw more than 25 pitches.

-- The Cubs are in the midst of a four-game stolen-base streak. Starting pitcher Travis Wood extended the streak to four in Thursday’s loss to the Padres with the first swiped bag of his career. If the Cubs managed to pick up at least one steal in Friday’s series opener against the Reds, it’d be the team’s first five-game stolen base streak since June 2010.