Questions remain for Cubs at third base

Questions remain for Cubs at third base
March 5, 2013, 6:00 pm
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The Cubs now think they could one day have an infield built around three Gold Glove-level defenders in Anthony Rizzo, Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro. And then there’s the wide-open space at third base.

The Cubs hoped they found a solution when they traded for Ian Stewart coming out of the 2011 winter meetings, giving up Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu in a four-player deal with the Colorado Rockies.  

Now it’s uncertain if Stewart will even make this team. 

It’s been almost two weeks since Stewart strained his left quadriceps muscle. He hit, took grounders and did some light jogging on Tuesday, leading up to what manager Dale Sveum called the “cram session” during the final two weeks of camp.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say it would be a big question,” Sveum said before a 6-3 loss to the Rockies at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. “There’s just not that many at-bats. You have to be very productive in those at-bats. (Luis) Valbuena’s obviously playing and doing a really good job.”

If Stewart is cleared by the middle of March, Sveum projected he might get 20 or 30 regular at-bats and have to play in minor-league games, leading off every inning to get nine at-bats a day.   

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When the Cubs re-signed Stewart after non-tendering him, they framed the one-year, $2 million deal as non-guaranteed, though it’s a standard contract for an arbitration-level player. The underlying message was he’d have to perform.

At this point, all team president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and the rest of the front office and coaching staff have to go on is one at-bat in an intrasquad scrimmage before Stewart felt something running the bases.

The Cubs could cut Stewart before the start of the season, give him $500,000 in termination pay and pocket $1.5 million in savings.

“That’s the last thing I want to really think about,” Stewart said. “I had such a great relationship with Theo and the front office over the winter that I trust them. (I) trust the fact that they brought me back here to be a part of the team, whether that’s April 1 or…hopefully I don’t have to start the season on the DL, or even with another team. 

“I just trust them that everything we talked about before I came back to the Cubs is what they believe in.”

The Cubs accommodated Stewart last summer, when they allowed him to rehab from his home in North Carolina after undergoing surgery to fix a nagging wrist injury, and he felt like he owed the organization something. 

Stewart hit .201 in 55 games last year and spent the offseason flying back and forth to California to work with Hall of Famer Rod Carew. The Cubs hoped Stewart could rediscover the hitter who generated 43 homers and 131 RBI for the Rockies in 2009 and 2010.

While giving a progress report the other day, Stewart was asked by a reporter in the media scrum if he felt “unlucky.”

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“Not really,” Stewart said. “I have a lot of great things going on (in) my life. I got a family and two kids that are healthy, so I feel very fortunate and lucky about that. Baseball-wise, this is my job and I’m just trying to be healthy. I’m trying to get healthy, so that I can help this team and provide for my family as well. 

“It’s such a long season and I think the best thing for me is to trust the training staff and what they’re saying. If they feel like this is something we need to take baby steps with – or not really push – then I have to trust them.”

Stewart can be a good defender at third base, but then again so is Valbuena, one of Sveum’s favorites, even though he has a .635 career OPS.

Looking to the future, the Cubs are going to fully develop Javier Baez at shortstop. He’s not close enough to the big leagues yet to move him to another position. Look for the 2011 first-round pick to start this season at Class-A Daytona. 

Junior Lake could use a full season at Triple-A Iowa to harness all his athleticism and get a better feel for the game. 

Lake and Castro were once roommates in Arizona for rookie ball. The story goes Lake played shortstop for one half of the season while Castro played second base and they switched positions for the rest of the season. Lake, who will turn 23 this month, is still looking to experience the huge leap Castro made years ago. 

Sveum also likes Christian Villanueva’s glove. But Villanueva – the 21-year-old prospect acquired from the Texas Rangers in last summer’s Ryan Dempster deal – hasn’t played above the Class-A level yet. 

That still leaves the question mark at third base and the “cram session” before Opening Day. When/if healthy, it’s going to be finals weeks for Stewart in Arizona.