Cubs by position - Third Base
Wow, this is a tough one. There are people on this site who are advocating releasing Aramis Ramirez. Not only will this not happen, I don't think it should. The Cubs simply have no one who can replace him in the organization and, in part because of Ramirez' contract, they will not be able to replace him via free agency after the season. Furthermore, I don't think it's clear that he's finished and I expect him to have a decent second half. Still, my hope is that Cub fans and the management alike remember this first half even if he goes back to a typical season in 2011 and don't try to bring him back in 2012. The problem is, third base has a chance of becoming a black hole once again after he leaves. The Cubs' in house options are very, very flawed.
Major League Level: Aramis Ramirez (age 32): Aram has been one of the most if not the most productive Cub since his arrival in the middle of the 2003 season. He has done it with the bat and overall has not really hurt the team with the glove. So far, 2010 has been a different story. He's well under the Mendoza line at .173 in batting average at the moment. He is producing the negative trifecta at the plate. He has seen his power go down to an ISO below .130 and his contact rate has tanked and he's still K'ing over 20% of the time on the season. On top of this, he has gotten very unlucky and has a BABIP below .200. I think eventually the BABIP will even out and Ramirez will get his batting average up to say .230 on the season. If the power comes back, I think he could be decent in the second half.
The question isn't really about this year though, it's about the future. Thing is, Ramirez has a player option for $16 Million in 2011. He will pick that up. Now, if the Cubs had an in house option to replace him that was either better than him or even just as good in 2011, I'd say release him. Problem is, they don't really have an option but to let him work his kinks out. They may be forced to even bring him back (at a severely reduced salary) in 2012 though like I wrote above, I hope Cubs' management doesn't get fooled too much if he hits, say, .260/.325/.435 or so in 2011. The Cubs have no real option for the 2012 season right now. They will probably play that one by ear and see what's available after 2011.
Major League Level: Mike Fontenot (age 30): Mike Fontenot is a decent player but I don't think he's going to be able to push Aramis out the door at third base. He's really more of a second baseman and I think the Cubs need to commit to a 2011 true platoon of Fontenot/Baker (see below).
Major League Level: Jeff Baker (age 29): Baker is such a solid defensive player that if the Cubs did decide to part with Ramirez, he is an option at the position. In fact he's so good, I would recommend a 2011 rotation which allows Baker 2 starts a week against right handed pitchers at third base. With the bat, he absolutely destroys left handed pitching and should be playing against them all the time. I think the Cubs have him through 2013 and he's exactly the type of player a championship level team has on their bench.
AAA level: Bobby Scales (age 32): There's no real good reason why Bill Hall has a job in the major leagues but Bobby Scales, who is just as good, doesn't. That being stated, he's far more of a bench player than he is some one who is going to be a starter at the major league level. He's also more of a second baseman. One of the problems with this exercise is that many players who are nominal third basemen make more sense at second basemen but I put them here anyway. Scales will show up on the second base list also.
AAA level: Matt Camp (age 26): As a 13th round draft pick back in 2006, it is amazing that Camp has even made it to AAA. He's more of a second baseman, so I will deal with him more in that realm.
AAA level: Marquez Smith (age 25): A stocky right handed hitting third baseman who's upside might be Casey McGehee. He has a decent glove and seems to walk enough to make him intriguing. Problem is, he was below average power and speed and sometimes struggles to make contact. Tack onto that the fact that he's already 25 and he's someone I'd love to see play in the majors but who I don't believe will ever be a regular in the majors. I'd have said the same thing about McGehee 2 years ago.
AA level: Josh Vitters (age 20): The brown eyed handsome man of the Cubs' minor league system and the hope by many to become Ramirez' replacement in 2012. I don't think he'll be ready and I worry greatly that he'll bust big time. Having said that, there are some signs that I am wrong and that he is going to be a stud at the major league level. I hope that is the case.
Here are the positives: He's just 20 years old and playing at Double A. After initial struggles, he's eventually conquered every league he's played at. He has excellent contact abilities and shows decent, slightly above average power. Despite predictions to the contrary he's stayed at third base, so far.
Here are the negatives: He walks so little that it's cause for a celebration when he does. This means that he will have to hit .330 in the major leagues to have a passable OBP and he's probably not going to hit .330. He also has decent but not great power, very little speed and even if he stays at third base, he will always have a below average glove.
It is because of those negatives and his overall youth that I think he'll need all of 2011 and probably all of 2012 in the minors before he's ready to face major league pitching. Those who have called for his ascension to the majors now are mildly nuts, he will probably produce a line of .130/.140/.180 at the major leagues with a weak glove right now. You don't bring up a player like this at this time unless you actually want to ruin not just his confidence but the team's chances of winning long term. Vitters is a project. He's young enough that he might be able to improve his fielding and get his walk rate over, say, 6% by 2013 and be ready. I am hopeful, but I am skeptical.
AA level: Nate Samson (age 22): Samson is a 34th round draft pick who has made it Double A (and is holding his own there). That fact, in and of itself is a good thing. Having said that, he's far more valuable as a shortstop/second baseman than a third baseman. He has zero power and that's an issue for him moving forward. I will deal with him in the middle infield section.
AA level: Russ Canzler (age 24): Canzler isn't really a third baseman either. He's played the position this year for Tennessee but he's really more of a first baseman/outfielder. He is already 24 and he is repeating the level and having a really nice year offensively. 24 year old first basemen who are repeating Double A better hit. I would be surprised if Canzler ever made the major leagues.
A+ level: D.J. LeMahieu (age 21): Daytona appears to be rotating LeMahieu and Ryan Flaherty between third base and second because since Josh Vitters got promoted, they have no one else to play the position. I'll deal with both LeMahieu and Flaherty at the second base review.
A+ level: Ryan Flaherty (age 23): See above. One of my favorite Cubs' prospects though I admit he's fairly old for the level. I'll deal with him more in second base.
A level: Matthew Cerda (age 20): At 5'9" and with middling power potential, Cerda is also more of a second baseman so I will deal with him there. The Cubs just don't have too many pure third basemen in their organization. Peoria has two of them that I am not going to list because I don't see them as ever being prospects. If they end up playing in Double A someday, I will make a note. The Cubs appear to have a great deal of depth at second base.
A- level: Arismendy Alcantara (age 18) At 18 years old, Alcantara is the prospect at Boise. Having said that, he too is more of a middle infielder. The theme continues!
Conclusion: At third base, the Cubs are all in on Josh Vitters as a longterm solution at the position. The only other potential long term solution is Ryan Flaherty and I'm still hopeful he will end up being the choice at second base. If Vitters doesn't work, which I would put the chances at about 50% of being the case, the Cubs will have no other option but acquiring talent to play this position. Third base, in the major leagues, has become a very thin position and unlike first base, there just isn't that much out there that can be counted on fall in the Cubs lap. I truly hope Vitters works because if he doesn't.....