It’s even more confusing than the Abbott and Costello bit. The Chicago Cubs have a venerable buffet of players to choose from to man the hot corner this season. From enticing prospects to plodding veterans, the Cubs can go a number of different ways in the infield this year. Here’s a rundown of the potential faces we could see at third base in 2014.
The odds-on favorite to win the job out of spring training has to be Mike Olt. A former top prospect of the Rangers before concussion and vision problems derailed his ascension, Olt has all the tools required to patrol the hot corner for the Cubs for the next decade. He may never hit for a great average or play plus defense, but his power and his pedigree are legitimate. The Cubs will be pressured to start showcasing their touted minor league system this season, and Olt is the most major-league ready of the high-level prospects in the pipeline. With a strong showing in spring training, the job is his to lose at the major league level.
At least with Valbuena, you know what you’re going to get. The incumbent third baseman’s major league career has been consistent, albeit less than stellar to this point. His power numbers aren’t shabby, as he hit 12 home runs last year in 108 games, but his paltry .218 batting average and his inability to get on base (or do anything once he’s there) leave a lot to be desired. Valbuena is probably best served coming off the bench as a utility infielder, rather than manning the hot corner every day for a major league team.
It wasn’t long ago that Josh Vitters and Brett Jackson were being heralded as the Cubs top organizational prospects and the future cornerstones of the new-look Cubs. How times have changed. Jackson’s major league prospects are on life support, and Vitters doesn’t appear to be too far behind after batting .121 during his last stint in the big leagues. His defense made Starlin Castro look like a legitimate Gold Glove candidate, and he has battled numerous injuries ever since his debacle in the major leagues. But the former third overall selection is still only 24 years of age, and he looks and feels healthier than he has in years. While the smart money is on Vitters opening the season at Triple-A, a solid spring combined with a struggling Mike Olt could land Vitters on the major league roster come opening day.
Villanueva is a bit of a wild card. He’s more ready for the big leagues than the rest of the Cubs’ highly touted infield prospects, and he is the best defensive third baseman in the system. His offense is improving as well, as he belted 19 home runs with a .469 Slugging Percentage in AA last year. That’s a big number for a man that tips the scales at barely 160 pounds. He has room to grow, and his swing is effortless and should translate to easy line drives in the bigs. While he doesn’t project as a major base stealer, Villanueva swiped 32 bases in 2011 so don’t sleep on his speed. At the end of the day, Villanueva is probably more of a super utility player, but if he can continue to grow offensively than he could break into the big leagues this year and maybe even start in a pinch.
We’re dreaming here as Baez will be held in the minor leagues until rosters expand in September, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to see Baez make the move to third base if Olt’s struggles continue. Starlin Castro is locked in for the foreseeable future at shortstop, and Baez’s size and skill set project him as more of a third baseman than a shortstop anyway. Look for the top organizational prospect to try some new infield positions in double and triple A this year, than break into the majors for good in 2015.
We can believe in miracles, can’t we? Kris Bryant may see the majors in September, but he won’t be there to start the year. If Olt or Vitters can produce this year, we may even see Bryant break into the majors as an outfielder rather than a third baseman. That being said, Bryant is probably the best third baseman in this list right now.