Cubs batter Ian Stewart connects for a two-run homer in the fourth inning of the Chicago Cubs 11-7 win over the San Diego Padres Monday May 28, 2012 at Wrigley Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
Updated: February 26, 2014 7:25PM
MESA, Ariz. — Cubs manager Dale Sveum knows who’s on first and what’s on second. The problem is that I Don’t Know is on third. When you lose 101 games, every quandary evokes a classic comedy routine.
The Cubs, though, are easy targets after getting historically meager production at third base in 2012. With Ian Stewart, Luis Valbuena, Joe Mather and Josh Vitters splitting the position, the Cubs were last in the National League in batting average (.201), on-base percentage (.289) and slugging percentage (.322). With 12 homers and 55 RBI in 162 games, their slugging percentage at third last year was the worst in the NL in the last 20 years.
‘‘No doubt about it, we have to get more production [at third] than we had last year. Out of a few positions,’’ manager Dale Sveum said with a chuckle.
How he’s going to get that production, or even from whom he’s going to get it, is a big question 24 days before the season opener. Stewart, the incumbent, is recovering from a quadriceps injury and is not expected back until the last two weeks of camp. Valbuena, who started after Stewart went down with a wrist injury in July and hit .219 with four home runs and 28 RBI in 265 at-bats in 2012, is Sveum’s Plan B. After that, it might be Brent Lillibridge or bust because Sveum is expecting Vitters — currently out with a quad injury — to start the season at Class AAA.
Stewart hit .201 with five home runs and 17 RBI in 179 at-bats in 2012. But he might not even make the team. He is due $2 million this season, but the Cubs can release him for $500,000.
‘‘I’d be lying if I didn’t say it would be a question [whether Stewart will make the team],’’ Sveum said. ‘‘He’d have to be very productive in those [limited number of] at-bats.’’
Valbuena, 27, hit .306 with 15 doubles, a triple and six home runs in 183 at-bats in the Venezuelan Winter League. He’s hitting .385 in the Cactus League with two doubles and a home run for a .769 slugging percentage.
‘‘He had great at-bats last year even though he hit .218,’’ Sveum said.
It’s possible Stewart could find the stroke that netted a 25-homer, 70-RBI season (and a .228 bating average) with the Colorado Rockies in 2009. It’s possible Valbuena could blossom after a strong offseason. But it’s more than likely that the starting third baseman for the Cubs’ next playoff-contending team is not in the mix at third this spring. It doesn’t seem to be a position the Cubs are fixated on upgrading.
Vitters, the former first-round draft pick, doesn’t seem to be a priority after he hit .121 with two homers in 99 at-bats for the Cubs in 2012.
‘‘He’s going to Triple-A. He’s not going to make our team,’’ Sveum said. ‘‘[He’ll] probably play third, some outfield . . . just have a really good year and see what happens after that.’’
Other than that, Sveum is content to have ‘‘really, really above-average [defensive] third basemen’’ in Stewart and/or Valbuena. Ultimately, the Cubs will need more than that.
Junior Lake, who hit .279 with 10 homers and 50 RBI at Class AA Tennessee last season, is 6-3, 215 pounds, and has a potentially big bat. But he’s a converted middle infielder who’s a work-in-progress at best at third. Christian Villanueva, the 21-year-old acquired from the Texas Rangers in the Ryan Dempster sell-off trade last July, homered off White Sox reliever Leyson Septimo on Thursday but is not there yet.
The most intriguing long-term solution isn’t yet a declared candidate: Javier Baez, the 20-year-old shortstop logjammed behind Starlin Castro. If the kid hits as well as they say he can, the Cubs will have to find room for him soon. By then, the open spot should be obvious.
ROCKIES 6, CUBS 3
STYMIED BY FRANCIS: Rockies left-hander Jeff Francis shut down the Cubs on Tuesday at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale. He allowed one hit in four innings and retired 12 of 13 batters. The Cubs’ only hit was a soft single to right by left-handed-hitting pitcher Scott Feldman , who had played the previous eight seasons in the American League with the Rangers. Center fielder Dave Sappelt and second baseman Darwin Barney opened the game with warning-track drives to left, but those were the hardest-hit balls against Francis, who has not allowed a run in nine innings this spring .
MAYSONET HOMERS: Edwin Maysonet turned a drive off the wall into an inside-the-park homer off Rockies reliever Daniel Rosenbaum when the ball caromed past outfielders Dexter Fowler and Tim Wheeler . It was Maysonet’s first home run of the spring. His last home run in the regular season was a three-run blast for the Brewers off the Cubs’ Chris Volstad in a 6-1 Brewers victory last May. Maysonet is 3-for-16 (.188) in the early going.
WOOD LOOKS GOOD: Left-hander Travis Wood , slated for the starting rotation, relieved Feldman in the third inning and allowed one run and three hits with no walks and two strikeouts in three innings.
NELSON HOMERS AGAIN: Career minor-leaguer Brad Nelson , a non-roster first-baseman/outfielder, continued to make an impression with a pinch-hit home run off ex-Cub Manny Corpas in the ninth inning. Nelson is hitting .333 (6-for-18) with two homers and five RBI.
UP NEXT: vs. Rangers, 2:05 Wednesday at Surprise, Ariz.