ian stewart cubsIan Stewart is playing regularly at Iowa, and the nominal Chicago Cubs starting third baseman appears just about ready to return to the big league team after missing substantial time with a quad strain. His return has been long-awaited, as he missed the second half of 2012 with ongoing wrist problems that may have sapped his abilities for years. After offseason surgery corrected the issue, according to Stewart, many of us have been anxiously awaiting a chance to see what the new and improved Stewart looks like.

But Luis Valbuena has become the fly in the ointment.

The temporary third baseman – who would have been the hero last night but for the Cubs’ bullpen … – has been quietly killing it for the Cubs this year. Valbuena’s slash line is up to .231/.344/.442, good enough for a 116 OPS+. His BABIP is just .243, so he may have a little bit of bad luck sprinkled in there, too.

The performance has allowed the Cubs to take their time with respect to Stewart’s rehab assignment at Iowa – Stewart hasn’t exactly been killing the ball – but they’ll soon have to make a move. Rehabbing positional players can be assigned for a rehab stint for a maximum of 20 days. Stewart, assigned to Iowa on April 14, has until May 3 to come back to the Cubs. That leaves the Cubs just over a week to make a decision: does Valbuena keep starting, or does Stewart boot him back to the bench?

In a lost season, asking which of the two will perform best going forward is probably the wrong question. Or, it is at least incomplete.

The real question is tradability. Neither Valbuena nor Stewart, even if they rake for the next few months, is going to net a huge haul at the deadline, if the Cubs elect to move them. But in a very weak third base market, a successful stick could still bring back something worth considering.

So, how does trade value factor into the decision about who starts when Ian Stewart is healthy?

It seems fair to say, based on perceived talent and past history, Stewart has the higher upside if he’s reaching his ceiling of performance. The glove is slightly better, and the power potential is much higher. Thus, if you believed that Stewart was finally over his wrist issue and was primed to actually perform well again, then you’d want Stewart getting the bulk of the third base starts from here until the trade deadline. That is to say, if you knew in advance that both guys were going to rake if they were given the starts, Stewart would probably accumulate more trade value by July than would Valbuena.

On the other hand, Valbuena is relatively hot right now, and might be a safer bet to actually keep producing if he stays in the starting role. Is it worth risking that production for the slight chance of Stewart reaching his upside?

It’s a tough question, particularly when you consider Valbuena’s more attractive contract situation (he makes just $930K in his first year of arbitration this year; Stewart is making $2 million this year, with one more year of arbitration remaining). But I’ve got to believe that, in the eyes of other teams, a productive Stewart is worth more in trade than a productive Valbuena. Maybe even a great deal more.

For that reason, even as Valbuena continues to produce, it still probably makes sense to turn third base over to Stewart whenever he’s ready. Besides, given Valbuena’s versatility and low cost, the Cubs might be keen on keeping him for 2014 anyway. No sense in showcasing a guy for trade if you’re not going to move him. Stewart, on the other hand, feels far more like a short-term piece. For that reason, in a season like this one, he’s the guy you want starting at third.

Maybe Valbuena can slide over to second base.

(*Ducks.*)



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