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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.*)

  • Bric

    Good lord, just reading the headline of this article makes me ask myself what has this team become?

  • August

    My crystal ball says that Stewart will be just what he has been. I vote we call-up Vitters and start him the rest of the year. There is more to be gained by this move than playing the “temps”.

  • john

    “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.”

    I am beyond sick and tired of reading things like this. A lost season? Really? Its only freaking April. I realize we are rebuilding and all that, but come on man. If we cut down on the errors and have a tad bit more timely hitting there is no reason why this team isnt in 1st place. We have had a pretty tough schedule so far and to play all of our games as closely as we have is respectable. I dont care that we havent won many of thse close games. The wins will come. Stop talking about trading away anyone that does anything positive for a “prospect” that may or may not become anything at the major league level. That is such a loser attitude. Valbuena has been pretty well. Maybe that means we can embrace him and try to develop him as a 3rd Basemen of the future.

  • Kidchicago

    Gotta agree that the “lost season” comment stuck in my craw. I don’t think this is a first place team, but the NL Central competition has been pretty mediocre so far. The Cubs could certainly compete if they just get a bit more offense, stabilize the closer situation, and substantially cut down on the errors. Granted, that’s a lot to ask. But not impossible.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      The season was lost in February, and it was lost by design. I know it sucks in the near-term to think like that, but you’ll be much happier/more relaxed going forward …

      • When the Music’s Over

        Have you changed your tune? Up until the season began, you seemed to be cautiously optimistic that the Cubs could compete this year because some people suggested they could win 75+ games.

        Also, I think losing on purpose in 2014 has been part of the master plan since day 1 of the new front office takeover.

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

          I think you may be misremembering – I frequently went with a range of high 60s to low 70s for wins this year. I definitely never said anything about them being competitive. I think the furthest I went was that if everything breaks right they could surprise with a .500 record.

          • When the Music’s Over

            “I think the furthest I went was that if everything breaks right they could surprise with a .500 record.”

            Isn’t that an almost textbook definition of cautiously optimistic.

            “I think you may be misremembering – I frequently went with a range of high 60s to low 70s for wins this year.”

            I also didn’t say you said they would win 75+ games. I said because some other people suggested they could.

        • When the Music’s Over

          Sorry, meant losing on purpose in 2013. Trying to forget this year already.

      • DarthHater

        Are you serious, Bert? I’m much happier believing that they are trying and not yet succeeding than I would be believing that they are deliberately throwing an entire season before the first game.

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

          Very serious. I’ve always believed that The Plan (for 2013) was to accumulate flippable assets in the hopes of another sell-off in July (which necessarily breeds a shitty overall team), and a handful of guys – Jackson, Fujikawa, maybe Schierholtz – that would be around in 2014 when they actually try to put together a winner. For 2013, they’d set up some platoons, and if lightning strikes and there was a surprise, then great. But I think 2014 has always been the focus, and going out of their way to win in 2013 wasn’t going to help that goal.

          So, I don’t want to overstate it – I don’t think they pulled an Astros/Marlins and affirmatively decided to try and lose games. They just recognized that losing games would help long-term, and comes in tandem with the dumping that they want to do anyway. Theo was saying as recently as two weeks ago that another huge loss total could be coming this year because of a mid-season sell-off. They’ve known all along that that was the likeliest outcome. And I’m totally fine with it.

          • JR

            I’m cool with them sucking this year for a larger goal too. But the problem is that everyone they have aquired will not help the Cubs win in 2014. And if the Cubs aren’t a playoff caliber team next year there is going to be a huge amount of heat on Theo and company. Doing what the Cubs are doing you better make the playoffs when you’re trying, or there is going to be serious questions.

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