Ian Stewart shared additional thoughts on his demotion from the Cubs with Carrie Muskat, who was in Des Moines recently to take in the Iowa Cubs. The article offers more insight into Stewart’s “time off,” and into his decision to stick with the Cubs even as they demoted him (as we suspected, it was mostly about keeping his $2 million contract (which, I mean, I’d do the same thing)). It’s worth reading if you’re into this story.
The piece I’d like to highlight, however, is one small quote from Stewart, about when he was informed that he was going to be optioned to Iowa.
“I talked to Theo, and he was basically telling me that Vitters is the future at third for them,” Stewart told Muskat. “I understand that …. Josh is young and he’s a good player and has a lot of talent. That part did not surprise me at all.
“It was basically if I wanted to stay with the Cubs and accept my assignment here, they were letting me know I wasn’t going to play a lot here,” Stewart continued. “I don’t know if that was a way to get me to take my free agency, because there’s money involved in all of that.”
There are two pieces there worth discussing, the first of which I’ll dispense with quickly: in that second line, Stewart is implying that the demotion, and the subsequent benching at Iowa, were effectively designed to push Stewart out of the organization (and save the Cubs some money). It’s certainly possible, and it does seem strange that, even with Josh Vitters out with a quad injury, Brent Lillibridge is picking up starts at third, not Stewart. Given everything that’s happened, it’s plausible that the Cubs have simply had enough with Stewart at this point, and even Stewart doesn’t think he’ll play for the Cubs again.
But that Vitters piece of Stewart’s quote is far more interesting.
Now, then. It’s necessary to note up front that we don’t know exactly what Epstein said to Stewart, or what Epstein’s intent was in so saying. We don’t know what motivations are animating Stewart’s comments, and how he decided to frame them.
That is all to say that we don’t know that Epstein actually said, word for word, that the organization expects Vitters to be the future at third base. Indeed, were it so, that statement would fly in the face of various rumblings we’ve heard for the better part of two years, which have all suggested that the higher ups don’t believe Vitters can stick at third long-term.
It’s been easy to lose sight of Vitters. He bombed out in his debut last year with the Cubs, and he missed all of Spring Training with a bum wheel. It was essentially a foregone conclusion that he was going to be moved off of third to a variety of positions, or he was going to be moved out of the organization.
But … is he actually going to get a shot to be the third baseman of the future? I wouldn’t have thought it possible until this statement from Stewart. Not only did Vitters struggle in the bigs, and not only is his defense at third questioned by some, but there are some interesting third base options potentially arriving in short order, including Christian Villanueva, Arismendy Alcantara, Junior Lake … or maybe even Javier Baez or Jeimer Candelario further down the road.
But let’s not forget: Vitters had a great year at Iowa in 2012, all while he was young for the league. There is still plenty of offensive potential there, and maybe there’s a belief that he can do just well enough to handle third base. Many players have struggled in their first appearance in the big leagues, and last year was as much about giving Vitters a taste of what the bigs are like as it was about “testing” him to see if he could take the position and run with it. Vitters is still just 23, after all. Maybe there really is a future for Vitters at third base with the Cubs.
Or maybe the message got changed just enough in the game of telephone, and maybe Epstein was simply trying to impress upon Stewart that, for now, getting Vitters starts at third base at AAA was the priority over getting starts for Stewart. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Vitters is the guy at third base long-term. It just means that he’s slightly more likely to be the guy than Stewart.
And I’d say that sounds about right at this point.