It takes a lot to lose 101 games, especially with an unbalanced schedule and another team in your division losing 107. The Cubs, God bless 'em, managed to get just the right combination of bad players making bad plays, swinging at bad pitches, and throwing bad pitches. With genuinely good players like Anthony Rizzo, Jeff Samardzija and Starlin Castro conspiring to approach respectability, the Cubs were forced to rely on other parts of their roster to pick up the slack. Nowhere did they receive more help in their race to the bottom than from their three principal third basemen, Luis Valbuena, Ian Stewart, and Josh Vitters, who combined to hit .201/.289/.322; the terrible trio accounted for 145 of the 162 third-base starts.
Now, if you wanted to burn down third base and salt the earth there so that nothing would ever grow again, I can't say that I would blame you. That kind of "production" is an affront to Ron Santo's memory. Sadly, forgoing a third baseman entirely would lead to a ton of extra bunt hits, so it's going to fall to Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to pick someone who can at least look the part of a major-league third baseman.
Since the free agent class is likely going to offer Kevin Youkilis as the sole third baseman capable of providing above-average production, the Cubs will probably have to look to internal candidates for salvation. Despite Paul Sullivan’s report via Twitter that Vitters would again start the season at Triple-A Iowa, Vitters would seem to be the best option at the moment.
The Cubs have waited for five years for the third overall pick of the 2007 draft to develop. They were rewarded with underwhelming performance after underwhelming performance, especially in regard to his plate discipline. In August, Kevin Goldstein wrote, "Vitters was seen as one of the best pure hitters in the minors early in his career, but he stagnated, not by playing poorly, but rather by never taking the big step forward that was projected for him." Finally, Vitters put together a truly strong campaign this year at Iowa, hitting .304/.356/.513 with 17 homers in 452 plate appearances and earning an August call-up. Despite the long wait, he was still just 22 years old.
Vitters proceeded to lay down one of the worst performances in modern history, hitting just .121/.193/.202 in 109 plate appearances. He posted the second-worst wOBA and second-worst Total Average in baseball (min. 100 PA). I could go on quoting horrible-looking stats at you all day (it’s like bad player pornography), but you would probably interrupt me. "Now wait a minute," you would say in your best sabermetric-y scolding voice, "That is a small sample size, mister. Don't you come onto our blog and try and cause a panic with your 109 plate appearances."
And I'd say you were right, except that Vitters didn't just play badly, he was historically bad. His OPS+ was 9. That's tied for the third-worst mark in Cubs history among players with more than 100 plate appearances. It's also the seventh-worst of any third baseman with more than 100 plate appearances since 1947, and the seventh-worst rookie season of more than 100 plate appearances since baseball integrated in 1947 (see the chart below).
|Kevin Cash||2003||Blue Jays||.142/.179/.198||-2|
Most of these guys were never really heard from again, but the good news, as you can see, is the abysmal performance Vitters suffered through isn’t a death sentence. It’s true that good players are far less likely to have this kind of horrific stretch, but you can see some familiar names on that list in Dave Martinez and Otis Nixon, both of whom went on to fine, long careers. And, even more encouraging is Ben Zobrist, who recovered from a 4 OPS+ in 2007 to become one of the most valuable players in baseball over the last four seasons (he leads in rWAR and is third in fWAR).
Nixon survived in the game (even through a suspension for cocaine use) thanks to his blinding speed, serving as a designated runner and fifth outfielder until the Braves realized he’d make a fairly valuable everyday center fielder when he was 31. Somewhat improbably, Martinez went straight from his horrible 1986 to be the big half of a center field platoon, which is pretty much how he went through the rest of his career. And the Zorilla, of course, rebuilt his swing from the ground up and went from a legitimately light-hitting shortstop to a super-utility god. Vitters certainly has the pedigree and the skill set to join them, with an incredibly smooth swing and quick hands that allow him to make contact with virtually anything. That has also been his primary weakness, in that those same quick hands allow him to hit pitches he has no business swinging at, resulting in weak contact.
The Cubs obviously must improve in many areas to complete their rebuilding, but third base is a position that could pay quick dividends in pushing them towards respectability. Any improvement over what they received would be a boon, but more than that, the National League is awash in strong third basemen right now; with the notable exception of Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre in the American League, the Senior Circuit had most of the above-average performances by hot-corner men in 2012 (overall, NL third basemen hit .270/.333/.433 vs. .261/.320/.420 for the AL). If the Cubs join the party, that would eliminate one position where their opponents had a clear competitive advantage.
Fortunately, given the same chances that Martinez, Zobrist, and Nixon received, and the additional exposure to major-league pitching, Vitters seems likely to be able to make adjustments like he did in the last year, the ones that finally enabled his breakthrough at Iowa -- he just has to do it faster than, say, Otis Nixon did, and he has hitting tools than Nixon could only dream of. And if he can do that, he’ll prosper …at least until Javier Baez is ready.