Aramis Ramirez is signed through the 2011 season with a $16 million club option for 2012. Chances are that the Cubs will decline his 2012 option and look elsewhere for a third baseman. Josh Vitters has long been considered the heir apparent to Ramirez, but scouts are not that sure anymore.
Who are the internal third base options for the Cubs? Let's take a look:
Smith enjoyed a fine season with AAA Iowa in 2010, hitting .297/.371/.556 with 20 homers in 347 AB's (including 44 at Tennessee). However, after his strong season, the Cubs were apparently not impressed and left him off the 40 man roster prior to the Rule 5 draft, exposing him to other teams. They were not impressed either, as no one selected him in the draft.
This year, Smith has continued to hit well at Iowa (albeit with less power) with a .283/.353/.448 line, but just 6 homeruns in 223 AB's. Its probably not enough to force his way into the Cubs plans and its likely he will be with another team next year.
D. J. LeMahieu
LeMahieu is considered the best pure hitting prospect in the Cubs system. In 236 minor league games, he has hit .327. The problem is that is about the extent of his abilities, as he has limited power, with a career .408 slugging percentage.
He doesn't have the range to play second or short and is not the typical third baseman, due to his limited power. The Cubs believe that he can eventually hit 15 homeruns a year in the majors, once he learns to turn on inside pitches. This would give him an upside of maybe Wade Boggs or Bill Madlock. In other words, he could pass as a third baseman, but he would need to hit for a high average to make up for his lack of power.
Chances are he will end up more as a utility infielder with the Cubs. We already saw a little bit of this during his June callup, when he played 13 games at second, 2 at third and 1 at first.
Unlike LeMahieu, Flaherty probably has the power to stick at third. However, his problem has been defense. The Cubs don't seem to consider him a third baseman either, as they have shifted him all around the field in his brief minor league career. He has played 147 games at second, 111 at short, 86 at third, 32 in the outfield corners and 4 at first.
He too is likely destined to be a utility fielder and could become the next Mark DeRosa or Juan Uribe, a super-utility type who can play the infield and outfield corners along with a passable second and short. He has the pop to hit 20 homers a year in the bigs and, with his versatility, could make himself a valuable member of the Cubs in the not-so-distant future.
Prior to this season, Vitters still ranked as the Cubs highest third base prospect by Baseball America. BA had him as the Cubs 5th best prospect (out of 30), with LeMahieu at #13, Flaherty #22 and Smith unranked.
Vitters makes solid contact (career 83.8% contact rate in the minors), but that can be misleading. He shows a lack of patience (career 3.8% walk rate), often swinging at bad pitches and putting them in play for easy outs. His career line of .276/.316/.437 doesn't scream future major leaguer and his defense has come into question as well, with 13 errors in 53 games at third this year.
The Cubs have started playing him at first base this year (29 games at AA Tennessee), indicating that they may be giving up on him as their future third baseman. He's still young (just 21) and has time to turn things around, but it appears that the Cubs' patience is starting to wear thin.
Looking at the Cubs internal options, it appears that none of the minor leaguers are ready to take over third next year and thus the Cubs may have to pick up Ramirez' option or find a one year stopgap. However, if forced to choose one of them to be the Cubs' third baseman of the future, I would go with D. J. LeMahieu. He has shown the best combination of hitting and defense amongst the alternatives. If he could just develop average power, he could be a real asset to the team.