Is Ian Stewart the Angels' New Third Baseman?

Is our new #44 becoming similar to our old one? - Stephen Dunn

The Angels traded Peter Bourjos for the sake of landing David Freese, who they then gave over $5 million salary for 2014, as well as the starting third base job for the season. After a horrific start to the season, however, could it be a far cheaper signing that is paying more dividends?

Sure, the Angels are a mere 19 games into their season, and May hasn't even lifted its head yet. But the season has been played out enough to where the cries of "small sample size" amongst hitters are beginning to fade out, and the Angels, amidst all of their injuries, have a glaring problem.

David Freese is ice cold.

In 62 plate appearances (57 at-bats) across 15 games, Freese is batting an almost-hilariously bad .140 with a major-league worst .387 OPS, which computes out to an OPS+ (13) that would better describe the ages of some of your children than it would a major offensive statistic for a big league third baseman.

In past days he's been scratched from the lineup or slipped in at designated hitter due to "quad tightness," which, one would imagine, actually translates to "bad case of total suck."

This right here is what many Angels fans feared when the team traded Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk to the Cardinals in November, acquiring Freese and reliever Fernando Salas (who, after a horrific start, has leveled out at a 2.79 ERA and 12.1 K/9 in 9.2 IP) in return. It appeared in 2013 that Freese was about to hit a rough decline, but of those who rose to his defense--myself among them--it seemed credible that 2013 was a mere down season, marred by a back injury, that saw an increase in his performance in the second half.

I humbly admit my wrongness.

Sure, I could be proven wrong once again as the season progresses. Freese could ride a hot streak in May and break even, and level out enough to at least be league-average. But to do that would take not just a hot streak, but a hot remainder of the season. A .300 average in his next 500 at-bats would yield a .283 batting average for Freese, but that's asking him to, from here until game 162, hit .300. Not impossible, but not likely. He could hit his career average of .281 in his next 500 at-bats, but even that puts his overall average thereafter at .268--certainly not what we traded for.

Around the time of the Freese-Bourjos trade, the Angels made their annual wave of minor-league/spring training invite signings. Among the half-dozen or so signed was Ian Stewart, who perfectly fit the image of the prototypical Jerry Dipoto minor-league deal: a former Diamondback, Met or Rockie who had fallen on harder times as a player, and needed a favor.

Coupled with the trade of presumptive backup infielder Andrew Romine to Detroit, Stewart's good spring showing earned him a place on the Angels' bench on Opening Day, alongside Hank Conger, Collin Cowgill, and fellow minor-league signing John McDonald. Stewart's first appearance came as a late-game sub, but when it became clear that Freese was not fully there, Stewart began getting platooned there.

Now it's April 22nd, 19 games into the Angels' season. Stewart has played third base in the Angels' last four games in a row, and in his last six games, is 7-for-22 (.318 AVG). Overall on the season, Stewart has just a bit more than half of the plate appearances that Freese does (34 to Freese's 62), but is batting .242/.265/.515. The OBP leaves a bit more to be desired, but is sadly STILL an upgrade from Freese's .194 OBP mark. And Stewart's OPS+? 120.

One has to wonder, then, if David Freese's days as the Angels' starting third baseman are already expired, or at least numbered.

Perhaps the Angels are simply riding the hotter bat, and expecting Stewart to cool down enough in the next couple of days to where they can justify throwing Freese back onto the field. Maybe Freese's quad really is too tight to play, and he'll be DHing and sharing the lineup card with Stewart again once the team plays in the Bronx this weekend. Maybe the #44 that Stewart sports on his back still has a little bit of Trumbo-Jack left in it.

Or maybe it's something different: Ian Stewart, at about 10% of the cost of David Freese, is outperforming him just by being a bit better than average, and the coaching staff knows it.

The question, then, has been posed: Is Ian Stewart the Angels' new starting third baseman? And if not, should he be?

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