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If Aramis Ramirez departs, Cubs have gaping hole at third base

Statistically speaking third baseman Aramis Ramirez (left) shortstop StarlCastro have formed top offensive left side infield majors this season. |

Statistically speaking, third baseman Aramis Ramirez (left) and shortstop Starlin Castro have formed the top offensive left side of the infield in the majors this season. | AP photos

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Behind big seasons by Aramis Ramirez and Starlin Castro, the Cubs have the top-producing left side of the infield in the major leagues this season:

Batting .308 First in majors

Runs 181 First in majors

Home runs 35 Second in NL*

RBI 159 Second in NL*

On-base% .353 First in majors

Slugging% .464 First in majors

OPS .817 First in majors

* Second to Rockies. (Note: Ramirez and Castro have taken all but 79 at-bats for the Cubs at the two positions this season.)

Updated: November 30, 2011 12:19AM

The Cubs’ best third baseman since Ron Santo said he isn’t sure why he gets criticized by fans and the media.

‘‘You’ve got to ask them [why],’’ Aramis Ramirez said.

Asked whether it bothers him, Ramirez said: ‘‘Not at all. My dad
always told me that the worst mistake that you can ever make is to try to make everybody happy. That ain’t going to happen. There’s always going to be people that don’t think you’re a $1 million player; there’s always going to be people that don’t think you’re a $100,000 player.’’

Never mind a $15 million or
$16 million player.

But whether you’re an unabashed fan of Ramirez’s 81/2 seasons of high production for the Cubs or a critic who believes he doesn’t run out enough fly balls or drives to the wall, try picturing the left side of the Cubs’ infield without him.

Budding superstar Starlin Castro, who takes his bid for 200 hits into the series opener Friday against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, will be back as the poster boy for the 2012 Cubs. (He already is pictured on the front of the pocket schedules.)

But as Ramirez, 33, prepares for free agency after this season — his agent said Wednesday he’ll opt out if the Cubs exercise their option on his contract — he could leave behind the most conspicuous hole on the roster to fill.

While improving the starting pitching almost certainly will — and must — be the Cubs’ top priority, regardless of the general manager ownership chooses to hire, nothing might look quite as daunting as
replacing Ramirez in a lineup that has relied on him to be its No. 3 or No. 4 hitter for years.

‘‘That’s his right to become a free agent,’’ center fielder Marlon Byrd said. ‘‘At the same time, it’s hard to try to get something done right now because there’s no GM in the mix. I’m sure they’re going to make a pitch to try to keep him here.’’

If not, the Cubs will be breaking up the best offensive left side of an infield in the majors this season, one of the few bright spots in an otherwise demoralizing season.

With Ramirez and Castro playing almost every inning this season at their positions, the Cubs lead the majors at third base/shortstop in runs (181), batting average (.308), on-base percentage (.353) and slugging percentage (.464) and rank
second in the National League in home runs (35) and RBI (159).

Castro, who goes into the final six games of the season needing one hit for 200, will be looking for a second All-Star appearance — and even a potential leadership role — on what might be a much younger team next season.

As for third base, unless the Cubs dip into a free-agent market that drops off significantly after Ramirez or make a trade, they’re looking at internal candidates that include
established platoon veterans Jeff Baker and Blake DeWitt and prospects DJ LeMahieu, former first-round draft pick Josh Vitters, Ryan Flaherty and Marwin Gonzalez.

Vitters, the No. 3 overall pick of the 2007 draft, bounced back from a poor 2010 season to hit .283 with 14 homers and 81 RBI for Class AA Tennessee. He also brings several questions to the equation, not the least of which is historically spotty defense.

‘‘You knock in runs like he did and hit the ball to all fields .  .  . ,’’ farm
director Oneri Fleita said of Vitters’ push for a big-league job. ‘‘He showed power; his defense improved. There’s certainly guys where, if they’re not ready, they’re certainly not far away. .  .  .

‘‘It’ll be interesting when the [GM] position’s filled. There’ll be conversations to be had.’’

Meanwhile, Ramirez said he hopes the strained quad he tweaked while running out his first triple of the season last Friday and aggravated while running out a grounder Tuesday will be well enough to allow him to play before the weekend is done.

If so, the final week of the season might offer one last look at the Cubs’ best hitter during the last decade and potentially the top free-agent third baseman — by far — on the market.

‘‘I can’t be here for a rebuilding process; I’m not that kind of player anymore,’’ Ramirez said. ‘‘It is my preference to stay here, but they’ve got to show me that they want to be better, and that’s the bottom line.’’

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