LaHair proving to be a keeper, even after Rizzo call-up

He displays good instincts in outfield, continues to show power at plate

Problem solved.

And, no, the question isn't "What are two words the Cubs haven't said this season?''

A lot of us were having trouble figuring out how Theo Epstein should handle the awkward confluence of Anthony Rizzo, Bryan LaHair and Alfonso Soriano, but a surprisingly simple solution was revealed at the start of Round 2 in the City Series.

Dale Sveum's new formula worked wonders against the White Sox. It took only three innings to show why it should end speculation about the Cubs dealing away their second-best hitter.

If LaHair can play right field, he can stick around without displacing the highly paid, highly unwanted yet still valuable Soriano. LaHair might just be OK out there, based on the instincts he demonstrated in the first inning, battling 25 mph winds to run down a Gordon Beckham drive to the warning track.

"Looked like Dwight Evans out there,'' Epstein said after the Cubs' 12-3 victory.

It was as if LaHair wanted to reward Sveum for trusting him in the new-look lineup that could be a preview for the second half of the season. Robin Ventura cited LaHair's robbery of Beckham as a "key'' to the game, but the way Zach Stewart and Nate Jones got pounded was a bigger issue.

Steve Clevenger was at first base against the right-handed Stewart, with LaHair moving to right and David DeJesus shifting to center. This is an alignment Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Sveum are committed to exploring, except for the part about Clevenger. He was standing in for Rizzo, who's coming soon.

I asked Sveum afterward how often he would use the DeJesus/LaHair tandem in that way. "After today, probably every day,'' he said, laughing. "Depending on what we do at first base, LaHair is going to be out there quite a bit, with DeJesus in center field, against right-handed pitchers.''

With 23 home runs and a slash line of .364/.426/.745 at Iowa — bringing his career Triple-A totals to 49 homers and 160 RBIs in 156 games — it's safe to say Rizzo is ready for his National League mulligan. His long swing was exposed by Petco Park's pitcher-friendly dimensions a year ago, but he has shortened the swing and become less pull-conscious, according to reports.

The Cubs can promote Rizzo on Saturday in Arizona and have him end the season with 171 days of service time, one fewer than what he would need for a full season. That would mean he won't be a free agent until after 2018, not '17, and this apparently matters to Tom Ricketts.

Epstein never sweated those details in Boston, but he never had a Red Sox team with the worst record in the majors either. So maybe it makes sense that Clevenger, not Rizzo, will get at-bats with Soriano the designated hitter at U.S. Cellular Field.

When LaHair blasted a 404-foot home run into the center-field seats in the third, it had to lift Epstein's spirits. His day had started by having to shelve Ryan Dempster trade talks until after Dempster's unexpected stay on the disabled list.

At least Dempster hasn't lost his sense of humor. Asked what kind of treatment he would receive on his tight right lat, Dempster had a quick answer.

"Lots of golf, like Josh Beckett,'' Dempster said, smiling his devilish smile. "As much golf as possible.''

It's unknown how Epstein and Hoyer reacted when they heard Dempster felt the tightness under his right shoulder was getting worse. But they could not have been amused, as they were in serious discussions they hoped would bring intriguing prospects with shelf life beyond that of Dempster, 35 and a free agent at the end of the season.

LaHair, who was 2-for-5 with 2 strikeouts, helped provide a better ending to the day. At 29, he isn't a fresh-faced guy like Starlin Castro, Brett Jackson and Rizzo. But he's a good player and a solid guy — witness the lack of selfishness toward Rizzo as the younger player advances to claim his position — and Epstein nicely stated the case for LaHair last winter.

"We need to build assets because we don't have enough of them,'' he said. "We're not going to look past one that might be sitting right there in our organization.''

That's just as true as it was then, maybe even more so given the level to which the Cubs have bottomed out. LaHair is hitting .299 with a .952 OPS, which ranks 11th among 164 qualifiers in the major leagues.

He's a keeper, even if he's not a kid. Maybe he'll end up like Dempster, with an ability to laugh, even when it hurts.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers
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