The Chicago Cubs‘ front office had high expectations for third baseman Ian Stewart last winter when they acquired him from the Colorado Rockies to try to replace the offensive production left from the departure of Aramis Ramirez. But after 55 games, Stewart went down for the rest of 2012 with a wrist injury that was apparently a cautionary issue before the start of the season.
The team projected him to hit at least 20 homers and drive in around 70 runs, but instead Stewart could only compile five home runs and 17 RBI before missing the final 100 or so games. 2013 is the year that Stewart really needs to prove himself, or teams are going to stop taking chances on him, starting with the Cubs. To this point, I don’t see how he continues to earn playing time, but the hope is that if he stays healthy for an entire season, he could put together a decent campaign. He just hasn’t done that yet.
The 27-year-old played his first five MLB seasons with the Rockies, battling injuries most of the way. The left-handed hitter has only played in at least 125 games once, and that was in 2009 when he hit 25 home runs and drove in 70, but finished with a measily .228 batting average. In 2010, injuries plagued him again, but Stewart improved his batting average to .256 in 386 at bats, and knocked another 18 out of the ballpark.
Though in most cases, hitter’s numbers inflate quite a bit from playing their home games in the thin air of Denver, CO, such was not the case for Stewart, which is promising for the Cubs. Of his 59 career long balls, 27 have been hit in his home ballpark, while 32 have come on the road.
So it is safe to say that Stewart does have substantial power ability that isn’t aided at all by where he is playing. However, after hitting just five homers in 179 at bats last year, Cubs fans aren’t going to have much patience for the former first-round draft pick to start banging out longballs, especially when the lineup already lacks power providers, with the excpetions of Alfonso Soriano and Anthony Rizzo.
Stewart has worked on his hitting approach with Hall of Famer Rod Carew this winter, and a couple of the things that Carew preached to Stewart were the importance of staying patient in the box and keeping his head down. Maybe that extra work and advice will help Stewart cut down on his strikeouts and create more walks. His on-base percentage has decreased from .349 in in 2008 to just .292 last year. Though Stewart will start off batting lower in the lineup, he must show more consistency with the bat.
If there is one thing that has always been fairly consitent with Stewart’s game, besides his lack of durability, is his above-average ability to play third base. In his short time with the Cubs last year, Stewart proved that his defense is far and away his most valuable asset. In fact, if he is successful in staying healthy and playing everyday, the Cubs infield could end up being very solid defensively, with Stewart and Starlin Castro on the left side, and Gold Glove winner Darwin Barney and Rizzo on the right.
There are plenty of “IF’s” involved with predicting whether Stewart will become a valuable player at the hot corner for the 2013 Cubs. “IF” he can stay healthy for an entire season remains to be seen, but Cubs fans can only hope that this is the year he finally does. It is possible that the extended absence last season was very beneficial for Stewart. Maybe his wrist is finally healthy enough after surgery to carry him through an entire season.
With Luis Valbuena attempting to steal his starting job and Josh Vitters once again looming in the background, Stewart may have to start hot right out of the gate in spring training if he wants to be the everyday third baseman. His 2013 checklist should look like this: (1) stay healthy, (2) get on base, (3) play valuable defense at third base, (4) and improve on his 2012 batting average of .201. If he can accomplish all four of those, the fact that the Cubs brought him back with a one-year, $2 million deal will seem like less of a waste of money.