When rumors that the Chicago Cubs were targeting Ian Stewart first surfaced back in November (hey, what do you know, some rumors do come true), I wasn’t overly enthused. Thankfully, I didn’t rip the guy, but he was clearly not my first choice:
Stewart has carried the interest of a number of teams for many years, probably on the strength of a dominant minor league career (huge numbers at high levels at young ages), and a solid ML 2008 season as a 23-year-old. Since then, Stewart has been pretty average, bouncing up and down from the bigs to the minors. He’s still just 26, and may come at a cheaper price (in trade) than Headley. My understanding is that Stewart is thought of as about average defensively at third base. The rub with Stewart (if you don’t consider the lackluster performance to date and the average defense a rub): although he’s got three years of arbitration left, he was a Super Two last year, making about $2.3 million. That means, even with average performance, he’s in line to make something like $3 to $3.5 million next year, and increasing in the next two years from there. It may not sound like much, but if he’s truly just average, it’s hard to see him as a better option than the far, far cheaper in-house options (for whom the Cubs wouldn’t have to trade).
At the time, I was still pretty hung up on the similarly-aged, but better-performing Chase Headley. The Cubs discussed Headley with the Padres briefly and shallowly, but, for whatever reason, there wasn’t a match there. So, Stewart was the guy. And, while I wasn’t crazy about losing DJ LeMahieu and Tyler Colvin, it was a pretty fair price for Stewart (and Casey Weathers), and far, far less than Headley would have cost.
From there, I could get on board with Stewart. No, he wasn’t my first choice, and no, I’m not sure that he’s a long-term answer at third base. But his glove appears to be above average, and there are reasons to believe – if he’s healthy – he can put up average offensive numbers at third base this year. I’m actually kind of excited to see the guy get a second chance.
In that way, I’m quite a bit like Stewart, himself. A Rockies lifer, Stewart wasn’t overly enthused to learn he’d be traded. Leaving Colorado was clearly not his first choice:
“That’s tough. It kind of feels like a [slight],” Stewart said [of the Rockies' effort to change the clubhouse culture by dumping players]. “All the guys that left, we weren’t young or old. We were kind of coming into our prime. That happens in this game and maybe for reasons that will go unsaid. I felt like we had a good clubhouse. I don’t know if they felt like they needed more accountability or guys to step up and kick a guy in the rear now and then. Hopefully it works out for them. It’s kind of like being a head coach too many years and things get too monotonous.”
But, traded he was. Stewart came to the Cubs, perhaps not his first choice, but he’s decided to make the best of it. In fact, now he’s kind of excited to be with the Cubs:
“I never call it a fresh start. I see it more as an opportunity with a great organization that needed an upgrade defensively and a left-handed power hitter. That describes me to a T,” Stewart said. “If I had gone back [to the Rockies], maybe I would have felt uneasy or like there was a short leash. I felt like that when I was playing last year, I had to get four hits every game.”
There certainly won’t be that same pressure here, at least not for several months, as the Cubs are fully committed to giving Stewart a long and fair shake. For what it’s worth, Troy Renck believes that big bounce for Stewart could happen, and says that it was actually a very tough decision to unload Stewart. From his Denver Post article:
Of the homegrown players shipped out — Chris Iannetta, Seth Smith and Stewart — the third baseman was privately dealt with the most trepidation. Iannetta wasn’t going to be re-signed after this season. Smith was typecast as a platoon player whose salary would have become prohibitive.
Stewart is different.
He could hit 25 home runs for the Cubs this season — he’s expected to be a starter — and play Gold Glove defense. That thought kept him in Colorado last year at the trading deadline and nearly prevented a deal over the winter. Arenado’s emergence in the Arizona Fall League, showing he was closer than anyone imagined to being ready for the major leagues, tipped the scale. Even if Stewart rebounds this year, Arenado’s arrival should soothe the pain.
It’s nice to hear that the Rockies weren’t just looking to dump Stewart for the sake of dumping him, as rumors made things sound late last year. It would be unrealistic to hope for a breakout All-Star season, or for Stewart to replicate Aramis Ramirez’s average production. But good defense and average offense for a third baseman seem well within reach – for a fraction of (a) the salary of a guy like Ramirez, or (b) the cost in prospects to acquire a guy like Headley.
And, first choice or not, I can get excited about that.