One of the Cubs' main priorities this offseason was finding a third baseman, and on Thursday at the Winter Meetings, they found one: Ian Stewart.
Let's play a quick little game of Q&A (with my made-up questions!) to summarize this situation:
Isn't he the guy that hit .201 for the Cubs in 2012 before having wrist surgery in July and missing the rest of the season?
Yes, he is.
Isn't he the guy the Cubs non-tendered last week, making him a free agent?
Yes, he is.
So, what would he have made had the Cubs just offered him arbitration last week?
Likely $2.33 million.
And what are the details of this new contract?
The #Cubs re-signed third baseman Ian Stewart to a one-year, $2 million contract with $500,000 worth of incentives
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) December 6, 2012
Stewart returns on non-guaranteed $2 million, 1-year contract. If released in spring training, Cubs off hook. trib.in/SQN3o7
— Paul Sullivan (@PWSullivan) December 6, 2012
I guess that's a pretty low-risk situation for the Cubs, right?
Yes, very. The fact they can release him in Spring Training if he's not impressing, without being on the hook for that $2 million, is pretty nice. And even if he stays on the roster, the only way he'll make what he would've in arbitration is if he reaches the incentives, which would of course mean he's playing well.
But, I mean, he hit .201 last year, just had wrist surgery, and the Cubs were willing to let him test the market instead of paying him approximately $2.5 million to lock him up for 2012. Was he really the Cubs' preferred option at third base?
The Cubs were in talks with Jeff Keppinger over the last week, as well as Eric Chavez. Keppinger ended up signing for 3 years, $12 million with the White Sox, and Chavez signed for $3 million over 1 year with the Diamondbacks. And the Cubs were connected with plenty of other third basemen. So, it's hard to say that Stewart was their preferred (realistic) option, but it's not like any of the other options were anything to write home about, either.
Well, is there any reason for optimism with Stewart and this signing? Is there reason to expect him to at least perform better than he did in 2012?
Yes, absolutely. The main reason for that? This:
Stewart back to full health after playing 2 years with a broken bone in his wrist. #cubs
— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) December 6, 2012
That's a very big deal for a hitter. And looking at his stats over the last two seasons in comparison to his previous seasons, you'd have to think the wrist played a big role in his struggles.
2011 with Rockies: .156 AVG, 0 HR, 6 RBI, .464 OPS, 20 OPS+ in 136 plate appearances.
2012 with Cubs: .201 AVG, 5 HR, 17 RBI, .627 OPS, 72 OPS+ in 202 plate appearances.
Awful numbers each of the last two seasons. But the three years before that? Pretty solid.
2008 with Rockies: .259 AVG, 10 HR, 41 RBI, .804 OPS, 102 OPS+ in 304 plate appearances.
2009 with Rockies: .228 AVG, 25 HR, 70 RBI, .785 OPS, 95 OPS+ in 491 plate appearances.
2010 with Rockies: .256 AVG, 18 HR, 61 RBI, .781 OPS, 97 OPS+ in 441 plate appearances.
I actually live in Denver, and did during all of Stewart's years here. He was the most hyped prospect in the history (albeit short) of the Rockies' franchise, and his potential was clear in his first few big-league seasons.
He has a true left-handed power swing capable of producing 25+ home runs/season (and as you can see above, did that in 2009), and he has a very good eye at the plate.
If his wrist is back to pre-2011 form, maybe we see the Ian Stewart of those days, which would be a very productive player, and at a cheap price of $2 million for 2012. And he's still young (will turn 28 in April), so if he can become a productive player again, maybe he can be the Cubs' third baseman for the next few years as well.
A definite concern, and last year the Cubs of course had Jeff Baker to get some starts against lefties. And it's highly doubtful that they'd have Josh Vitters on the MLB roster as no more than a spot-start guy at third base in the 2013 season. Not to mention he looked beyond awful in his 2012 major-league stint and needs a lot more seasoning before he can be trusted as a regular contributor at the big-league level.
With all that in mind, the Cubs indeed intend to acquire a right-handed bat (surely one that hits lefties well) this offseason that can back Stewart up at third base:
Cubs confirm Stewart returns to club on 1yr $2m deal. He goes to spring as starter. Team still seeks RHH capable of backing up.
— Gordon Wittenmyer (@GDubCub) December 6, 2012
Anyway, overall, I like this move for the Cubs. The clear long-term answer for third base wasn't out there this offseason, and the potential options in the Cubs' farm system just aren't ready to yet (and may never be).
Stewart is a cheap, high-upside option, with a solid glove at third base. And if it doesn't pan out for him this year, 'oh well' from a Cubs' perspective. They get another year to evaluate potential major league third base options in their farm system, and/or look for third basemen to acquire via free agency or trade before the 2014 season begins.
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