Stewart not stewing over replacing Aramis
New Cubs third baseman has pop, despite lack of homers lately
MESA, Ariz. -- Ian Stewart was the Rockies' first-round pick in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft, and before he signed, the then-teenager got a chance to take batting practice at Coors Field.
"Clint Hurdle was the manager, and he was throwing to me at the time and I'm scared to death," Stewart said Sunday. "I'm an 18-year-old kid, right out of high school. When you start a round [of batting practice], you do a couple bunts, and I whiffed both my bunts. So I'm like, 'Oh, this is going to be great.'
"Then I got locked in and was crushing balls out, and I hit one in the third deck at Coors Field. It started out shaky, but ended up pretty good."
The Cubs are hoping Stewart can crush balls this summer at Wrigley Field. Acquired in December for Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu, Stewart will take over at third base for Aramis Ramirez, who left via free agency. It'll be the first time since 2003 that Ramirez isn't the Cubs' Opening Day starter at the hot corner.
"That's nothing new for him," Cubs infielder Jeff Baker said of Stewart, who followed Vinny Castilla and Garrett Atkins in Colorado.
Ramirez hit more than 20 homers in seven of his eight seasons with the Cubs. Stewart hit 14 homers at Triple-A Colorado Springs but none in 48 games with the Rockies in 2011.
"I don't know if it's something that's hard for people to do or not, but to me, there's no sense in stressing out about that or wasting my time," Stewart said about replacing Ramirez. "I know that if I'm healthy and getting 400 to 500 at-bats, I'm going to produce."
That's how the Cubs feel, too.
"You've just got to give him the at-bats and let him feel comfortable and let him use his athleticism to play," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "That's all he wants is to give him the job, which I have, and let him know he'll be out there every single day.
"He's got incredible power, athleticism, he catches the ball. He's a two-way player from the left side of the plate with power, which just doesn't come along every day, especially at third base. I think he's just got to get comfortable and not try to do things he's not capable of doing with the bat, just let his athleticism take over with the bat."
Injuries were the problem last season. In Spring Training, Stewart injured his knee in a freak collision, then had to deal with a hamstring injury at the end of Cactus League play. In 48 games with the Rockies, he batted .156 with six doubles, and he hit .275 with 14 home runs and 42 RBIs in 45 games in the Minor Leagues. His season ended in August because of a wrist injury.
Perhaps a change of scenery will help? Stewart, 27, doesn't like the term.
"I don't look at it as change of scenery," he said. "In the early part of the offseason, when my name was being thrown around [in trade rumors], it was kind of upsetting, because I'd grown up with [the Rockies] and I'd been there for almost 10 years, and I didn't go out of Colorado the way I would've liked or pictured it.
"When you hear a team like the Cubs, being a storied franchise, and [president of baseball operations] Theo Epstein and the guys over here are interested in you and they feel you can come here and do well, that speaks volumes. It boosts your confidence and makes you feel good about the person you are and the type of player you are.
"Change of scenery, I don't look at it as that. I look at it as an opportunity to come to a great organization and a city and a state and fans who are hungry for a good team that's going to win and play hard. I just hope to be a part of that."
Stewart said he felt as if he'd become a platoon player with the Cubs. Stewart was giddy when Epstein told him he would be their full-time third baseman.
"To hear that from a guy of his stature and his position with the team is very comforting and builds a lot of confidence," Stewart said.
But Stewart's not taking it easy this spring. He said he feels more motivated. After the trade, Stewart contacted Cubs hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo and attended a mini-camp in Arizona in early January.
"He's not big on trying to come in and change me and put his stamp on me," Stewart said of Jaramillo. "He just wanted to give me the best chance to hit the ball. Those were some of the things we tried to do in the cage. It's about being comfortable, having a good approach, a good mindset."
Stewart and Baker were teammates with the Rockies. In August 2007, Stewart was called up to the big league team when Baker had to go on the disabled list. He made his Major League debut on the day he was called up, Aug. 11, and belted a grand slam 10 days later for his first home run.
"He hit homers everywhere [in 2009]," Baker said. "You run into injuries and people's opinions change about you, and obviously, if Stew wasn't hurt, he probably wouldn't be here with the Cubs right now."
Stewart has power. He slugged 25 homers in '09.
"There's not a whole lot he can't do," Baker said. "He doesn't have [Tony Campana's] speed, but he can go out there and change the game with one swing. There's not a whole lot of guys in the big leagues who can do that, and those guys who can are special. Stew's healthy. I've seen him at his best and it's impressive."
That's what the Cubs are looking for.
"Stew's kind of a laid-back kid who doesn't buy into the hype," Baker said. "He just goes out there and plays and he works to get the respect of his teammates, and I think that's what keeps him balanced. It'll be a little bit of an adjustment. Chicago is a different market and the fans expect a lot. They're great, they're supportive and they'll get on you good, bad or indifferent. It'll be a little bit of an adjustment coming from Colorado, but I think he's up for it."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.