With assist from Carew, healthy Stewart ready to go
Hitting lessons from Hall of Famer followed recovery from wrist surgery
MESA, Ariz. -- The longest offseason of Ian Stewart's baseball life has ended.
A sore left wrist that was questionable at the start of last season required surgery after 55 games for the Cubs third baseman. His last at-bat was in the eighth inning of a 4-3 win over the Tigers on June 12 at Wrigley Field, when he struck out.
The Cubs had acquired Stewart from the Rockies in December 2011 for outfielder Tyler Colvin and infielder DJ LeMahieu. When they did, no one expected Luis Valbuena to finish with more starts and at-bats at third than Stewart in 2012.
The Cubs could have said goodbye when they non-tendered Stewart on Nov. 30. He listened to offers from other teams, then re-signed with the Cubs on Dec. 12, agreeing to a one-year, $2 million contract. When originally acquired, the Cubs projected 20 home runs and 70-plus RBIs. He finished with five homers and 17 RBIs. Does he have something to prove in 2013?
"Yeah, definitely," Stewart said. "I feel I've been saying that the last few years."
This offseason, the wrist hasn't bothered him at all. He admits he cheated in his rehab and began workouts earlier than he was supposed to. Once officially cleared to resume baseball activities, Stewart charged full speed ahead.
So far, there's no soreness. He's not expected to require a brace, although that may change when playing in games. It's as if he has a new wrist.
"I feel like it's fixed and I'm not sure how much more I could do to it," Stewart said. "It was a pleasant surprise, at least mentally, that there was nothing in there at all [that bothered me] when I started swinging,"
The free agent market for third basemen was weak this past offseason. The Cubs could have passed on Stewart, who went home rather than stay with the team to rehab. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein gave Stewart the go-ahead to be with his wife Susan, who was expecting the couple's second child.
"I'd talked it over with management," Stewart said. "It wasn't something where I was like, 'Hey, I want to go home, I want to get away from here.' I explained the situation that our family was in. I had the backing of them 100 percent."
There was a point last year when Cubs manager Dale Sveum admitted he didn't know where Stewart was or could give an update on his rehab. When Matt Garza was shut down after his July 21 start, he stayed with the team.
"I think [Stewart] could've been around the team a little more and I told him that," Sveum said Friday. "It's nothing he didn't know. It wasn't a major issue by no means."
Stewart saw Sveum's comments last season.
"I don't know if there was a miscommunication at that point but I talked to him and everything was fine," Stewart said Friday.
Stewart wanted to stay with Chicago.
"I've said this all offseason, the dialogue continued between Theo and I, which was awesome, because it was basically directly between me and Theo," Stewart said. "We built a relationship during the season with my injury and throughout the winter. He just called me and really expressed his feelings about me as a person and my character and also as a player and what they believed in me and what they believed I could become and do here. That was enough for me.
"There were openings out there I could've taken and I'm glad I didn't because I could've jumped the gun. I really wanted to give the Cubs a chance. I feel like I owe the organization something for the way they stuck with me and they allowed me to do these great things by supporting me and my family and supporting me through the injury and sticking me through the surgery and providing for me.
"I felt like I couldn't walk away from that and say, 'Thanks, but no thanks.' I really feel I owe the organization and the fans and everybody my time here."
As soon as Stewart was good to go, he began hitting lessons with Hall of Famer Rod Carew in California. A lifetime .328 hitter who won seven batting titles, Carew never hit more than 14 home runs in a single season. He didn't try to convert Stewart to his style.
"He really wanted me to be comfortable in the box and start from there," Stewart said. "His main thing, and this has been said to me a hundred times and it's something I need to discipline myself on -- and it's a lot harder than it sounds -- is just keeping my head down. He's in my ear about that all the time.
"Another thing Rod was big on was tracking the ball and seeing the ball the whole way and let your eyes dictate your swing and your bat path and everything like that. Just let it fly, getting the head out there and don't try to hit the ball certain places. The ball's going to dictate where you hit it, where it's pitched. Basically, just go up there and have confidence."
They didn't do any exercises with weird devices or brightly colored tennis balls.
"I don't know how old he is," Stewart said of the 67-year-old Carew, "but he can throw great [batting practice], so he would sit there and throw all day. He had a very unique way of hitting and was very successful at it, but I think he knows it was unique to himself. He's a great, great man."
Now, it's time for Stewart to apply the lessons. Is it a fresh start?
"Fresh start with the same team -- I don't really say it's a 'fresh start,'" Stewart said. "I just had an injury that was never diagnosed and finally fixed it. I wouldn't say 'fresh,' but healthy."
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.