GLENDALE, Ariz. – Sitting up in a suite at Nashville’s Opryland Hotel, Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer delivered a great line at the winter meetings: “I don’t think you have to walk out of here with deer antlers.”
Hours earlier, the Cubs watched third-base options fall off the board. Jeff Keppinger would have fit on the North Side, as a versatile defender and a solid hitter who can get on base. But he will turn 33 in April and had played for six teams across the past eight seasons. He agreed to a three-year, $12 million deal from the White Sox on a broken leg.
Hoyer correctly called it a “super-charged market” last December. By the time Hoyer and team president Theo Epstein had boarded their United Airlines flight to O’Hare International, they had already circled back to Ian Stewart and agreed to a one-year, $2 million deal with the third baseman they non-tendered.
Neither team went big-game hunting and wound up with a trophy.
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But the White Sox don’t need Keppinger to be a monster and play far beyond expectations to be a factor in the American League Central. You watched their lineup destroy Cubs pitching during Friday’s 15-3 blowout at Camelback Ranch.
For the Cubs, their best-case scenarios involve Stewart taking a big leap and being a 25-homer, 85-RBI force in the middle of their lineup.
The thing is, the Cubs still don’t know that much about Stewart, even 15 months after they gave up Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu and made him a centerpiece in a four-player trade with the Colorado Rockies at the end of the 2011 winter meetings in Dallas.
Stewart believes two-plus weeks will be enough time to get ready for Opening Day as he recovers from a quadriceps strain. As manager Dale Sveum said, it’s going to be a cram session.
Stewart was encouraged by how comfortable he felt in the box during Thursday’s minor-league game. He went 2-for-5 and homered while seeing his first live pitching since an intrasquad scrimmage almost a month ago.
Stewart has been taking groundballs and hitting in the cage, but he hasn’t tested his reflexes on athletic plays at third base, or started running hard yet. As reporters huddled around his locker inside HoHoKam Stadium, he declined to commit to playing in a Cactus League game next week.
“Can’t really answer that right now,” Stewart said, “but that would be great.”
The Cubs would have liked to have seen Stewart around the team more after he hit .201 in 55 games, had wrist surgery and went home to North Carolina to rehab and be with his pregnant wife, who was expecting their second child.
The Cubs gambled on the potential that made Stewart the 10th overall pick in the 2003 draft, and a possible candidate for a long-term extension with the Rockies after generating 43 homers and 131 RBI in 2009 and 2010.
Can you still be the guy the Cubs hoped they were trading for?
“Definitely,” Stewart said. “I think I will be this year. It’s just been such a relief for me knowing that surgery I got worked. I have no lingering issues in my wrist and my bat speed feels back. It’s just being able to control the bat. The toughest part for me last year was I could hit BP all day just because they’re throwing it down the middle and you can kind of control everything.
“Once the game came and pitches were moving and breaking, I just couldn’t adjust because the wrist was holding me back. And now there’s none of that. So my confidence is really sky-high right now.”
When relayed those comments, Sveum sort of smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
“I can’t share (that optimism), because I haven’t seen him play, you know?” Sveum said. “I’m glad he feels that way. I think that’s part of all these things we do as major-league players: Confidence and feeling the best you possibly can mentally. Obviously, he doesn’t (feel that way) physically, but mentally has a lot to do with a lot of people’s struggles at the plate.
“When you overcome some of those, it’s a really, really good sign. But I can’t hardly say that because he hasn’t played any games.”
Sveum is in wait-and-see mode because he still doesn’t know when Stewart will be back on the field. The manager is also Luis Valbuena’s biggest fan. But cutting Stewart before Opening Day and saving $1.5 million could be a risk not worth taking.
Last season, the Cubs third basemen ranked last in the National League in batting average (.201) and on-base percentage (.289) and second-to-last in RBI (55).
As Sveum said: “No doubt about it, we got to get more production than we had last year…out of a few positions.”
That’s why the Cubs and Stewart need this showcase in Arizona. Sveum was asked about the frustration level in trying to put the pieces together when some are missing.
“Ten days from now, you might see some,” Sveum said. “Myself, the coaching staff, Theo, Jed – when you get to that point, you got to find a roster spot, you got to do all kinds of maneuvering for people to make the team or (deal with) injuries. Those kinds of things do get a little frustrating, but we’re not there yet.”