Stewart hoping to take advantage of second chance with Cubs

950655.png

Stewart hoping to take advantage of second chance with Cubs

While much was made about the Cubs' lack of pitching depth in the 2012 season, they also entered the winter with a big question mark at third base.

The Cubs traded for Ian Stewart last winter in hopes of cashing in on the talent that made him the 10th overall pick of the 2003 draft. But he hit just .201 in 55 games before missing the rest of the year with a wrist injury.

Stewart was non-tendered in late November, but with the free agent market at third base so thin, the Cubs brought him back for a one-year, 2 million deal (with 500,000 in incentives).

MORE: Alfonso Soriano wants to be part of it when Cubs win

"That was a business decision and I understood that," Stewart said. "And Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein was great. I talked with him all the time during that time. He expressed that they really wanted me to come back.

"It was the business part of it that we had to work out, and we did that. I couldn't thank them enough for how well they've treated me."

Stewart, who will turn 28 shortly after Opening Day, had surgery on his ailing wrist in July and thinks he may finally be past the issues that has plagued him the last couple of seasons.

"It's been a few years since I've felt good," he said. "The last time I was fully healthy was 2010. But even then, I missed the last month with an oblique injury.

"I did well that year, and the last few years have just had lingering wrist issues. I really believe I've gotten that taken care of. A lot of credit goes to the Cubs. Just the fact that they could have easily done the non-tender and moved on, but they've done a great job of keeping up with me through the injury."

CUBS: Matt Garza feels like he's been locked in a cage

Stewart -- who said the Cubs supported him 100 percent with the surgery -- hit 18 home runs with 61 RBI in 386 at-bats in that 2010 season and slugged 25 homers the year before. He resumed hitting in November and says it's been going "great."

"I realize the situation I'm in and the position I'm in in my career that things like that need to be done now," he said. "I really wanted to be here, too, so I figured the earliest I could show them I was healthy, the better it's going to be for my career and for them as well."

With the free agent crop so bare at third base, Stewart admitted that other teams had expressed interest in his services. But he also said there was a time after the non-tender where he was concerned about his future.

"It was very nerve-wracking because there was a time where I didn't have a job," he said. "That was kind of a scary feeling. It wasn't a point where I was coming off a great year and a free agent. I was injured and a free agent.

"It's not a great feeling and again, I go back to I'm so appreciative that what the organization did for me and that part of being job-less didn't have to last very long.

"There were obviously teams out there that needed third basemen or at least some depth in that area. But really, once the Cubs expressed what they thought of me and what they thought I could still do for the organization, it was a no-brainer."

Stewart heads into camp as the favorite for the starting third baseman gig, but Luis Valbuena -- who saw the lion's share of the time at the hot corner in Stewart's absence last year -- has been retained and prospect Josh Vitters will be waiting in the wings at Triple-A Iowa.

Still, if Stewart can regain the power he displayed in the 2009-10 seasons, his 2 million deal will be a bargain. With his solid defense and ability to work the count, he fits what the front office is looking for.

"They could have easily brought me back for a lot less, but it just shows the first-class kind of people we have running the organization here with Jed and Theo and the whole Ricketts family. Everybody that's involved," Stewart said. "I've got nothing but good things to say about them."

Cubs finalize Opening Day 25-man roster

Cubs finalize Opening Day 25-man roster

Matt Szczur or Tommy La Stella on the Cubs Opening Day roster?

How about both?

Theo Epstein said Wednesday morning the Cubs plan to keep both Szczur and La Stella on the Opening Day 25-man roster with relief pitcher Brian Duensing headed to the disabled list.

Duensing, 34, has been hampered by a back issue this spring.

Szczur is out of minor-league options, meaning the Cubs would have had to either keep him on the 25-man roster or place him on waivers, which would almost assuredly mean they'd lose him to another team.

La Stella has options left and already told manager Joe Maddon this spring he would head down to the minors if asked (something La Stella was unwilling to do in August last year when he refused assignment).

The move makes the most sense for the Cubs, as the need for eight relief pitchers is not as imperative in April when the team has five off-days in the first month of the season.

Of course, the Cubs still have four days left of exhibition action, but assuming nothing else changes, here's how the Cubs roster will look Opening Night in St. Louis Sunday:

Catchers

Willson Contreras
Miguel Montero

Infielders

Anthony Rizzo
Ben Zobrist
Javy Baez
Addison Russell
Kris Bryant
Tommy La Stella

Outfielders

Jason Heyward
Albert Almora
Jon Jay
Kyle Schwarber
Matt Szczur

Starting pitchers

Jon Lester
Jake Arrieta
John Lackey
Brett Anderson
Kyle Hendricks

Relief pitchers

Mike Montgomery
Justin Grimm
Carl Edwards Jr.
Pedro Strop
Hector Rondon
Koji Uehara
Wade Davis

The Cubs figure to eventually make room for Duensing on the roster as the bullpen could use another left-handed pitcher, but those decisions often take care of themselves with either health problems or trade options, etc.

Remember, there is a 10-day disabled list this year in the MLB, so placing a guy on the DL doesn't guarantee losing him for more than two weeks anymore.

Cubs: Ben Zobrist's path back to October and a possible three-peat

Cubs: Ben Zobrist's path back to October and a possible three-peat

MESA, Ariz. – Ben Zobrist is focused on a personal three-peat, not worrying about a changing of the guard or any awkward moments with Javier Baez. Cubs manager Joe Maddon has repeatedly said that Zobrist will be the primary second baseman and another "Javy Being Javy" highlight reel from the World Baseball Classic won't change that thinking right now.

Zobrist sees the big picture better than almost anyone else in the clubhouse after going undrafted out of Eureka High School in downstate Illinois, perfecting the super-utility role Maddon envisioned with the Tampa Bay Rays and helping transform the 2015 Kansas City Royals into World Series champions.

While Baez started all 17 playoff games at second base last year, bursting onto the scene as the National League Championship co-MVP, Zobrist became the World Series MVP with his clutch hitting and still has three seasons left on his $56 million contract.

Maddon didn't spare anyone's feelings during the playoffs, turning $184 million outfielder Jason Heyward into a part-time player, giving a quick hook to major-league ERA leader Kyle Hendricks and shunning relievers not named Aroldis Chapman.

"We haven't had an extended conversation about it," Zobrist said. "But at the beginning of spring, we talked about it. I think his words were: ‘I really think rest is the next improvement in player performance.' Learning what rest means, what good rest is for players and what kind of rest certain players need versus others.

"That doesn't necessarily mean just because you're 35. It could mean you're 25 and you still got to take care of yourself and make sure you're getting the proper rest. Because we have such a deep team, he's able to do that at any given point in time and still feel confident about the team we have on the field.

"It's a good problem to have when you have really good players not playing and sitting on the bench. We had that all last year and we had guys accept their role and just buy into the team concept.

"The makeup of this team is the same, basically. We've got a few new guys and they've got the same mindset, so I anticipate more of the same."

Injuries are one variable that prevents Maddon from getting too stressed out about dividing the playing time over 162 games while the NCAA tournament is still going. Zobrist's stiff neck felt good enough to hit leadoff and play right field in Tuesday afternoon's 10-7 loss to the San Francisco Giants, seeing his first Cactus League action since March 19.

Zobrist plans to play again on Wednesday in Mesa and catch up with more at-bats on the minor-league side of the complex. Assuming Zobrist and All-Star shortstop Addison Russell (stiff back) are ready for Opening Night, Baez will be an NLCS MVP, all-WBC talent waiting for the right matchup or break in the schedule or to sub in as a defensive replacement.

"It's pretty impressive, looking around at the young talent in this clubhouse," Zobrist said. "All throughout spring training, we've seen there's definitely other talent coming, so this team is poised to have a good, long run of success. If everybody stays healthy and we stay together, this is a very good team.

"The biggest thing that I go into the season with this year is we have to be healthy and we have to make sure that we don't relax too much. That's the temptation for teams that just won, to go: OK, well, we're tired, because we had a long season last year and you kind of just assume things are going to go as well as they did.

"You can't assume anything. No matter how good this team is, we have to still go out and execute and perform – and that's going to determine where we are in the standings."

In real time, as the Cubs experienced their lowest moments during last year's regular season, Zobrist correctly pointed out the exhaustion factor while the team played 24 days in a row, losing 15 of their last 21 games before the All-Star break.

What looks like overwhelming depth on paper should help the 2017 Cubs survive and advance into October.

"It's huge," Zobrist said. "It's up and down the lineup on offense. It's all throughout the pitching staff and on the defensive side. It's so deep that you can absorb a little bit of injury here and there.

"With that being said, there are certain guys that you just don't want to lose. So we got to protect everybody. We got to protect our horses – both on the mound and in the lineup – and just make sure that we have our key cogs in there. And if we do, we're as good, if not better, than anybody out there."