Stewart hoping to take advantage of second chance with Cubs

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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).

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"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."

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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 Talk Podcast: Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with Jed Hoyer

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with Jed Hoyer

On the latest edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull and Luke Stuckmeyer talk about the first week of spring training. 

The two discuss ace contracts, leadoff intimidation and give their thoughts on the Sammy Sosa saga. 

Plus CSNChicago.com Cubs Insider Patrick Mooney goes one-on-one with general manager Jed Hoyer. 

Listen to the Cubs Talk Podcast below. 

Cubs eager to see the Jason Heyward relaunch in Cactus League

Cubs eager to see the Jason Heyward relaunch in Cactus League

MESA, Ariz. — Cactus League stats are supposed to be irrelevant, especially for the guy with the biggest contract in franchise history. Jason Heyward already built up a reservoir of goodwill as a former All Star, three-time Gold Glove defender and World Series champion. The intangibles got Heyward $184 million guaranteed, and the Cubs are hoping a new comfort level will lead to a Jon Lester effect in Year 2 of that megadeal.

But Heyward will still be one of the most scrutinized players in Mesa after an offseason overhaul that tried to recapture the rhythm and timing he felt with the 2012 Braves (27 homers) and break some of the bad habits that had slowly crept into his high-maintenance left-handed swing.

"If there's ever any doubt," Heyward said, "then you probably shouldn't be here."

Heyward will be batting leadoff and starting in right field on Saturday afternoon when the Cubs open their exhibition schedule with a split-squad game against the A's at Sloan Park. If Heyward has anything to prove this spring, it's "probably to himself, not to us," general manager Jed Hoyer said, backing a player who does the little things so well and commands respect throughout the clubhouse.

"There's going to be growing pains with making adjustments," Hoyer said. "He'll probably have some good days and some bad days. But I think the most important thing is that he feels comfortable and uses these five weeks to lock in and get ready for the Cardinals."

The Cubs are betting on Heyward's age (27), track record (three seasons where he showed up in the National League MVP voting), understanding of the strike zone (.346 career on-base percentage) and willingness to break down his swing this winter at the team's Arizona complex.

At the same time, Heyward realizes "it's just the offseason" and "a never-ending process in baseball." There are no sweeping conclusions to be made when the opposing starting pitcher showers, talks to the media and leaves the stadium before the game ends.

"I'm not sitting here telling you: 'Oh, I know for sure what's going to happen,'" Heyward said. "I don't know how it's going to go. But I know I did a damn good job of preparing for it."

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Manager Joe Maddon — who gave Heyward nearly 600 plate appearances to figure it out during the regular season (.631 OPS) before turning him into a part-time outfielder in the playoffs (5-for-48) — usually thinks batting practice is overrated or a waste of time. But at 6-foot-5 — and with so much riding on an offensive resurgence — Heyward is hard to miss.

"I can see it's a lot freer and the ball's coming off hotter," Maddon said. "But it's all about game. I'm really eager for him, because everybody just talks about all the work he's done all winter.

"Conversationally with him, I sense or feel like he feels good about it and that he's kind of at a nice peaceful moment with himself. So it will be really fun to watch."

A 103-win season, an American League-style lineup that scored 808 runs, a new appreciation for defensive metrics and a professional attitude helped provide cover for Heyward, who largely escaped the wrath of Cubs fans with little patience for big-ticket free agents.

"Baseball is a game that's going to humble you every day," Heyward said. "You're going to fail more times than you succeed, so it's all about how you handle it, as an individual and as a group. We handled it the best out of anyone last year as a team. And that's why we were able to win the World Series.

"There's always things you feel like you need to work on. You can ask guys who had the best years — there's always something they're trying to improve on and something they don't feel great about at a certain point in time during the year.

"I just happened to have a little bit more breaking down to do. A lot of things allowed me to just kind of pause (and) look forward and not really think about trying to compete and win a game. Let's just get some work done."