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."

Jon Lester thinks Cubs have a special player in Willson Contreras: ‘It’s about time we got an offensive catcher’

Jon Lester thinks Cubs have a special player in Willson Contreras: ‘It’s about time we got an offensive catcher’

MESA, Ariz. – Jon Lester couldn't resist when a reporter mentioned the two home runs Willson Contreras launched off Danny Salazar, an All-Star talent who might have changed last year's World Series if he had been at full strength.

"It's about time we got an offensive catcher," Lester said.

Zing! Lester had already seen David Ross on "Dancing with the Stars" by the time he finished up against the Cleveland Indians and met with reporters on Monday night at Goodyear Ballpark. While Lester knew Grandpa Rossy would appreciate that one-liner, there is also some truth behind it.

Yes, Ross became the security blanket for a $155 million pitcher, helped push and encourage young players like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant and got carried off the field after delivering his own Game 7 homer. But whatever Contreras may lack now in game-calling experience and pitcher psychology, he can make up for it with his rocket arm, smooth swing and willingness to learn.

A camp that began with questions about how Lester would work with Contreras ended with a sincere endorsement.

"Willie's obviously very special, to be serious about it," Lester said. "He's definitely going to add a presence to that lineup as far as protecting ‘Rizz' and ‘KB' to where they're not going to be able to just pitch around those guys. We're going to have some other guys to do some damage in the middle to the bottom of that order.

"He's a special kid, just like anybody else on this team. He's (24), so he'll only get better as time goes on and (he gets) the at-bats and the innings and all that stuff. So I'm excited to see him for a full season and how well he can do back there."

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That's another reason why the defending World Series champs might actually look better on paper than the unforgettable 2016 Cubs. Ross did a "Dancing with the Stars" routine based off Young MC's "Bust a Move," a song released in 1989, or years before Bryant, Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr. were born.

Before the Cubs packed up and left Arizona, Ross made a promotional appearance in Mesa this week and caught up with some old friends like John Lackey.

"We got rid of Rossy," Lackey told reporters as the Cubs finished their Cactus League schedule with Wednesday's 15-11 win over the Oakland A's at Sloan Park. "He stinks. And we should be better. Actually, I was just inside talking to Rossy and he said that, so that's from him."

On paper, have Cubs put together a better roster than last year's World Series team?

On paper, have Cubs put together a better roster than last year's World Series team?

MESA, Ariz. – One minute into the media scrum outside the West Wing, a Washington reporter asked Theo Epstein if this season would be considered a disappointment if the Cubs don't win the World Series.

"Oof, I hadn't thought too much about 2017 yet today," Epstein said after President Barack Obama's final official White House event. "But, yeah, I mean, that's our goal. I think the organization has come such a long way and we have this talented young core. We're clearly in a very competitive phase where I think if we do our jobs, we could be as good, if not better, than any team in baseball.

"So if you're going to compete, you set your sights for the world championship. It doesn't always work out that way. But we see it as our jobs to do everything we can to be back at the White House next year."

Whether or not Epstein would actually go through with a Donald Trump photo op is a different story. But with the Cubs signaling their Opening Night roster – keeping outfielder Matt Szczur and infielder Tommy La Stella while lefty reliever Brian Duensing begins the season on the disabled list – you could make the case that the team breaking camp on Wednesday looks better on paper than last year's World Series winner.

"This is a crazy talented group," All-Star closer Wade Davis said. "There's 10 or 12 players on this team that are some of the best players in baseball."

That doesn't mean the Cubs will develop the same chemistry or sense of purpose, but this team is completely used to the national spotlight, hanging out with celebrity fans and being followed around like rock stars on the road. 

Epstein compared this camp in Arizona with what the Boston Red Sox faced after ending the 86-year drought. 

"I will never forget in '05 spring training, we had 5,000 people the first day, 3,000 fans every day," Epstein said. "I was expecting it to be as nuts. But it's been refreshingly normal, reflecting the personality of our players, taking everything in stride."   

This doesn't mean the Cubs will stay as healthy as they did last year, when the projected rotation made 152 starts combined. But four-fifths of that group returns with Brett Anderson – given his natural ability, pitching IQ and extensive medical file – appearing to have a higher ceiling and lower floor than Jason Hammel.

As Anderson said: "It's not too often that you have a salty veteran with multiple rings (John Lackey) in front of you and a guy (Kyle Hendricks) that led the league in ERA behind you."

The 2016 Cubs won 103 games and scored 800-plus runs: without Kyle Schwarber contributing a single hit during the regular season; and with Jason Heyward finishing with a .631 OPS (or 103 points below the league average).

Manager Joe Maddon said Geek Department projections have this lineup generating even more offense with Schwarber as the new leadoff guy (even with a brace on his left leg), continued growth from young players like Addison Russell and Willson Contreras and Heyward not being one of the worst hitters in the majors.

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The Cubs are also counting on a full season from Davis, instead of a half-season rental like Aroldis Chapman. Where last year's Opening Night bullpen featured three guys who would get DFA'd or traded by midseason (Neil Ramirez, Clayton Richard, Adam Warren), this version features three guys who've already notched the final out in a World Series (Davis, Koji Uehara, Mike Montgomery).

"All the additions are wonderful complements to what this team was already," Schwarber said. "Upgrades. It's going to be really cool to see how it all plays out this season with more guys getting another year of experience under their belt."

Ian Happ raising his profile and hitting around .400 in the Cactus League should help his trade value if the Cubs need to deal for pitching at the trade deadline. The combination of Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in center field should be an improvement over Dexter Fowler for a team that led the majors in defensive efficiency last year.

As someone with fresh eyes – and the perspective from being on Los Angeles Dodgers teams that won back-to-back National League West titles – Anderson hasn't see any signs of complacency.

"Not at all," Anderson said. "The young guys are still hungry. And the handful of guys that weren't here last year makes you that much more hungry and itchy to get back where they were last year.

"It's a really good mix – if not a perfect mix – of young guys, veteran guys and a couple fresh faces that are eager to get back to what these guys accomplished last year."