TEMPE, Ariz. – Ian Stewart may not feel a sense of urgency yet, but the clock is ticking for the Cubs third baseman.
Stewart will be sidelined 10-to-14 days after an MRI revealed a mild strain of his left quadriceps muscle. Realistically, manager Dale Sveum said that he doesn’t expect to see Stewart on the field for another three weeks, or the middle of March.
“It will be a cram session,” Sveum said Saturday.
This is a time-sensitive matter. As the Cubs saw other third-base options fall off the board at the winter meetings, they circled back to a player they had non-tendered. They made sure to point out that this one-year, $2 million deal is non-guaranteed, though that’s standard for an arbitration-level player.
The Cubs could cut Stewart by March 16 and owe him roughly $333,333. Between that point and the start of the season, they could give him $500,000 in termination pay and save $1.5 million.
“To be honest, that’s not even a focus of mine,” Stewart said. “If I didn’t think that I would come back here and be a part of the team, there would have been no sense in me coming back.
“I have all the confidence in the world that – obviously there’s a business side of the game – but I came back here to be part of the major-league team. So I’m not even thinking about that right now.”
Sveum had already penciled in one of his favorites – Luis Valbuena – as his utility guy and a part of the third-base mix. Brent Lillibridge already had the inside track for a bench job because of his versatility as an infielder and an outfielder. They could be a mix-and-match solution.
Valbuena followed up a strong winter-ball performance in Venezuela by homering during the Cactus League opener, an 11-2 win over the Los Angeles Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium. Sveum consistently backed Valbuena last season, writing off his .219 average as bad luck and raving about his defense.
“Dale feels like that because he knows I played more than 100 percent every time he gave me an opportunity,” Valbuena said. “That’s all he (wants). I’m going to play like that every time.”
Josh Vitters also strained his left quadriceps muscle and will be sidelined for around two weeks, meaning Junior Lake could see even more time at third base in the Cactus League. Lake – who also homered on Saturday – is blessed with great athleticism but right now is essentially a lock for Triple-A Iowa.
All this leaves a narrow window for Stewart, who finally felt healthy after having surgery on his left wrist last summer. He felt something rounding first base during Thursday’s intrasquad scrimmage, his first game in roughly eight months.
Remember that the Cubs like how Stewart is a left-handed bat and an athletic defender who will turn 28 in April. But he hit .201 in 55 games last year and that 2009 season with the Colorado Rockies (25 homers, 70 RBI) seems like a long time ago.
“I feel like I was brought back to be part of the team and help,” Stewart said. “I feel like I can do that. This is unfortunate. If this was towards the end of camp or maybe in the middle, it probably would have been a different story.
“But my confidence is so high right now in my ability that this is just kind of a little roadblock that hopefully doesn’t last.”