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Article posted: 2/22/2013 6:21 PM

Third base job is Stewart's to lose

Ian Stewart looks like the Cubs pick to open the season at third base.

Ian Stewart looks like the Cubs pick to open the season at third base.

 

Associated Press

Chicago Cubs' Ian Stewart rounds the bases after hitting a home run off Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Tommy Hanson during the fourth inning of a baseball game, Monday, May 7, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Chicago Cubs' Ian Stewart rounds the bases after hitting a home run off Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Tommy Hanson during the fourth inning of a baseball game, Monday, May 7, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

 
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So which is the "real" Ian Stewart, the one who hit 43 home runs over 2009 and 2010 or the guy who's been injured the better part of the last two years?

Both the Cubs and Stewart are hoping it's the former and for a lot of reasons.

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Bruce Miles ranks NL third basemen

1. David Wright, Mets 6.7 WAR
2. Chase Headley, Padres 6.0
3. Aramis Ramirez, Brewers 5.4
4. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals 3.8
5. David Freese, Cardinals 3.6
16. Ian Stewart, CUBS 0.0

"Yeah, it's been a few years," Stewart said at the Cubs convention. "I feel like defensively they've seen me as good as I can be the last few years. Hitting wise, it has been a few years. The last time I was really fully healthy was in 2010. Even then, I missed the last month with an oblique injury.

"But that was the last time I was really truly healthy for five months of the season. I did well that year. The last years, it's been a lingering wrist issue. I really believe I've gotten that taken care of. A lot of credit to the Cubs. They've stuck with me."

Stewart would like to get a once-promising career back on track this season, and Cubs bosses Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer would like to say they got something for having traded young players Tyler Colvin and DJ LeMahieu to Colorado on Dec. 8, 2011.

Unfortunately for both sides, the injury bug bit again this week. Stewart reportedly went for an MRI Friday after tweaking his left quad in an intrasquad game Thursday.

Stewart, who turns 28 in April, played in only 55 games last year, putting up a hitting line of .201/.292/.335 with 5 homers and 17 RBI. His season ended in mid-June with a lingering wrist injury. Stewart had surgery in July and all but disappeared from the scene.

That was an issue manager Dale Sveum addressed recently in spring training.

"He could've been around the team a little more, yeah," Sveum told reporters in Mesa, Ariz. "And I told him that. It's nothing he doesn't know. But for whatever reasons … those are what they are. Nobody told him he had to be anywhere. He was rehabbing surgery-related things. It wasn't a major issue."

The Cubs did not tender a contract to Stewart this winter, but they did bring him back as a free agent. The job looks like it's his to lose in spring training.

The left-handed-hitting Stewart hit 10 homers for the Rockies in 2008 before hitting 25 in '09 and 18 in 2010.

Third base is back to being a position in flux for the Cubs after the departure of Aramis Ramirez following the 2011 season.

Stewart could give the Cubs' offense a much-needed shot of power from the left side. But if health or poor performance prevent that from happening, the Cubs probably will plug in utility man Luis Valbuena while keeping an eye on Josh Vitters at Class AAA Iowa.

The Cubs liked the 27-year-old Valbuena enough to bring him back after he had a line of .219/.310/.340 with 4 homers last year. At the very least, he can come off the bench and fill in at third base or second base on occasion.

Vitters, the Cubs' No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, is still only 23, and he repeated a pattern in his career last year by starting slowly after being promoted to the next level.

After being called up from Iowa on Aug. 5, Vitters played in 36 games, going .121/.193/.202 with 2 home runs. The Cubs will start him out at Iowa this season to get him more at-bats at the Triple-A level. He had a line of .304/.356/.513 with 17 homers and 68 RBI at the time of his call-up.

Who's coming:

In addition to Vitters, the Cubs like Christian Villanueva, obtained from Texas in the July 31 trade that sent pitcher Ryan Dempster to the Rangers. Villanueva, 21, combined to hit 14 homers between Class A Myrtle Beach and the Cubs' Class A Daytona affiliate.

Farther down in the system, 19-year-old Jeimer Candelario, is rated the eighth-best prospect in the Cubs system by Baseball America. The switch hitter had 6 homers at Class A Boise last year, and he could open 2013 as a member of the Kane County Cougars, the Cubs' new Midwest League affiliate.

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