Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein filled one of the key holes on the Chicago Cubs' roster Thursday, closing the Winter Meetings by trading for Colorado Rockies third baseman Ian Stewart. Stewart now projects as the majority third baseman for the team next season.
The Cubs gave up Tyler Colvin and D.J. LeMahieu in the deal, which also netted them minor-league hurler Casey Weathers. Giving up so little to get Stewart, despite the ugly numbers and problematic profile the erstwhile Rockies batter presents, has to count as a win.
Stewart looked terrible in 2011. In 136 plate appearances, he batted .156/.243/.221, without a home run. That led the Rockies to sequester him in the minor leagues for much of the season, where he batted .275/.359/.591 in 195 plate appearances and launched 14 homers.
There's an obvious mental block here. The sky-high failure rate with which Stewart has dealt in his career—he's struck out in some 27.9 percent of his big-league plate appearances—seemed to wear upon Stewart. Injuries also played a role, and anecdotally, it seemed Stewart spent too much time trying to lift the ball in 2011, and too little time trying to square it up.
That's the bad news. The good news is that Stewart does have real power. In his first three MLB seasons, he showed 25-homer pop. He also has patience, enough to have walked in over 10 percent of his career plate appearances. Part of that is illusory: Stewart simply makes so little contact that he gets deep into counts and draws walks sometimes.
A bit more patience and a bit more contact could make Stewart a productive batter in a hurry. He has swung at 30.9 and 32.6 percent of pitches outside the strike zone the past two seasons, which has led pitchers to throw progressively fewer pitches to him inside the strike zone—from 49.5 percent to 48.2 percent, to 44.4 percent, to 42.9 percent over the past four years.
Discipline can force pitchers to come back over the plate, where Stewart can do damage. He's not showing it right now, but the discipline is there. Stewart has the classic Epstein-model plate approach: He is selectively aggressive. It was about here that another left-handed slugger stood in 2006, struggling to find big-league work because of a bad blend of middling patience and terrible contact skills. A year later, that player became Carlos Pena.
Carlos Pena signed a one-year deal with the Cubs in 2011, and he had a great season. On top of hitting well (.225/.357/.462, 28 homers) and providing his usual defensive value, he proved to be an 80 makeup guy. He was the perfect presence in the Cubs' clubhouse. That's who he is.
The Cubs need to bring back Pena on a two-year deal worth something like $20-25 million. On top of hitting well and providing his usual defensive value—again—Pena can come back on board and take on an important project. Plate discipline changed Pena's life, made him a multimillionaire and it all really started for him at age 29. He can be Ian Stewart's guide on the road to redemption, and really well-paying long-term employment.
Trading Tyler Colvin to the Rockies in this deal was something akin to Tom Sawyer selling off the right to paint Aunt Polly's fence. Whether you believe Colvin can make the necessary swing adjustments and regain his form or not, it has been clear for a while that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer did not and do not. If they had believed in Colvin, even a little, they would not have signed David DeJesus to be the regular right fielder.
By trading Colvin, the team loosened the outfield logjam that served only to restrain top prospect Brett Jackson whenever he becomes big-league ready. Colvin is a talented athlete, but he has a poor approach and few secondary skills. The swing is a mess, and since the Cubs were so clearly unwilling to commit to Colvin as reclamation project, trading him was both merciful and intelligent.
LeMahieu, Not DeWitt
The other half of the Rockies' return for Stewart is D.J. LeMahieu. A man without a defensive home, LeMahieu has drifted around the infield the past few years in search of a position he can play competently. It isn't there. Lacking power and patience, LeMahieu relies on squaring balls up and cracking a whole lot of singles to have value. He doesn't profile well for that path.
When this deal was first brewing, Blake DeWitt was the apparent lynchpin. It seems Epstein and Hoyer didn't want to part with him. DeWitt, unlike LeMahieu, can play the outfield. He bats left-handed, is the same age as Stewart and provides some defensive value at a few spots on the diamond.
An obvious roster option for the Cubs might have been to carry Stewart, Ryan Flaherty and LeMahieu into next season. Instead, the front office chose to include Colvin in this deal, let Flaherty be swept away at the Rule V draft and keep DeWitt and Jeff Baker alongside Stewart. All that is, of course, if there aren't more moves in the immediate future.
How It Will Look
Assuming the Cubs do bring back Pena or make a similar addition at first base, Stewart projects as the sixth hitter in the lineup on Opening Day. There's no reason Jeff Baker can't get another 200 plate appearances in 2012 by platooning with Stewart and facing left-handed pitching. DeWitt will start very few games, but he'll appear in many as a defensive sub for Stewart in later innings.
Tony Campana and Brett Jackson will spend more days on the Cubs' roster than they might have prior to this deal. Overall, Stewart should bat about 450 times for Chicago in 2012, or the same number one might have expected from Colvin and LeMahieu combined. For a team preaching incremental improvement, this deal embodies the rebuilding vision in Wrigleyville.