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Stuck With Stewart

Chris Ian–, I mean Ian Stewart (26) has been horrible in almost every way possible at the plate so far this season. The Colorado Rockies obviously thought so right away, and optioned him to Triple-A after only 28 plate appearances. He came back last week, and has thus far on the season has accumulated a terrifying .073/.174/.098 (.137 wOBA) line. There’s no doubt it has been ugly, and manager Jim Tracy has had it, saying that it is “time for Stewart to fish or cut bait. He’s either going to play his way in or play his way off the team.” Tracy is understandably frustrated, with the first-place Rockies losing four games in a row, including three to second-place San Francisco. However, as might be implied by Stewart be called back up after only a couple of weeks in the minors, it is not clear that the the Rockies really have any better alternative than playing Stewart at the moment.

Without getting into the the “small sample!” versus “he just looks awful!” debate here, I’m guessing that no matter how he “looks,” given the results, the Rockies would feel the same way about him. You probably don’t need to be told that 28, or even 46 plate appearances are almost meaningless from the standpoint of statistical evaluation. This can be seen simply by taking a look at Stewart’s pre-season ZiPS projection (.248/.332/.462, .341 wOBA, 10.1% walk rate, 30.1% strikeout rate) with his “rest of season” update which takes into account his major league performance so far (.239/.326/.440, .337 wOBA, 10.1% walk rate, 30.9% strikeout rate). It’s slightly worse, but but given the likely error bars on all of this, the difference is probably insignificant.

The Rockies are obviously seeing something they don’t like, and I’m sure the fans are, too. Stewarts strikeouts and groundballs are up, and the line drives are (according to BIS batted ball identifications) totally absent (!), meaning fewer balls in play, fewers hits on those that are put into play and virtually no power. On the other hand, Stewart’s plate discipline hasn’t completely broken down. His walk rate is about the same as his career rate, he’s swinging less than usual (and only slightly more at pitches outside the zone, according to BIS), and he’s making the same amount of contact. If professional scouts see something in his approach that means he isn’t the same, approximately league-average hitter he’s been in the recent past, I will cede to them. Statistically, this looks like the same guy: a 26-year old hitter with some contact issues, but a good walk rate, and above-average power. Stewart’s window for stardom is just about shut, but given his ZiPS RoS projection and the fact that he plays at least an average third base, he’s still good enough to be at least an average player in terms of his true talent.

Tracy is talking tough, though, and given how the Rockies have responded so far, Aaron Gleeman has a point in suggesting that a trade might be best for both parties. While Gleeman has good reasons for writing this, a trade is easier said than done. First of all, the Rockies would obviously be selling low on Stewart. Moreover, while Stewart is cost-controlled through 2014, he’s already in his arbitration years, so he isn’t dirt cheap, also lowers any potential return. Finally, given his pay scale and likely average-ish value (about 2 WAR), there’s a pretty limited set of teams that might be interested in him. Since he isn’t making the minimum any more, rebuilding teams saving money aren’t going to be that attracted to him, which eliminates a good deal of the market. A glance over the league at contenders and quasi-contenders who might be improved by acquiring Stewart is pretty short. Perhaps the Tigers might want a younger, better hitter than Brandon Inge, although Inge’s defense makes the gap smaller in the short-term. Brent Morel isn’t exactly lighting it up for the White Sox so far (although he’s dong better than Stewart), and Kenny Williams likes to make trades, but in the unlikely event he’d give up on Morel after 85 plate appearances, what is going to attract him to a guy having a season like Stewart has so far? The Angels are currently playing a stop-gap in Alberto Callaspo, and their potential third base prospects are a ways off, so perhaps that’s a possibility, albeit one limited by the other factors mentioned above.

I don’t particularly like reading baseless trade speculation, and enjoy writing it even less. Those were just some ideas to show how difficult finding a trade partner might be. More importantly, the Rockies are still winning the division, and they need the best players they have out there. Do they really believe that after less that 50 plate appearances, Ian Stewart is suddenly a worse player than Jose Lopez (.323 ZiPS RoS wOBA)? Ty Wigginton‘s ZiPS RoS wOBA is actually slightly higher than Stewart’s at .343, but I feel pretty comfortable saying that the defensive difference still makes Stewart the better option going forward.

Stewart obviously has been disappointing. The contact issues are troubling. However, Stewart is still only 26, he is at least an average fielder, he walks at an above-average rate, he doesn’t have a big platoon problem, and his record of hitting decently is much longer than his few disastrous opening weeks of 2011. The Rockies are unlikely to be able to improve themselves by trading Stewart, and their internal options are likely inferior to him. It seems that they are stuck with Stewart at third for the foreseeable future. However, as Alex Gordon (27) and, perhaps more to the point, Chris Iannetta (28) are currently showing, letting a young-ish player who has shown potential in the past keep playing despite their frustrating stretches isn’t the worst option in the world.