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Can Ian Stewart Return from Purgatory?

The Chicago Cubs recently acquired Ian Stewart, ostensibly to man the position vacated by Aramis Ramirez. While those are pretty big shoes to fill, Stewart certainly has some intrigue relative to his fantasy baseball value.

Stewart, 26, seems to be a perennial sleeper on draft lists due to his singular ability to hit the ball out of the park. But both his real-life employer and his fantasy managers grew tired of his inability to make consistent contact, dragging his batting average into the range where he was barely useful — and then in 2011, the wheels fell off and he found himself routinely driving between Colorado Springs and Denver.

Stewart now gets the popular “change of scenery” to attempt to make a fresh start and revive the promise that made him a first round draft pick back in 2003. Will he be able to do it is the big question, of course.

A quick recap on Stewart’s time in the major leagues, Stewart was called up to the Rockies in May of 2008 and was by and large a regular feature in the lineup until the end of 2010. Over those three seasons, Stewart hit .246/.334/.454 with 53 home runs over about 1200 plate appearances. His defense wasn’t great, but his bat showed enough promise to keep him in the lineup.

In 2011, however, he entered the season playing second fiddle to Ty Wigginton and split time early on between pinch hitting and making occasional starts. The uncertainty apparently affected him as he hit .077 in 28 plate appearances between April 1st and April 18th and the club sent him down to AAA, where he subsequently raked.

This yo-yo act went on all season long with him being recalled and sent down four times total and his minor league statistics routinely impressing and his major league results being depressing. On the season, he hit .275/.359/.591 at AAA with 14 home runs in just 195 plate appearances and in the majors, he “hit” .156/.243/.221 with no home runs in 136 plate appearances. Stewart just never got it going at any point during his time in Denver in 2011. As a result, he’ll only be playing in Denver from the opposite dugout for the foreseeable future.

The obvious problem for Stewart is contact. Or lack of contact, that is. He owns a career 27.9% strikeout rate and with a career ISO of .192, he’s just not doing quite enough with the bat to get away with it, in the mold of say, Mark Reynolds, Mike Stanton, or Carlos Pena – all who strikeout about the same rate as Stewart but amass far more home runs. Stewart owns a 72% contact rate, well below league average and while that’s not damning – he’s going to need to rediscover the power stroke that we saw in 2009 in order to be really useful to your fantasy baseball squad.

What I find interesting when looking at Stewart’s splits is that his statistics don’t appear to be seriously inflated by Coors Field. He owns a .243/.337/.430 line at home vs. .229/.307/.427 on the road, but his ISO is actually higher on the road in his career at .198 vs. .186 at home. In fact, in his career, he’s hit 25 home runs at home and 29 on the road (with about 50 additional plate appearances on the road, let’s call it a wash). This is kind of good news and bad news. That his power wasn’t entirely a product of the thin air is good, but that triple slash on the road really isn’t anything to get excited about.

One advantage will be the fact that he’s left handed and Wrigley field plays particularly well for left handed batters. According to StatCorner, relative to home runs, Wrigley rates at 119 where 100 is league neutral. For comparison sake, Coors is 113. Perhaps another advantage is this whole notion of “change of scenery” coupled with being handed a job to lose entering spring.

The reality is Stewart is probably never going to contribute well in the batting average category but he does have some potential to contribute in home runs and RBI for your squad. His value sort of returns to a pre-2009 level where you might not know what’s to come, but you know this kid has great power and great risk. 2012 will probably be the make-or-break year for him because if the change of scenery doesn’t do anything for him, it’s unlikely he’ll ever realize his potential.

As a fantasy owner, Stewart is probably only relevant in league specific formats or deep leagues, and he’s likely one of those balance plays where you have to consider your team strengths and weaknesses. Should you happen to be well in the black on batting average but in desperate need of home runs, Stewart could be a candidate. But if your team is chock full of low batting average types with high risk, you should probably look elsewhere.