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Ian Stewart: In Need Of A Good Home

It should come as no surprise that the Rockies are shopping Ian Stewart. The former top prospect is now seven years removed from being named as one of the top five prospects in the game by Baseball America; he spent much of 2011 in the minor leagues; and he has one of the better prospects in the organization, Nolan Arenado, hot on his heels. He showed promise in his half-season of work in 2008, but when the Rockies gave him a more concerted shot in 2009, he increased his WAR total by just 0.4 in nearly 200 more PAs. Whatever progress he had made toward getting a full-time job with incremental improvements in 2009 and 2010 was more or less undone by his simply awful 2011 season.

It’s hard to blame Stewart for failing to produce in 2011, as he was on the taxi squad between Colorado Springs and Denver for most of the first half. He played 12 games for the Rockies in April, was sent down, played nine games in May, was sent down, managed to stay up for 21 games in July, was sent back down again, then played just six more games in August before riding the bench for the rest of the year. There are many recipes for success in the majors; this is not one of them.

On the other hand, it’s hard to blame the Rockies for not investing in Stewart fully at this point. Prior to 2011, Stewart had three seasons where he had spent at least half the year in the majors, and in those seasons, he posted a combined 3.8 WAR. He started off 2011 by going 0-for-12 with 7 Ks and finished the month of April 2-for-26 with 11 Ks and a .220 OPS. There’s just nothing in that line that encourages further investigation; that’s a bad line for most pitchers. In his subsequent time in the majors, Stewart didn’t improve; he finished the season with a .156/.243/.221 line in 136 PAs.

Stewart’s offensive ineptitude in the majors stands in stark contrast to his minor league performance, where he appears to wear pitchers out. In his three seasons at Triple-A Colorado Springs, Stewart hit .291/.373/.540 and while the PCL is a hitter’s paradise, Stewart’s OPS in 2011 was nearly 140 points above league average. It’s tempting to call Stewart a Quad-A player, a label that was applied to Carlos Pena and others who went on to become productive major leaguers with someone besides their original team. Stewart, however, seems to be less someone who is too good for Triple-A but just not quite major league caliber yet and more a product of a launching pad — the baseball equivalent of a system quarterback. Stewart hit .356/.441/.763 at Colorado Springs and just .227/.306/.491 away from home. A 797 OPS isn’t bad, but it is slightly below league average, and it’s almost equal to his home slugging percentage.

In the Troy Renck tweet I linked above, he notes that the Cubs are one team who might be interested in Stewart, and I would imagine they aren’t alone. Even in light of his altitude-inflated production, I can’t help but feel like he’s the epitome of a change-of-scenery candidate. The expectations in Colorado — both from the organization and from the fans — were commensurate with Stewart’s high draft position and his break out season at age 19, when he hit 30 HR and a 992 OPS in the Sally League, which is to say that they were rightly high. A new franchise won’t be bringing in that player and those expectations, they’ll be bringing a low-cost flier, who might reclaim some of his past promise, but who may well be gone by the time 2013 starts.

His defense at third base is unremarkable, he typically saves about fewer than five runs on defense, but neither is he going to kill anyone with his glove. Even if all he can do is get back to his 2010 levels, he’s probably a slightly below average player, and that’s far better than what he was in 2011. It could at least earn him a longer trial or even a guaranteed starting job with the right teams. Stewart obviously has talent, it just seems as though Colorado might not be the place he can make it pay at this point.

From a fantasy prospective, there’s not much to point at for hope in the short term. He’s showing declining home run totals both in the majors the minors, which takes away one of his major selling points. Speed has never been part of his game, and with a K-rate above 25 percent, he’s not making much contact right now either. If Stewart is going to become fantasy relevant in the near future, it will be because of one of two things. Either, a) Triple-A production will become an accepted category in most leagues or b) he gets traded and finds some kind of renaissance in his new surroundings.

He’s just 27, it is absolutely possible that he turns things around and becomes a reasonably valuable player, but I just can’t see Colorado spending another season giving him enough time to figure it out at the plate at this point. If he can go to a place where he has no history and no expectations — Chicago or otherwise — I like his chances for relevance much better than I like them if he stays in Denver. As things stand now, stay away in all formats.