Rockies fans might know more about Ian Stewart than any other player on the roster. Thank Twitter for that. Stewart's no Chad Ochocinco, but on his fairly prolific Twitter account (@THE_IAN_STEWART), he's revealed quite a bit about himself. We know he's a fan of football (USC and the Broncos), basketball (Lakers) and soccer. We know he's a big-time video gamer, seemingly always up for an online game of Call of Duty on PS3. We know he digs the flavor sensation known as Smashburger.
Who doesn't know a guy like that? Hey, a good many of you reading this could feasibly BE a guy like that – if, of course, you had soft hands and the most prodigious power on the Rockies roster. But there's one thing everyone wants to know about the 25-year-old third sacker that no amount of late night Tweeting can answer: is this the year he breaks out?
Every team that leans on young talent makes something of a gamble in the offseason. They're dreaming on the abilities that their young players might not have yet reached. The Colorado Rockies are betting that the talent level of the club is closer to the 16 games over .500 their record showed on the morning of September 19 than the four games over .500 where their record finished after a desultory 1-13 stretch to cap the season. And that gamble hinges on the performance of four home-grown players who will be slotted into starting positions for 2011. Chris Iannetta and Seth Smith have put up big numbers before, only to sag badly in 2010. And Dexter Fowler, like Iannetta, weathered a demotion to Triple-A during the 2010 season before putting together a second half that offers plenty to be optimistic about. But the highest ceiling of all resides at the hot corner, and if the Rockies are going to make the leap from 'playoff-caliber' to 'championship contender', Ian Stewart might just be their most important player.
Stewart's first two full seasons in the Show have been uneven. After a strong half-season cameo in 2008 that saw him hit .259 with 10 homers, Stewart dealt with the uncertainty of being blocked by Garrett Atkins at third base entering 2009. But Atkins cratered and Stewart eventually took over the job. The power that was his greatest promise ever since he was the 10th overall pick of the 2003 draft certainly materialized as he popped 25 homers, but Stewart batted just .228 and struck out 138 times in 491 trips to the plate.
In 2010 the strikeouts dipped – slightly (110 in 441 PA) and the average climbed to .256, but the power dipped – slightly (18 home runs, extra base hits in just 7.7 percent of at-bats compared to 9.6 percent in 2009). It wasn't a poor season, by any stretch – his OPS+ of 97 suggests it was just about league average. But as we all know, nothing is more maddening than the failure to reach perceived potential. And the results and talent haven't matched up for Stewart these past two years. After all, massive power to all fields does little good if you can't make contact, and Stewart's strikeout tendencies have hindered his offensive output.
Now, Stewart doesn't turn 26 until April 5, so there's a compelling argument to be made that his best years are ahead of him. But many disappointed Rockies fans have grown frustrated with Stewart's strikeouts. The complaints about Stewart's seeming unwillingness to use the whole field (a problem that really grew last season) are fair. The complaints about Stewart's work ethic are another story. While Stewart's Twitter page has given fans a chance to connect with him, it's also given rise to gripes about the subjects of Stewart's 140-character-or-less brain droppings. Specifically, the complaint was that they weren't baseball-related often enough, particularly during last season, and were too focused on things like video games and movies.
For me, it's too much of a leap to make from 'Rockies third baseman is kicking back after a long day at the ballpark with a joystick in hand, killing some zombies or whatever' to 'Rockies third baseman disrespects his talent and profession and doesn't work hard enough'. Stewart's problems didn't rise from too many late-night PS3 sessions. Bad habits are bad habits, and once a player gets into those bad habits in season, it's extremely hard to work out of them. In Stewart's case, he got far too pull-happy in pursuit of the long ball, leading to teams deploying the old Ted Williams shift against him late in the season.
The tools are very much present for Stewart, and if he can consolidate his uptick in batting average and regain some of the power lost from 09 to 10, he's at the very least capable of being solidly league-average offensively – and when added to his plus glovework, that makes him a very nifty piece. But here's where critical fans aren't wrong: Stewart's capable of more. The Rockies have shown they believe this in their reluctance to buy out his two remaining arbitration years, as it appears they will settle with a one-year deal this winter. They want to see something more, something special, out of their former first-rounder. And every time he lifts some dead red into the third deck at Coors Field, that something special seems very real. But the true sign of Stewart's maturity at the plate won't be measured by balls flying into the home bullpen, but rather balls sailing into the left-center field gap – or for that matter, more balls flying off his bat, period.
It's getting close to the point in Stewart's career where he either does or he doesn't – that is, he either becomes an important cog in the team's future or he gets lost in a future shuffle. And if it is to fall into place for Stewart this year, you can make that bet on the Rockies going a long way. Then you can tell him yourself just how much you appreciate the blossoming of his potential – in 140 characters or less, naturally.