Cubs providing opportunities at corners

MESA, Ariz. — The situations third baseman Ian

Stewart and first baseman Bryan LaHair face with the Chicago Cubs are quite

different, yet very much the same.

Stewart came to the Cubs from Colorado in an offseason trade with the chance to

rejuvenate his career. Meanwhile, the 29-year-old LaHair gets his first true

shot in the big leagues this season. The Cubs are counting on both to make good

on their opportunities.

“We need those two guys to hit,” first-year manager Dale Sveum said.

“There’s no question, with our lineup, those two big lefties have to hit.

We’re going to struggle scoring runs if they don’t hit.”

Once the Rockies’ top prospect after being picked 10th overall in the 2003

draft, Stewart has battled minor injuries and slumps since hitting 25 home runs

in 2009 and 18 in 2010. He spent just 48 games in the majors last season, while

playing 45 games at Triple-A Colorado Springs. A season after driving in 61

runs, he drove in just six while hitting .156 in the majors last year.

Between his struggles and the Rockies’ organizational shift toward a new

clubhouse culture, Stewart became expendable. In the offseason, Colorado signed

38-year-old Casey Blake to handle duties at third base while 20-year-old prospect

Nolan Arenado continues to develop.

Stewart, who turns 27 next week, doesn’t like to call his move to the Cubs a

“fresh start” because he didn’t think anything was stale about his

tenure with the Rockies.

“When it first happened, I didn’t want to leave Colorado; I loved it

there,” Stewart said. “I just look at this as more of an opportunity

to come to a team that had an opening at a position I play.

“To hear a team like the Cubs is interested in you, that made the

transition from disappointment to being happy about it very easy.”

The Cubs believe strongly that Stewart can be the player he was in ’08 and ’09,

providing power in the lineup along with playing solid defense.

“He’s done it before,” Sveum said. “He’s played every day; he’s

performed in the big leagues. Obviously he’s moving on to another city after a

tough season last year, so I’m sure he’s out to prove himself again.”

Stewart also believes he can get back to his best baseball in Chicago and says

it’s primarily a matter of health and at-bats. In 2009, he made 491 plate

appearances in 147 games. In 2010, he had 441 in 121 games. His next highest

total came in 2008, with 304 in 81 games, when he drove in 41 runs and hit 10

homers. Last season, he had just 136 plate appearances.

“My expectations are that I’ll be healthy and play almost every day,”

Stewart said. “With that, the numbers will be there. If I get my 450 or

500 at-bats, the numbers I’m capable of putting up will be there in the

end.”

LaHair, meanwhile, is getting his long-awaited opportunity to hold down a

position every day despite the Cubs’ acquisition of their first baseman of the

future, Anthony Rizzo, who will start the season in Triple-A.

Coming up with Seattle, LaHair was stuck behind Richie Sexson and Russell

Branyan, reaching the majors for just 45 games in 2008. In Chicago, it was

Derrek Lee and Carlos Pena.

After scorching the Pacific Coast League with 109 RBI, 38 homers and a 1.070

OPS — which earned him PCL MVP honors — LaHair was called up for the final

month of last season. It wasn’t until early in camp this spring that Sveum

declared firmly that LaHair would be the starting first baseman.

“I’m very humbled by the opportunity,” LaHair said. “I’m just

looking to seize the moment. … I’ve waited forever. I’ve been dreaming about

this since I was 5 years old.”

LaHair also impressed in the Venezuelan winter league this offseason while

getting ready for his opportunity to start. He hit a league-best 15 home runs,

bringing his 2011 total to 55, including two with the Cubs.

Those results have the Cubs excited about LaHair’s potential as an everyday

player, but LaHair knows he has to prove he can perform on the next level.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt in my mind that I can do it at the big

league level,” LaHair said. “I feel like I’ve had success every

single year of my professional career and even before that.”

The results so far this spring have been mixed for LaHair, as he got off to a

slow start and still has just four RBI. He now has a five-game hitting streak,

though, which includes a 3-for-3 day last week.

Part of the problem early on, Sveum said, was a string of opposing left-handed

pitchers, against whom LaHair is hitting .125 this spring (compared to.353

against right-handers).

Despite the slow start, the Cubs have stood firm with LaHair as their first

baseman, refusing to panic and rush Rizzo. LaHair hasn’t let the spring results

get to him, either, though he feels he’s getting going at the right time.

“At first you just brush them off, but then you really kind of want to

start getting into the groove, get out of your own head and prove to yourself

again you can hit,” LaHair said. “I’ve always been kind of a slow

starter.

“I don’t want to peak too early. I want to peak at the right

time and go into the season comfortable and confident. I think that’s what I’m

doing.”

So in one corner of the infield, the Cubs have an unproven power hitter getting

a late start to his big league career. In the other is a former franchise third

baseman trying to stay healthy and get his career back on track. The spotlight

in Chicago may be on star shortstop Starlin Castro, but much certainly rests on

the shoulders of Stewart and LaHair.

Each approaches the pressure accompanying the opportunity very differently.

Stewart said he feels no pressure and actually feels more

confident than ever knowing new Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager

Jed Hoyer sought him out. He wants to produce the way they believe he can

primarily to help the Cubs, but there’s also a part of him that wants to prove

the Rockies wrong for giving up on him.

“I would like to do so well that they wish they’d never traded me,”

Stewart said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that. It

just means I had a good year.”

LaHair admits that there’s pressure in taking over first base on full-time

basis, but he says he’s always played under pressure, so this will be nothing

new in that regard.

“For me, pressure is just kind of natural,” LaHair said. “If I

be myself and do what I’m capable of doing, then everything will speak for

itself at the end of the year.”

With Rizzo and third-base prospect Josh Vitters not far from the majors, the

Cubs have near-future options if Stewart and LaHair don’t work out. But both hope

to play well enough that the Cubs are forced to find a way to keep them in the

fold.

“It’s a big opportunity for both of them,” Sveum said. “They

don’t have to do anything they aren’t capable of doing, but just what they’re

capable of doing, and we’ll be OK offensively.”