August 19, 2004
Despite awarding a major league contract and $2 million signing bonus to third baseman Jeff Baker in 2002, the Colorado Rockies could not pass up Ian Stewart with the 10th pick in the draft in 2003, despite the fact that both players were corner infielders in an organization that is committed to Todd Helton for the next 86 years.
The Rockies' scouting reports had Stewart as the best available player and the club spent $1.95 million to get him under contract. It is rare to see an organization throw $4 million at two players who play the same position in consecutive years, but in this case, it was the correct decision.
While most high school position players are drafted on athletic prowess and projectability (hello Kenny Kelly!), Stewart's athletic skills pale in comparison to what he can do with 32 ounces of ash in his hands. At 6'3" and 210 pounds, he's never going to be confused for a middle infielder or a scary-thin Russian gymnast, and his average speed and movement don't project as well as some would like. However, the comparisons to Eric Chavez offensively aren't off base. Colorado wisely looked past the home-to-first times and focused on what Stewart can do; hit a baseball a very long way.
His left-handed swing is about as pull-heavy as you will ever see, producing serious home run power to right field. He is strong enough to drive the ball to center as well, but has work to do on his ability to hit to the opposite field with authority. His approach at the plate is advanced for his age, as he works counts well and sets himself up to obtain fastball counts. While he can be pitched to on the outer half of the strike zone right now, he has the plate coverage to improve on that weakness. The moderately high strikeout totals shouldn't be a serious concern. He'll adjust to the outside pitch with experience. Pitching him away is the best thing one can do as most pitches on the inner half are going to be souvenirs for someone down the right-field line. His recognition of the breaking ball is improving, though he will always be known as a fastball hitter. While he still has work to do, Stewart's offensive package at 19 years of age is hard to find.
While few doubt that he has the offensive potential to become an all-star at third base, you will be hard pressed to find too many people who expect him to play there for many years. The organization would much rather have him throw across the diamond to Helton than to replace him at first base, and Stewart has worked hard to improve his defense at the hot corner. His work with the glove is actually better than advertised now and he's a solid contributor in the field for Asheville. The questions about how much of his quickness he will retain in his mid-20s and beyond are legitimate, however. He is built in a similar fashion to Jim Thome, who managed to stay at third base through age 25, but made the inevitable shift across the diamond. Stewart will have to work extremely hard to be able to maintain his defensive skills as he ages, but he isn't a butcher in the field that needs to move down the defensive spectrum to save his team runs.
Stewart is one of the feel-good prospects that both scouts and statistical analysts endorse. The projected power in his swing has translated into actual performance and his reign of terror since being drafted last summer has extended over two leagues. The Rockies signed him immediately and sent him to the Pioneer League for his professional debut last summer. He hasn't stopped hitting since.
Despite the inferior competition in rookie ball, it isn't very common to see 18-year-olds hit for much power unless their last name is Fielder and they're built like an oil tanker. Apparently, Stewart didn't get the message that the transition to wood bats should be a challenge and that he'd have to grow into his swing. He proceeded to hit .317/.401/.558 in 224 at-bats for Casper in 2003, including 10 home runs, earning rave reviews for his power.
The Rockies sent him to Asheville for the 2004 campaign to begin his assent up the great tour of bandboxes that is the Rockies' chain of minor league parks. The park factor for McCormick Field was an astounding 1175 last year, higher than that of Coors Field and one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in the country. However, no amount of park factoring can explain the beating Stewart has put on the South Atlantic League. His .306/.385/.589 mark in 435 at-bats is a performance that teenagers just don't put up in full-season ball.
Even including a heavy park factor into the translation of Stewart's line, he is still posting a .308 EqA and .213 MjEqA, very similar to the numbers of Delmon Young (.304 and .215 respectively), the super-hyped Tampa outfielder who will be appearing at the top of a lot of prospect lists next spring. The list of teenagers who can pound the ball in the South Atlantic League and don't go on to become quality major league hitters is quite short. Clay Davenport's Future DTs rank him as the third-best teenage hitting prospect in the minors, behind the aforementioned Young and Dodgers infielder Joel Guzman. Clearly, Stewart's performance--both in Casper and in Asheville--have put him in an elite class.
The Rockies want Ian Stewart to be their third baseman of the future. His bat should carry him to the show, but his ability to retain quickness as his physique fills out may end up determining whether he can adequately fill the void at third base in the long term or if he shifts across the diamond and finishes his career at first base. Either way, fans in Colorado should be looking into personal seat licenses in right field. When Stewart reaches Coors Field, it will be the place to go for souvenirs and home run spectacles.
David Cameron has spent enough time in minor league ballparks that the South Atlantic League claimed him as a dependant on their tax returns. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.