Stewart wants to be next big thing in Colorado

Stewart wants to be next big thing in Colorado

DENVER -- Rockies third baseman Ian Stewart paid attention as outfielder Carlos Gonzalez won a batting title and put himself in the minds of Most Valuable Player voters.

Stewart noted the respect shortstop Troy Tulowitzki earned as a first-time All-Star.

Now he wants to be next.

"I said last year was a big offseason for me, and this year I feel it's even bigger because I feel I'm so close to being like a 'Tulo' or a 'CarGo,' where their names are pretty much written in stone in the lineup," Stewart said. "They're 3-4 every day. I feel like I'm that close to being there. I feel like I'm about to turn the corner."

In 2009, Stewart hit .228, but his 25 homers and 70 RBIs in 147 games suggested that 2010 might be the year of a quantum leap.

Stewart's numbers took a roller-coaster ride throughout 2010. Right when the Rockies were making their late, but unsuccessful, playoff push, Stewart turned hot. However, he came down with a bug that was going around the clubhouse in August, and suffered a strained oblique that cost him much of September. He finished with a .256 batting average, 18 home runs and 61 RBIs in 121 games.

Stewart put the ball in play more often than the previous year, dangerously so at times. In April, July and August, he struck out fewer than 20 times in 212 at-bats and posted a .292 average with 13 home runs and 38 RBIs. But in June and July, he struck out 57 times in 138 at-bats and hit for a .225 average with five homers.

Stewart can be aggressive and confident in spurts. But he can fall into the trap of taking strikes. His 38 looking strikeouts were most on the team, and often those were after beginning the count by letting strikes go past him.

If he improves on that, he could do better than the 48 RBIs he had in 116 at-bats with runners in scoring position.

"There are times when I feel like I'm in between -- I'm behind on the fastball but out in front on the off-speed," he said. "I'm trying to really battle that feeling at the plate, instead of just going up there, seeing the ball, hitting the ball and reacting. You're trying to see the ball so long that you don't end up swinging the bat.

"That's something that I need to work on. I think I did this year. Obviously, my average is up. When your average is up, it means you're putting the ball in play more."

The big area the left-handed hitting Stewart wanted to improve on was batting against left-handed pitching. Stewart hit .370 against lefties while playing 81 Major League games in 2008, but fell to .178 in 2009. The .231 he managed in 91 at-bats in 2010 represented an improvement, but not enough of one to keep manager Jim Tracy from going to Melvin Mora against lefties at times.

"With a lefty, I feel I need to be aggressive early and not get to two strikes, or try not to get to two strikes," Stewart said. "I've had some difficulty with them with the slider down and away. I hope next year I'll be given more of an opportunity to face lefties. That's on me. I need to improve against them in order to play against them."

Tracy is calling on many of the Rockies who fell short of expectations in 2010 to look at themselves the way Stewart has.

"Any of us that strive to be better than we currently are, two things come to mind for me. No. 1, we're real good self-evaluators as people and we're accountable for our actions," Tracy said. "There needs to be a time of reflection."

Stewart will have a familiar presence to help him in 2011. Carney Lansford, his hitting coach when he put up strong numbers at Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2007, will replace Don Baylor as the Rockies' hitting coach.

The up-and-down 2010 wasn't because of a lack of effort the previous offseason. Stewart spent time at Baylor's home in California practicing hitting during the winter, but the swing didn't sustain itself. Now, he will have a different, but comfortable voice.

"I'm looking forward to working with Carney again," Stewart said. "I really enjoyed my time with him in Triple-A and I think he works his butt off as a hitting coach. He brings a fire to this team that is much needed, just as he did as a player.

"I'll miss 'Groove' [Baylor] because he did a lot for me. But at the same time, I'm also looking forward to working with a guy I'm already familiar with."

Stewart has faced high expectations since being selected in the first round of the 2003 First-Year Player Draft out of La Quinta High School in Garden Grove, Calif.

That bar will be raised again this offseason.

Stewart is in line to be eligible for arbitration as a Super 2 player, meaning his service time ranks in the highest 17 percent of players with less than the usual arbitration threshold of three years. His status will mean a dramatic increase above the $408,000 he earned in 2010. Last winter, Royals third baseman Alex Gordon, with eight more days of service time than Stewart has now, signed for $1.15 million as a Super 2.

Stewart, who will turn 26 next April 5, isn't concerned with meeting anyone's expectations but his own. And he wouldn't mind sharing the stardom that Tulowitzki and Gonzalez have achieved.

"I'm not trying to sound arrogant, but I feel I can do that," Stewart said. "There are so many good third basemen in the National League, starting with [the Nationals' Ryan] Zimmerman and [the Mets' David] Wright, so they're going to be at the All-Star Game every year. I'm probably going to have to have a special season to be there over those guys or with those guys, but I feel I'm definitely capable of that."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for Keep track of @harding_at_mlb on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.