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Stewart trying to crack Rockies' roster

Stewart trying to crack Rockies' roster

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- If Ian Stewart breaks camp with the Rockies this spring, it will be by doing something he hasn't done much of yet.

The 22-year-old third baseman is splitting his time between the hot corner and second base, putting himself in the running for the second-base job vacated when Kazuo Matsui signed with the Astros during the offseason.

The Rockies' No. 1 pick from the 2003 First Year Player Draft had never played an inning at second before Spring Training, but if he wants a slot on the Opening Day roster, his best options are at second base or in a bench role, another role at which he's only recently had a limited taste.

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"You've got to do something before you can become comfortable in it," Rockies hitting coach Alan Cockrell said before Sunday's game with the Giants. "Last year was very valuable for him. He learned from the opportunity that he got [in the big leagues]. He mentally needs to prepare himself to be a success in that role. It's the hardest job offensively in the game of baseball. And he's the kind of kid that's going to hit late in a ballgame and face the back end of a bullpen. You need to be very confident and very calm."

Whether coming off the bench for crucial at-bats or being part of a double-play tandem at second, Stewart is expanding his comfort range, taking the basic skills he's had all his life and putting them in play from a significantly different perspective.

"A ground ball's a ground ball," Stewart said. "But I'm learning where to be on cutoffs and relays behind the plays, footwork around the bag for double plays -- that kind of stuff."

If he wants the second-base job, the challenge for Stewart is to learn the nuances of the position in time to incorporate that knowledge as instinct, getting up to speed at a middle-infield position and keeping pace with teammates who set the standard for defense last season, with the highest team fielding percentage in the history of the game.

"There's instincts that you have to know [at second] as far as knowing where to play a hitter, knowing how to hold your ground as a runner is breaking to second, knowing you have coverage at second, but you still have to hold your ground for that split second," Rockies infield coach Mike Gallego said.

"At second base there's a lot more thinking involved [than at third], there's a lot more positioning involved, there's a lot more things to do. There's a lot of different areas about playing the position that come with experience. And Stew hasn't got that experience yet. He's getting a taste of it here."

For his part, Stewart is feeling better on the right side of the diamond, putting aside the fact that all but one of the other principal candidates for the second base job are either natural second basemen or shortstops.

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"It's feeling good," Stewart said. "The time that I've spent over there in the games has gone well. I've been making some plays over there. Just trying to get used to the game action over there.

"That's why I like third. There's not a lot of time to think, you just react," Stewart said. "Whereas at second, you kind of have to read the hop a little bit, you gotta position your feet to get around the ball or get through the ball."

Of course, at this point, Garrett Atkins stands in Stewart's way at third, and with two years of arbitration pending for Atkins, the Rockies could choose to see Stewart as their third baseman of the future. But Gallego indicated the obstacles at second could be even bigger.

"He's still learning how to position himself in double-play situations, he's still learning how to react to covering second base when he's in his back position, [infield-in] position, normal position," Gallego said. "There's a lot of little situations that he's got to figure out that he's just not used to.

"There's definitely a lot of studying you can do to put yourself in a better position," Gallego continued, acknowledging that picking brains can help Stewart gain an edge. "I don't know who he's studying with. I haven't discussed too many things with him. He's just, as a young kid, letting his ability take over and going out there and winging it. Stew is, for me, a long ways off in terms of playing second base in the big leagues."

With confidence in his everyday value at third, Stewart may not feel the urgency to rush into a new position. He's finding his swing and may be ready to elevate his game at the plate.

"Stew's starting to realize how special his hands are," Cockrell observed. "He's just now getting comfortable with the timing and playing games and the speed in games to let that special talent take over and let those hands work out in front of him."

After hitting .304 with 15 homers playing every day at Triple-A before he was called up in August, it's clear that his attention to strengthening himself at the plate has been time well spent.

In three big leagues starts last year, Stewart hit .364 and launched his first homer, a go-ahead grand slam that gave the Rockies their only win in a four-game August series with the Pirates. Conversely, he hit .185 in 27 at bats as a pinch-hitter.

"A difficult thing for me is that I'd never been a pinch-hitter in my life," Stewart said of the challenge. "As much as I talked to everybody, it's still hard to prepare for how to get yourself ready, how to play out different situations in your mind of when you may go in, or different situations in the game."

One way or the other, Stewart's path to the Opening Day roster is going to entail being prepared for something he has virtually no experience doing on the big league level.

Owen Perkins is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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