DES MOINES, Iowa -- It's warm and sunny at Principal Park as the Iowa Cubs wrap up batting practice. Ian Stewart was getting a rare start at third base in place of Josh Vitters, who reinjured his left quad the day before.
But this is not where Stewart expected to be.
"It was very frustrating at first," Stewart said, sitting in the home dugout, "because the way I looked at it from the beginning is I was coming here to treat it like Spring Training.
"I was focused on my timing, seeing pitches, getting at-bats and not the result, really," he said. "That was the hardest part was that I was preparing myself mentally to get back to the big leagues, and it didn't happen."
After spending the offseason rehabbing from surgery on his left wrist, Stewart, 28, arrived in Mesa, Ariz., in February eager to show the Cubs he was ready to reclaim the third-base job. His first at-bat in an intrasquad game Feb. 21 was his last. Stewart doubled and strained his left quad.
Stewart spent the rest of Spring Training rehabbing with Vitters, who injured his leg the same day. Before camp began, Vitters was told he was headed to Triple-A Iowa to open the season. Stewart's plan was to be with Iowa for his 20-day rehab, then join the big league team.
Instead, Stewart was activated from the disabled list on May 3, then placed on waivers and outrighted to Iowa. Stewart is no longer on the Cubs' 40-man roster. At that point, Luis Valbuena and Cody Ransom had combined for seven home runs in 28 games with the Cubs, tops among Major League third basemen. Stewart was 4-for-44 at Iowa.
"I'm over the not being in the big leagues part," Stewart said Friday. "Now I'm just trying to put some good games together."
It won't be easy. When the Cubs made the roster move, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein told Stewart that Vitters will get most of the at-bats. On Sunday, Brent Lillibridge started at third.
"I talked to Theo, and he was basically telling me that Vitters is the future at third for them," Stewart said. "I understand that. ... Josh is young and he's a good player and has a lot of talent. That part did not surprise me at all.
"It was basically if I wanted to stay with the Cubs and accept my assignment here, they were letting me know I wasn't going to play a lot here," he said. "I don't know if that was a way to get me to take my free agency, because there's money involved in all of that."
Stewart signed a one-year, $2 million contract last December after the Cubs non-tendered him. Did he consider leaving?
"I really didn't," Stewart said. "It's tough, because when you're put in that situation, you're almost playing for the wrong reasons. ... It wouldn't really make sense for me to take a release or ask for free agency, because then I'd be giving up my contract, and that doesn't make sense for me financially or for my family."
Stewart has talked with his wife, Susan, about their options. They had rented a place for the summer in Chicago and recently moved their family, which includes two young daughters, to a house in Des Moines.
"I would say there's times in guys' careers where they think about doing something else," Stewart said. "I would lie if I didn't say that crossed my mind, but my wife is such a great support system. She knows this is what I was born to do, to play ball, and she reminds me of that every day, even when I'm struggling."
Now, Stewart is a mentor to some of the young Iowa Cubs, such as Vitters and Brett Jackson. Iowa manager Marty Pevey talks to Stewart about different situations in the game.
"I think that kind of happened instinctually, just giving my input on things," Stewart said. "I find myself thinking that maybe after baseball, that's something I'd like to do."
But any talk about coaching is on hold until Stewart's playing days are over.
When the roster move was made earlier this month, there were some questions about Stewart's commitment. Players have 72 hours before they have to report, and Stewart planned on taking one day off. He hadn't seen his family for five weeks. The first day, Iowa's game was postponed because of the weather, as was the next. Stewart took the third day off.
"My agent told me, 'Don't read any of the papers, there are some quotes in there you don't want to read,'" Stewart said. "I ended up just word of mouth hearing about the [perceived] lack of dedication, work ethic, all that. Obviously, there was some miscommunication there, because I really wasn't here for one day."
Principal Park feels like a long way from the big leagues. Stewart could sulk about his situation, but he isn't.
"The one thing about the Minor Leagues that's different about the big leagues is there really isn't a lot of pressure down here," Stewart said. "It's almost like you're playing Little League or high school again.
"I think being here is just fun, it's fun for me," he said. "There's so much stress in this game that if you can ever find time to just have fun and enjoy the game, it relieves so much of that. That's all I'm trying to do down here is have fun."
Stewart's wrist is healthy, and he's very thankful the Cubs helped him get the surgery. But he knows he has dropped on the organization's depth chart. Last week in Washington, general manager Jed Hoyer was asked if Stewart still had a future with the Cubs.
"I hope there's a future here, but at this point, it's going to be about performance," Hoyer said. "We want him to perform."
Stewart wants that, too. He just expected to be with the Cubs now.
"The only issue I had -- and this is even hard to say, because they had Ransom and Valbuena up there swinging the bat -- was that I still think there was an opportunity to be given to me, even if it was for a week or a few games," Stewart said. "I still think that option was there, and I would've liked to have been given a chance. I could've started playing well, and they know what kind of defense I bring."
Is he prepared to spend the entire season in the Minors?
"I need to play to get everything figured out, and if I end up staying here the whole year, then it is what it is," Stewart said. "This is my job and I've made a commitment to the organization to try to give them my best. If that means staying here the whole year, then that's it."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less