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Cubs’ Ian Stewart ready to prove himself after going off the radar

Third baseman Ian Stewart says he ‘‘feels like I have brand-new wrist’’ after surgery last year. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Third baseman Ian Stewart says he ‘‘feels like I have a brand-new wrist’’ after surgery last year. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 18, 2013 6:58AM

MESA, Ariz. — The Cubs were in full-scale freefall during a four-game sweep in Washington one day last September when the media questions dried up and it suddenly occurred to someone to ask manager Dale Sveum about a guy no one had seen in the clubhouse for more than two months.

Hey, what’s the deal with Ian Stewart?

‘‘I think he’s just home, I think,’’ Sveum said. ‘‘I’ve kind of lost track of [him].’’

More than five months later — 14, dating to the day the Cubs traded for him — they’re still trying to answer the same question.

The difference now is Stewart’s in the building. All in, if you ask him.

And in fairness to the burly third baseman, he was hurt back then, coming off season-ending surgery on his left wrist. He also had permission from the front office to rehab at home, where his wife was pregnant with their second child.

Stewart thinks there might have been a ‘‘miscommunication.’’

Some in the organization think it might have been nice if he had decided to show up maybe once before the season ended.

‘‘I think he could have been around the team a little bit more, yeah,’’ said Sveum, who couldn’t get rid of the rehabbing Matt Garza if he’d wanted to in the final two months of the season, ‘‘and I told him that. It’s nothing he doesn’t know. But it wasn’t a major issue by no means.’’

The big thing, as far as the Cubs are concerned, is that Stewart is back now — even if it took re-signing him for $2 million after releasing him over the winter.

The bigger thing, as far as Stewart is concerned, is he’s certain the wrist injury that continually flared up for more than two years finally was diagnosed correctly through exploratory surgery and repaired.

‘‘It feels like I have a brand-new wrist,’’ said Stewart, who arrived at camp Friday looking stronger and fitter — and maybe even happier — than last season.

The only thing left to determine: What’s the deal with Stewart?

Can the once-promising first-round slugger finally get back to resembling the guy who hit 25 home runs with 70 RBI in 491 plate appearances for the Colorado Rockies in 2009? Can he lay waste to the image of a guy who struggled to hit eight home runs with 33 RBI in his last 427 plate appearances, dating to the summer of 2010?

The answers figure to have the biggest impact on the Cubs’ chances of improving some of the worst team run-production numbers in the majors last season.

Manager favorite Luis Valbuena, the versatile but light-hitting infielder who already is assured a roster spot, is waiting in the wings to take the job again if Stewart falters, Sveum said.

‘‘It’s basically going to come back down to production,’’ Sveum said. ‘‘Ian knows this: He’s got to prove [it] to us and swing the bat because we need that production out of third base that we didn’t have last year.’’

If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed about Stewart since this time a year ago, it’s that much: that he definitely has something to prove.

‘‘I feel like I’ve been saying that the last few years,’’ he said. ‘‘Hopefully, it works out this year.’’

The fact that his repaired wrist hasn’t given him so much as an ache or a twinge since he went back to swinging a bat this offseason makes him confident his problems were all in the wrist.

‘‘At first I kind of anticipated a little bit of soreness still being there,’’ he said. ‘‘But it was a pleasant surprise that, at least mentally, there was nothing there at all when I started swinging.’’

He also commuted to Southern California during the winter to work with Hall of Fame hitter and former big-league hitting coach Rod Carew.

And it probably doesn’t hurt that, as he turns 28 in April, he’s close to the peak age of a baseball player’s prime, historically.

More than that, he seems especially motivated.

In a thin market for third basemen this winter, Stewart said he had at least two other offers he could have accepted before the Cubs formally made their offer.

‘‘I’m glad I didn’t,’’ said Stewart, who spoke regularly during the offseason with both Sveum and team president Theo Epstein as the Cubs kept their interest clear after non-tendering him (and avoiding an arbitration-influenced salary of $2.3  million or more).

‘‘I really wanted to give the Cubs a chance. I feel like I owe the organization for the way they stuck with me and they allowed me to do these great things by supporting me and my family, supporting me through the injury and sticking with me through the surgery. I feel like I couldn’t just walk away from that.’’

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