Facing the prospects of losing both Mark Trumbo and Matt Wieters, the most feasible and fan-friendly solution for the Orioles would naturally be turning to, you know, prospects.
Though the Orioles’ farm system was heavily aided by the additions of pitchers Cody Sedlock, Keegan Akin and Matthias Dietz this past June, while hitting connoisseur Chance Sisco is as close to being an actual Oriole as ever, the O’s are defunct of eye-opening impact talent. A quick glance of the Orioles blandish organizational depth and you can’t help but notice an unhealthy stockpile of future bullpen types and fringy outfielders. Just think the Cubs, minus realistic superstar aspirations.
One of the reasons the club’s depth is so lack thereof has some to do with the slower than expected development of last year’s first-round pick D.J. Stewart.
Stewart, who will be 23 at the end of the month, came into the Orioles system as an atypically accomplished college hitter at Florida State. An All-American and 2014 ACC Player of the Year, Stewart amassed a .344/.481/.570 slash in 177 games, including 27 home runs and a 18.0 BB%.
As established collegiate position players go, Stewart was as decorated as any to come through an elite Division I program. Still, there was the question of how his unorthodox stance would be reworked, and how Stewart the athlete would transition to the inevitable change.
This was Stewart pre-draft, and not only is his natural crouch well beyond the threshold of normal, but it presented problems against better stuff. With such a bend in his lower half, it took a lot more work to get around a plus fastball on the inner-half, his swing flattened out, and he stored a lot of potential energy in his legs, leaving a lot of unlocked power. Despite knowing Stewart would need to tweaked, the Orioles were still working with a gifted hitter.
Stewart can be stiff at times, but he has very quick hands, a compact load-to-swing, solid bat-to-ball skills and rare in these parts, has always shown an understanding of the strike zone. Those tools are fun to work with.
Here is Stewart towards the latter end of his first big league season with the Low-A Aberdeen Ironbirds, and as predicted, he is much more upright in his stance. In his first 62 professional games in the midst of a radically underestimated transformation, Stewart hit .218/.288/.345 with six home runs and an uncharacteristic 8.6 BB%. Surely some of it pressing, some of it adjusting to another level of pitching, but the numbers were altogether disappointing.
Without looking at the sample size however, Stewart showed the kind of swing the Orioles hoped he would. In college, Stewart’s swing leveled out, meaning his quick swing/big muscle combo of his equated to a lot of hard-hit baseballs that didn’t translate to extra bases.
Standing taller, Stewart has the capability of his utilizing his strong core and tailback-esque lower half with a swing that actually lifts the baseball. A stumpy stance also means more overall movement both prior and during the pitch, lessening his chances to make meaningful contact. Much quieter in his swing, Stewart further gained, as he showed a year ago, the explosiveness the Orioles believed to be untapped.
Starting 2016 with the Delmarva Shorebirds in Single-A, Stewart’s offensive numbers remained unremarkable, but he was edging back to his old self. In spite of a .230 batting average in 62 games, his .719 OPS was nearly a .100 point jump from his time in Aberdeen, as his walk rate almost doubled to 16.0%. The extra on-base numbers turned into a 114 wRC+, a proud mark for a player still tinkering with his most desirable tool.
The Orioles made the call to promote Stewart to High-A Frederick with disregard for the low batting average, as there had to be a sense he was inching towards the peak of “figuring it out”. And wouldn’t you know it, he kept on hitting and getting on base with the Keys.
Maintaining a walk rate of 15.0% while hitting .279/.389/.448 in 59 games, Stewart expanded as a multi-faceted hitter. Though BABIP is up for subjective interpretation, I like to believe that Stewart’s growing comfortability in his new self led to harder hit baseballs, leading to a rising BABIP, leading to a 135 wRC+.
Stewart was invited to play in this year’s Fall Stars Game, a super cheesy pseudonym for the Arizona Fall League’s exhibition of rising stars. Yes, Stewart hit only .244 with the Peoria Javelinas, but in 22 games, Stewart walked 19 times and managed to go 8-22 against left-handed pitching. Once again, forget the numbers in a sample size comprised of really good young pitching and guys Stewart has probably never seen before, and take the redefined player at face value.
Here in the AFL, now maximizing his hulking 6’0, 230 pound frame, Stewart has continued to cut down on his inefficiencies. Turning on a fastball, you see a hitter whose head is centered, his hands and load maintain proper rhythm, and more than anything, it doesn’t look like a work in project. It’s starting to look natural.
It isn’t often a collegiate hitter with Stewart’s resume isn’t fast-tracked to the big leagues, or fails to offer up numbers to insure the reasoning behind the high-pick status. The Orioles took a risk with Stewart, and while his progression has frustrated some if not most, any team that took him was going to ask a lot.
A player like Stewart, whose tremendous hand-eye coordination and recognition of the strike zone have never been in question, is trekking towards becoming a hitter without flash, but nothing short of substance.
There will always be a place for a player who can surprise with occasional power while finding ways on base, and if Stewart doesn’t stray from his incremental improvements, the Orioles may not have a superstar but a valuable piece to the puzzle. Granted, we’re still dealing in “ifs”, and the only guarantee in baseball are the contracts, but Stewart has quietly parried away the obstacles in his short time as a pro.
Trusting in his prerequisites to blend with what was to come required a little bit of faith on the part of the Orioles, and it looks like Stewart is starting to answer a few prayers.