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D.J. Stewart needs to have a big summer if he’s ever going to make the Orioles

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The Orioles former top pick is falling down the pecking order of the organization’s top prospects.

Minor League Baseball: Arizona Fall League-Scottsdale Scorpions at Peoria Javelinas Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, MLB Pipeline released their list of the top 30 prospects in the Baltimore Orioles organization. There were few surprises. Catcher Chance Sisco is number one. He is joined in the top five by pitchers Cody Sedlock and Hunter Harvey, infielder Ryan Mountcastle and southpaw-smasher Trey Mancini.

Without a doubt, the biggest disappointment is down at number 26, where the 25th overall pick of the 2015 draft from Florida State, outfielder D.J. Stewart, can be found.

The now-23-year-old Stewart has, overall, been a letdown. As a college hitter drafted in the first round, the expectation was that he would move quickly through the farm system and slot into one of the corner outfield spots as soon as late last summer. Instead, he has moved at a glacial pace and just finished 2016 with the high-A Frederick Keys.

But just as those expectations can be a curse, providing extreme pressure, they can also be a blessing, granting a player more time to develop and requiring more patience from decision-makers. Stewart still has a fair chance at being a major league contributor eventually, but will need to make some serious moves this season in order to do so.

Competition is mounting

The Orioles used two Rule 5 draft picks on outfielders in December. Now, both players (Aneury Tavarez and Anthony Santander) are rated higher than Stewart by MLB Pipeline; ninth and 25th, respectively. Not to mention, Joey Rickard was picked up the same way one year earlier.

These rankings are not a direct reflection of how the organization itself views the players. However, these moves can easily be seen as condemnations of Stewart, his development and the type of the player the Orioles higher-ups believe he can be after watching him play baseball for the better part of two years. Basically, it would seem, they aren’t buying what he is selling.

Beyond the Rule5 trio, there are fellow top 30 prospects like Mancini, Christian Walker, Randy Gassaway, Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins who may also be vying for a spot in the Baltimore outfield soon. This type of clustered talent becomes even more dangerous for Stewart as he lacks a defining trait that puts him well above all of the others he is competing against.

Mancini has the best all-around bat. Mullins is the fastest. Hays has the best arm. Gassaway is the power hitter. Where does Stewart fit in? Maybe getting on base? More on that in a minute.

Showing improvement

As Stewart jumps up a level, he does seem to raise his level of performance. He spent the final 59 games of 2016 with the Keys, his biggest test so far, and excelled, slashing .279/.389/.448 with 12 doubles, six home runs and 30 RBI.

This is not an unheard of trend. Take Manny Machado for example. With double-A Bowie in 2012, Machado slashed .266/.352/.438 before going to the bigs and becoming an all-world talent. Now, Stewart is already four years older than Manny was at that time and will never be as good as him, but it’s possible that he struggles in the minors and succeeds at the next level. It has happened before.

More recently, over 22 games in the Arizona Fall League this offseason, Stewart hit .244/.395/.384, walking 19 times and striking out 21 times. One thing he does seem to do consistently well is walk and have a good idea of where the strike zone is located. His career minor league on-base percentage of .346 is OK, but really impresses when you learn that his batting average is a measly .241. The Orioles stink at getting on base and this is a tool that tends to translate from one level to the next.

This year it counts

Stewart should start the season with the double-A Bowie Baysox. He is coming off the best year of his professional career and needs to be pushed just a touch more. The Eastern League is tough and will confirm whether or not he can truly handle the pitching at the big league level.

The big question is how much more can Stewart develop? He turned 23 years old in November. In 183 career minor league games, he has 18 home runs and 32 doubles to go with 79 RBI and 30 steals. As everyone knows, you don’t scout based on the minor league box scores, but shouldn’t something be jumping out at us?

If we go by scouting reports, we learn that he is a smart baserunner with average speed and a weak throwing arm. Those don’t exactly sound like “fourth outfielder” tools. So, he would need to provide some serious pop with his bat in order to serve as a left fielder/first base/designated hitter option.

Reason for hope

Our own Nick Cicere has the most rosy outlook for Stewart you are going to find online, but funny enough, I agree with him.

What’s unique about Stewart is that he has constantly been tweaking his swing since signing with the O’s. Gone is the pronounced crouch he used in college and in its place is a more straight-up, standard stance that allows him to be quicker to the ball and prepared for professional pitching.

This is a major change. He went from likely being the best player on every team he was ever on, and doing well enough in college to be a first-round draft pick, to being told he needed to scrap his stance and start again. It is a long process and is one of the reasons farm teams exist; in order to work out these kinks on the way to The Show.

But the good news is that it seems to be working. He is as patient as ever, while getting more consistent and harder contact. Stewart still has a lot to prove this summer, but if he can do it with Bowie, he should earn himself a September call-up to Baltimore and eye on making the Opening Day roster in 2018. We can dream, at least.

Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts on Stewart? Have you seen him play recently? Does he have what it takes to play in the majors? If so, when can we expect him in Baltimore? Let us know in the comments, on Twitter and over at Facebook.