Coming into the 2017 season, it could be argued that no Orioles prospect needed a big year more than D.J. Stewart. After being selected 25th overall by the O's in 2015, Stewart had a terrible start to his professional career.
For some, this was expected. Stewart put up huge numbers in college at Florida State, but his unorthodox low crouch led many to question how his collegiate hitting skills would carry over against pro-caliber pitching.
By the end of 2015, the answer appeared to be: not well. Stewart hit .218/.288/.345 (89 wRC+) over his first partial season with Aberdeen. He was promoted to Delmarva at the beginning of 2016, where he was better, but still not producing the way the Orioles would have liked.
His .230/.366/.352 line wasn't quite as horrific, but it's not the kind of production you'd like to see from your first-round pick who projects as a corner outfielder at best, and a 1B/DH at worst. In order to be useful to a major league club, that type of player needs to swing a big bat, not a league average one.
Not only that, Stewart was a little older than the average player in that league, so it’s not like he was a hotshot first round pick out of high school struggling to adjust. He was supposed to move through the system quickly. For that reason, Stewart was promoted to high-A Frederick at midseason even though he hadn’t really done much to earn it.
For the Keys, though, he started to look like the player he was supposed to be. Stewart hit .279/.389/.448 (135 wRC+) over 240 plate appearances, creating an unusual trend of hitting better each time he was moved up a level.
That's probably not a coincidence, because around the middle of last year it was reported that Stewart was finally getting comfortable with his new stance and swing.
Still, Stewart wasn't highly regarded by prospect lists heading in 2017. Because of his mixed performance so far and the fact that his value is so dependent on his bat, he ranked as low as #26 on some lists.
That put him in the back of a pack of outfielders that included Trey Mancini, Christian Walker, recent Rule 5 pick Anthony Santander, Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, and Randolph Gassaway.
Breaking camp with the Bowie Baysox for 2017, it was make or break time for Stewart. Highly-drafted college hitters don't normally take a slow path to the majors, so he needed a big year to avoid being completely surpassed by those other outfielders in the system.
And boy, did he deliver. Stewart played the entire season for Bowie and hit .278/.378/.481 (137 wRC+), with 21 home runs and 20 stolen bases, while striking out at a lower rate than he had at any level so far.
Over the course of about a year, the narrative on Stewart has completely changed. Even his strong finish to the 2016 season was met with some skepticism about whether or not it was legit. Now, he’s got 780 plate appearances of great production since his mid-2016 promotion to Frederick.
No longer is he the great but unorthodox college hitter who couldn't adjust to the pro game. It’s clear that he has adjusted. It just took some time. Not only that, his position among of the crowd of outfield prospects looks quite a bit better.
Christian Walker is gone. Santander is still an unknown quantity after sitting out most of the season. After a red-hot spring, Mullins had an injury-plagued year and had his worst offensive season yet as a pro. Gassaway finished with a disappointing .260/.304/.338 batting line between Frederick and Bowie. Where others have faltered or failed to take a step forward, Stewart took a huge one.
Santander’s awkward Rule 5 status might complicate things for a while, but it's not unreasonable to think that Stewart will be on the major league roster at some point in 2018. That becomes even more likely if Mark Trumbo continues to struggle, and if Seth Smith doesn't return.
All of a sudden, Stewart is one of the Orioles' most interesting offensive prospects again. That may say more about the Orioles' organization than it does about Stewart, but it's still impressive nonetheless considering how he was viewed a year or two ago. Maybe calling someone a bust after their first three months as a pro isn't such a great idea after all.