DJ Stewart has been on the minds of O’s fans since 2015. That’s what happens when a first round pick is used on a college player that should climb quickly through the ranks. After a very positive 2017, 2018 can only be described as a disappointment for the outfielder.
Stewart entered the 2018 campaign as the number 13 prospect in the Orioles organization according to MLB.com’s prospect pipeline. Stewart’s disappointing season, the ascension of other prospects, and three big trades all combined to make his star fall. The same ranking now lists him as the twenty-third best prospect in the system.
Stewart was considered one of the better hitters at the college level coming into the 2015 draft. The left-handed outfielder slashed .318/.500/.593, hit fifteen homers, and stole twelve bases as a junior at Florida State. It was an improvement over his previous campaign in which he was named the 2014 ACC Player of the Year. The Orioles liked his highly developed bat and took him with the 25th overall pick. He signed for just over two million dollars.
Stewart’s stats spoke for themselves, but this pick seemed to carry more risk than you’d expect from a first round collegiate selection. His batting stance was unique; he went through college hitting out of an extreme crouch. Many scouts said that the style wouldn’t translate to the major leagues. His body type also raised some concerns. Stewart came out of college at a stocky 6 feet, 230 pounds, which caused some to say that he projected as a first baseman. A Baseball Prospectus scouting report after the draft expands on some of these concerns.
Despite achieving great success in a top program and conference in college, Stewart’s professional career got off to a rocky start. He posted slash lines of .218/.288/.345 and .230/.366/.352 at brief stops in Aberdeen and Delmarva respectively in 2015 and 2016. The organization bumped him up to Frederick during the summer of 2016 despite those struggles and he found his stroke. His OPS rose to a more respectable .837 there during the final 56 games of 2016.
That success carried into last season when Stewart spent the full season in Bowie. He slashed an impressive .278/.378/.859, swatted 21 home runs, stole 20 bases (caught only four times), and drove in 79 runs. The former first round pick seemed to be back on track heading into this season and many figured that his shot in the major leagues would come in 2018.
Stewart was invited to major league camp this spring and presented himself well. But his numbers at AAA Norfolk didn’t live up to last season. His batting average fell to .235 and his OBP of .329 was the lowest he posted since starting his professional career in Aberdeen in 2015. His home run total fell to 12 and he only drove in 55 runs. Perhaps we can blame some of his struggles on a hamstring injury suffered in May; he had an OPS of .814 and six home runs prior to going on the disabled list.
What exact skills will Stewart bring to the Orioles when he gets called up? His plate discipline and strike zone awareness have always been a strength. His career OBP of .351 is one hundred points higher than his career batting average of .250. Even when he isn’t hitting, he finds ways to get on base and help his team. That would be a very welcome addition to the Orioles.
Stewart also has an interesting combination of power and speed that could potentially play well at the major league level. In parts of four seasons, he has 49 home runs and 61 stolen bases. The optimist will say that he does a little bit of everything. The pessimist will say that neither of those skills is strong enough to make a difference against top competition.
The Orioles sought to change Stewart’s unique crouched batting stance almost immeidately. We could argue the merits of using a first round selection on a player whose approach will be radically changed. Though the numbers have been a mixed bag, the change in stance and swing has gone fairly well. According to MLB.com, “It’s resulted in a more fluid swing that better incorporates his hands and wrists, thus allowing him to catch up to inner-half velocity and hit for power during games.”
Defensively, Stewart appears to be average at best. As indicated by his stolen base numbers, he is more athletic than his body type would suggest. But he simply isn’t as athletic as smaller, more slender outfielders. He got 88 of his 114 starts in right field this season, but his arm doesn’t project to be strong enough to play that position at the majors. If he sticks in the outfield, we are probably looking at a left fielder.
Keith Law was asked on a July 26 chat when Cedric Mullins and Stewart will be called up considering the O’s aren’t going anywhere. His answer was simply: “Is there a burning reason why either should be up? These aren’t elite prospects.” There isn’t much to pick apart there, but one thing is certain: we’d like to see more out of a college hitter who was a first round pick over three years ago.
Stewart’s poor 2018 performance leaves him in an interesting position. The organization did invest a first round pick and over two million dollars in him, so they won’t give up on him yet. But he has been leapfrogged on the Orioles’ top prospect list by Yusniel Diaz, Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, and Ryan McKenna. Trey Mancini is most likely stuck in the outfield until the Trumbo/Davis log jam at first base and designated hitter gets cleared up. Of that group, Mancini and Mullins are near locks to start 2019 in Baltimore. Hays has a very good chance given that he was up last season and has put his injuries behind him.
Despite the crowded outfield, Stewart will most likely be given the opportunity to compete for a role on the major league team in spring training. A potential change in manager and general manager could impact him. Most scouting publications said that Stewart’s Baltimore ETA was 2018 and a lost season should have expedited that process. Instead, the club is opting to check out players like Joey Rickard and John Andreoli. That tells us how the current administration views Stewart and his development.
After a strong 2017 and a disappointing 2018, 2019 will be a big season for Stewart. He has completed a full season at AAA and will almost certainly make his major league debut next season. O’s fans will hope that we get to see some return on a recent first round investment.