One of the things that has made the 2019 Orioles season a bit of a joyless slog at times this year is the realization that the team, on top of not being any good, doesn’t have many players who you can hope might be part of the next good Orioles teams. This is something that could change by year’s end as performing prospects get called up. On Tuesday, the O’s made the first of what will hopefully be several additions from within as they recalled outfielder DJ Stewart from Norfolk.
The Orioles top pick from the 2015 draft, now 25 years old, got a 17 game taste of MLB last season, during which he batted .250/.340/.550 with three home runs. That wasn’t enough for the new O’s brain trust to go with Stewart on the big league club out of spring training.
Stewart’s batting line in 43 games at Triple-A so far this season has proven too tough to ignore: .316/.425/.586, with eight home runs. Any time you have a guy who’s exceeding .300/.400/.500, you’ve got to sit up and take notice. The Orioles, helped along by the hip injury that has shuffled Chris Davis onto the injured list, finally sat up and took notice of Stewart, so here he is back in MLB.
Reliever Evan Phillips, who was called up for the short-term when Davis went onto the injured list, was optioned to Norfolk after Monday’s game, making room on the active roster for Stewart. After wearing #62 in his September call-up last season, Stewart will be wearing #24 this season.
Chiefly a left fielder in the minors, Stewart did start to play more right field last season and has been split between the outfield corners about 50/50 so far this season. Right field would seem like the place where he should slot in for regular playing time. The Davis injury allows Trey Mancini to stop playing right field and start playing first base.
Stewart is almost a perpetually-underrated prospect. He knocked himself off the radar when he batted just .218/.288/.345 with short-season Aberdeen right after being drafted in 2015 and it’s been a climb ever since. He clocked in as the #15 prospect in the system by MLB Pipeline before this season.
The prospect world doesn’t always know what to make of a guy who doesn’t fit preconceived notions of what a successful player looks like. Stewart has had his challenges as a professional player, but he’s also maintained solid skills even when he was underperforming expectations for a college draftee - his OBP has been at least 90 points higher than his batting average at every stop he’s made since 2016.
Strike zone awareness is something that will always serve a player as long as he’s also got the ability with his bat to punish the pitches that he does want to swing at. The power started to finally manifest in his 2017 season with Bowie, when he hit 21 home runs in 126 games, and it’s really come on this season, whether because of Triple-A now using the juiced MLB balls or because of something with the Elias development crew getting Stewart better positioned to join the launch angle revolution.
With Mark Trumbo reportedly close to beginning a rehab assignment and with Davis’s injury not really being defined yet, it’s not clear how long Stewart will get a chance to show his stuff at the MLB level even if he plays well. Still, he’s one guy who you’d heard of before this year who, if he starts to succeed in Baltimore, could stick around and be a part of the next good Orioles team. Here’s hoping that it works out that way for him.