On its face, it seems like the kind of move the Orioles should be making. On Dec. 29, Baltimore signed Kohl Stewart, a right-handed pitcher who had recently been given a pink slip from the Minnesota Twins.
One team’s trash is another’s treasure, and when you’ve lost 223 games in two years, you have a very loose definition of the term “treasure.” And Stewart fit the bill. This was, after all, the fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft. And this is a smart kind of play for a rebuilding team: take chances on players with high upside in the hopes that one of those lottery tickets cashes in.
Now the question is whether there’s still potential for the Orioles to find and a quality arm still there, or if they’ll just find out what the Twins have already seen for themselves, which was uninspiring enough for the team to cut bait with him at only 25 years old.
The stats offer a muddy picture. On one hand, Stewart had an encouraging first taste of the majors in 2018, going 2-1 with a 3.68 ERA in eight appearances, four of them starts. His WHIP was high at 1.418, and his 24 strikeouts in 36.2 innings made for a pedestrian K-per-9 rate, but it was his first time in the majors. Can’t expect a guy to dominate at the highest level right away.
You can certainly expect more than he delivered last year in his second season. Stewart was 2-2 with a 6.39 ERA and a 1.461 WHIP. His strikeout rate was down to 3.6, completing a stat line so bleak that the Twins threw in the towel.
A look at his minor league experience doesn’t offer much encouragement. In three Triple-A seasons, he went 9-9 with a 4.87 ERA, and as was the case in the majors, he backslid. In 2018, he had a 3.98 ERA and 1.402 WHIP in eight appearances (four starts). Last season, pitching almost exclusively as a starter (20 appearances, 19 starts), he had a 5.14 ERA and 1.473 WHIP.
Stats don’t always predict the future, however. Stewart could be another Jeremy Guthrie, who failed to make an impact in three major league stints with Cleveland before Baltimore picked him up and started him down a path as a dependable starter. Zack Greinke went from a 3.97 ERA as a rookie to a 5.80 mark in his second season, only to win the Cy Young Award four years later.
Both, like Stewart, were first-round selections, and eventually showed the upside that prompted their teams to select them. They just needed time. Such turnaround stories are rare, but they do exist.
That is, if they have the stuff, and that’s the biggest concern with Stewart.
The upside was there, it would seem. When Stewart signed with the Twins in 2013 at 18 years old, it was hailed as being the kind of move that could soon bolster the entire starting rotation. The Pioneer Press said he had “the sort of power arm the Twins have been looking for,” with a fastball reliably in the mid-90s that touched 97, along with a slider and changeup that were “advanced for a pitcher his age.” Yahoo Sports said he was another Josh Beckett in the making.
Now, the indications are that a prospect who dazzled enough to be worthy of a top-five pick has nowhere near that arsenal. According to MLB’s Baseball Savant, he no longer leans on a four-seam fastball but on a sinker, his four-seam velocity sits in the 91-93 range, and he’s become more reliant on off-speed and breaking pitches.
Looking at the breakdowns, Stewart appears to be a pitcher who has been urged to re-invent himself — in other words, the repertoire that made him a coveted prospect is either no longer there, or no longer effective. That would explain the quick ax from the Twins; 25 years old and honing a style is one thing. Twenty-five and trying to find one is another.
So that starts to explain why Stewart hasn’t found his stride. Back to the question at hand: Could he?
It’s hard to answer yes to this question. Stewart strikes out fewer batters than he used to, throws fewer fastballs and sinkers than he used to, and gives up more fly balls than he used to (53.5 percent ground ball, 25.4 percent fly ball in 2018 to 48.3 and 28.1, respectively, in 2019). Now he’s moving to a ballpark where fly balls hurt even more. Unless he finds that velocity or that sinker, it’s hard to see him making a stride in Baltimore.
But there’s nothing to lose, which is why the move makes sense. Maybe there’s a 25 percent chance Stewart develops. Maybe it’s 10. Maybe it’s 1. But the Orioles are trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Sometimes, you’ve got to give lightning a shot.