In the long ago time where everyone thought that the Orioles outfield from the end of the 2019 season would be the Orioles outfield at the start of the 2020 season, there was not a lot of thought given to DJ Stewart. After getting surgery on his ankle last October, Stewart was not even going to be in the Opening Day picture if the season had begun as scheduled in late March.
Even if there hadn’t been that surgery, Stewart probably wouldn’t have ended up being penciled in to too many imagined lineups back at the start of spring training. Between Anthony Santander, Austin Hays, and Dwight Smith Jr., the O’s outfield seemed like it was settled.
With the Orioles not yet willing to make the final decision that Chris Davis’s presence is actively harmful to the roster and never will be otherwise again, that figured to kick Trey Mancini out into the outfield picture as well. There’s always room for a fourth outfielder, but that would be a guy who can back up center field, which is not Stewart.
That is not how the year ended up playing out. We know now that Mancini was not going to play in 2020 after his cancer diagnosis, no matter what else happened. Then there’s the one worldwide story that has consumed us all for months, the COVID-19 virus that has killed at least 200,000 Americans and infected more than 7 million. It is not over with yet.
Among COVID’s impacts on baseball is that the MLB season did not begin until late July. Stewart, by the time camp reopened, was healed enough to go. The season began with 30-man rosters. Stewart made the Opening Day roster after all. In all of that chaos was an opportunity for him.
Stewart did not exactly make the most of that initial opportunity. He spent the first two weeks of the season looking like he might be trying to break the futility record Davis set last season, going 0-14 with eight strikeouts over the first two weeks. When the roster size dropped from 30 to 28, Stewart’s six walks and .300 on-base percentage weren’t enough to save him from being sent down to the Bowie alternate training site.
That could have easily ended up being the last we ever heard of Stewart. Prospect Ryan Mountcastle looked to be lined up for a debut soon. That happened on August 21. Where do you fit in Stewart if the outfield is Mountcastle, Hays, and Santander? Yet while out of sight and out of mind except to O’s personnel at Bowie, Stewart worked to improve, and early in September he played his way back up to Baltimore. The day Stewart was recalled, Santander injured his oblique during a doubleheader, paving the way for regular playing time for Stewart.
After striking out in his first at-bat on September 5, Stewart’s 2020 season-opening hitless streak was up to 0-17 with 11 strikeouts. Then, things got awesome. Stewart snapped the season 0-for streak by homering twice that night, then he homered again in each of the next three games. By Sept. 14, Stewart had hit seven home runs and despite his ugly beginning to the season was batting an incredible .265/.419/.714. Just what kind of magic were they working at Bowie?
This was a fun ten days, made even more fun for Orioles fans by the fact that Stewart hit his first three bombs against the Yankees, against whom the O’s had their own futile streak until that early September series came along. Their fans were counting the wins and the Yankees lost three of four to the Orioles that time. There was a lot of indignant whining from those fans that the Yankees were giving up dingers to a player whose results had been as futile as Stewart’s. The tears were delicious.
After ascending to that amazing high, Stewart picked up just four hits in his final twelve games of the 2020 season. That kicked his batting average back below the classic .200 Mendoza line. With all of the walks, his OBP closed out at a respectable .355. The fact that he could walk in about 18% of his plate appearances despite two lengthy cold streaks makes for an interesting trait. Plate discipline has never been a question for Stewart.
The seven homers Stewart hit were enough to fuel a .455 slugging percentage. He did not homer again after Sept. 14. Seven homers in 31 games would have him in line for 35+ homers over 162 games, but it’s no sure thing that in ordinary circumstances Stewart would be averaging a homer every four games or so. It may well have been a fluke.
Where does all of that leave Stewart heading into 2021? Though nothing is guaranteed, it’s safe to guess that Mancini and Santander will be back for Opening Day, and with Mountcastle having looked acceptable enough in left, the outfield corners seem to be covered by those three guys.
Even if the team clears both Davis and Renato Nunez out of the first base picture, that job’s going to Mancini or Mountcastle, presumably leaving the other in the outfield with Santander and Hays or Mullins. And if you look a bit into the near future, the O’s probably have hopes that prospect Yusniel Diaz, acquired from the Dodgers in the Manny Machado trade, will be good enough to push out players who only look appealing when the team has a winning percentage of .420 or worse.
All of which adds up to suggest that Stewart enters the 2021 season about where he entered the 2020 season. It does not seem like he should be part of Plan A, even for a team that’s most likely not going to be in a competitive place just yet. There are too many other guys in the mix who should get a chance first, guys who seem like they could be better hitters, or defenders, or both. But you can do a lot worse for a backup plan than DJ Stewart.