In a different year, it’s a game winning blast. The type of drive that snaps a losing streak and results in a 180 degree momentum shift. The play makes the season highlight reel, and receives credit for getting things back on track.
Not this year. Not even close.
After a 45-minute rain delay, DJ Stewart stepped to the plate in the eighth inning Monday with a man on and the Birds trailing by one. Stewart walloped a 1-0 four-seam fastball 411 feet to right field to give the Orioles a late inning lead. Sensing the moment, Stewart delivered a straight-faced, two-handed bat flip in the direction of Baltimore’s dugout.
The moment provided Baltimore the best reason to celebrate since the 27th out in John Means’ no hitter. The bat flip seemed appropriate (it didn’t even bother the Twins), but Minnesota had the last laugh. The Twins torched Baltimore’s bullpen and escaped with an 8-3 win. The loss secured the worst record in baseball for the Orioles.
The meltdown hurt, but did not come as a surprise. Baltimore’s bullpen has significantly dropped off, and the Orioles cannot have nice things. Still, the end result robbed Stewart of his hero moment. That fact stings more because Stewart is running out of time.
The Orioles selected Stewart in the first round of the 2015 draft. The Florida State product does not become arbitration eligible until 2023 and would not be a free agent until 2026, but there is a growing chance he does not see either of those years in Baltimore.
The emergence of Cedric Mullins and presence of a healthy Austin Hays appear to rule out two outfield spots for this season and the future. The return of Most Valuable Oriole Anthony Santander from a left ankle sprain appears to give Baltimore three clear choices in the outfield. Ryan Mountcastle is still being asked to play left field from time to time, and Hays and Mullins rule out the need for an extra centerfielder.
Despite that fact, Stewart is still on the roster. So is utility man Stevie Wilkerson, for what it’s worth, but there appears to be a ticking clock. The Orioles’ lack of pitching has created a demand for roster flexibility. The Orioles did not recall Wilkerson until May 18, and he enters play Wednesday with a .368 average.
Stewart enters Wednesday with a .212 average in a larger sample size. He now has 21 hits in 99 at bats. Four of those, including Monday’s moon shot and another blast last night, are home runs.
Stewart emerged as a power threat last season when he managed to hammer six homers in a six-game stretch. Unfortunately, outside of that week, Stewart has just 12 home runs in 333 at bats. But who knows, maybe he has another six-homer week in him right now.
Stewart’s calling card is his ability to get on base. He holds a .333 career OBP, and his .330 total this season checks right around that mark. An above average OBP has been a four-leaf clover in Baltimore over the last decade. Unfortunately, Stewart has been unable to tally other replacement level numbers at the plate.
The left-handed hitter holds a career .221 average. His career WAR sits at -0.6, while he’s at -0.1 so far this season. He’s not fast, there is little defensive versatility, and he does not slug quite like a man named Demetrius Jerome Stewart should.
Ryan McKenna has already received a pair of opportunities this year but failed to deliver at the plate. He recorded only four hits in 16 at bats, but his .250/.333/.625 slash line at Norfolk indicates there may be a little pop in the bat after all.
While McKenna holds value on the defensive side, the Orioles have another highly-rated outfielder approaching the majors. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario, outside of injury, that does not involve Yusniel Diaz being promoted this season. Diaz is currently listed on the 7-day IL at Triple-A with a right quadricep strain, but should not miss a significant amount of time. The Orioles need to see what they have in the centerpiece of the Manny Machado deal, and it’s tough to picture him coexisting with Stewart on the 26-man roster.
Stewart does have a minor league option remaining, but this could be his last chance to get regular at bats in Baltimore. Simply put, he needs to hit well enough to stick around or he may never return. A pair of homers this week is a tremendous start.
For one reason or another, Stewart seems to fit the bill of a player that would flounder in Baltimore but figure things out in another organization. He has shown flashes like that week last September, and there are several raw skills present already. It’s not fun to picture Stewart thriving in another American League organization— especially one with a short porch.
Still, the Orioles cannot hold onto players because they think they might blossom elsewhere (see Ruiz, Rio). They can give a player every opportunity to figure it out this season. Stewart has played in 414 games over four seasons, and he hit just .193 in 31 games last year.
Baltimore could trade Santander at the deadline, but the club might not receive a fair offer. There’s no rush to deal Santander, or to make a move at all, and the Orioles will have a full stable regardless. Jahmai Jones will require a look at some point, while McKenna and Diaz need ample time for a true audition.
Stewart still has time for a revelation, but how much time remains to be seen. As for an offensive uptick, there is no better time than the present.