The Orioles outfield was considered to have the most depth of any unit on the team coming into the year and it’s proved to be a strength. Cedric Mullins has locked down center field, Austin Hays is playing well when healthy, and Anthony Santander gets first dibs when healthy too. Then there’s DJ Stewart, who got squeezed out of the picture.
The 27-year-old corner outfielder came to the Orioles years ago with a strong baseball pedigree. In three seasons on the Florida State University baseball team, Stewart was a force. He put up a .344/.481/.570 batting line with 27 home runs and a 1.051 OPS over that timespan. He also had 30 more walks than strikeouts in his college career. That success led to him being taken 25th overall by the Orioles in the 2015 MLB Draft.
In theory, a polished college bat with advanced knowledge of the strike zone should move relatively quickly through the minor league system. It took Stewart the better part of three years to crack the major league roster.
Long before his current struggles in Baltimore, it wasn’t an easy path to the majors. Stewart had a rocky introduction to professional baseball in 2015, slashing .218/.288/.345 with the IronBirds when they were still part of the short-season New York Penn League.
Stewart spent 2016 between two different levels, logging a cumulative .776 OPS and 26 total stolen bases. Yet, was a slow start to the year for Stewart, as he put up a triple-slash line of .230/.366/.352 for Delmarva in the first half. He performed better after being promoted to high Single-A, where he had the longest stretch of sustained success in his professional career at the time, batting .279/.389/.448. That strong second half of the 2016 season reaffirmed his position as a viable prospect in the Orioles system.
In 2017, he built on that performance with a career high in home runs (21) and a .278/.378/.481 batting line in 457 at-bats in Bowie. When major league rosters expanded for the final month of the season that year, Stewart made his major league debut on September 11. He had a .890 OPS during his first taste of the majors (40 ABs).
The 2019 season was spent injured or being shuttled between Baltimore and the minors for Stewart. Underwhelming batting numbers that year gave way to a solid OBP and SLG in 2020, but an atrocious batting average. But who can forget that run in early September last year when he hit six home runs in six games? It’s those kinds of flashes that make you believe in DJ Stewart’s potential.
Back to the present day, where the O’s corner outfielder has played sparingly recently, with 34 at-bats in the last 30 days and just 13 at-bats in the past 15 days.
The bottom line is that Stewart isn’t getting it done with the bat. He’s carrying a .204/.312/.346 triple-slash line and an OPS below .700. In 191 at-bats, he’s got seven home runs, six doubles, 24 RBI, 27 walks, and 66 strikeouts. Considering his minor league numbers, it’s interesting that hasn’t stolen a single base.
At the same time, Stewart’s defense isn’t helping his case for more playing time either and the advanced metrics are not kind. According to FanGraphs, Stewart has a -2.5 UZR (-0.1 in left field and -2.4 in right field) this year.
His misadventures in the outfield are well documented, and a potential transition to first base is blocked by Trey Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle. At designated hitter, Stewart has the two previously mentioned players to contend with and usually Anthony Santander as well.
But news broke yesterday of the Orioles Keegan Akin and Santander, on the COVID-19 injured list. Because of player privacy, there are few details at this time and no one knows how long they’ll be out.
So Stewart should play more often now that the O’s have one less starting caliber outfielder. Even though Stewart might have competition from newly recalled Ryan McKenna, those two have different skillsets and should coexist as complementary players. Plus, when Stewart starts, it’s not uncommon for him to get pulled for a late-inning defensive replacement.
Yesterday, Stewart started in left field and batted fifth. He went 0-for-3 and was hit by a pitch in the top of the eighth. Ryan McKenna pinch-ran for Stewart and later took his place in the outfield.
The Orioles have an off day tomorrow but expect to see Stewart in the lineup more frequently in the near future. Unless the O’s call up another outfielder or Santander returns soon, Stewart will get another chance to prove he’s an everyday player.