It seems Kyle Stowers can’t help getting overshadowed.
The 24-year-old Californian with the blinding blond locks, a 2019 second-round pick out of Stanford with a prolific minor league career, wasn’t the most ballyhooed O’s prospect from his draft class to debut this year. Heck, he wasn’t even the second most.
While Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson — who each ranked as the #1 prospect in baseball at some point this year — arrived in the majors to breathless acclaim and national media attention, Stowers slipped onto the roster with barely any notice outside of Baltimore. While Rutschman and Henderson immediately joined the lineup as impact everyday players, Stowers found himself on the bench all too often. And while Rutschman and Henderson have already established themselves as essential cogs for the Orioles’ future, Stowers’ long-term role is much less clear.
That’s not to say Stowers is chopped liver. He made a name for himself in 2021, his first full pro season, in which he bashed an organization-leading 27 home runs and OPS’ed .898 to rocket up the Orioles’ prospect charts. Stowers jumped two levels that year, starting at High-A Aberdeen, zooming through Double-A Bowie, and finishing at Triple-A Norfolk. With his prodigious power, though, came a whole lot of strikeouts; 171 of them in 124 games, accounting for more than 32 percent of his plate appearances.
Starting this year at Norfolk, Stowers raised his game, getting his strikeouts somewhat under control — down to 25.6 percent — while losing none of his pop. He smashed 19 home runs, drove in 78, and posted an .884 OPS. It was a matter of when, not if, he’d arrive in the majors this year, though the glut of outfielders and DH-types on the Orioles’ major league roster blocked Stowers’ path. Outside of a two-game MLB debut in Toronto in June when Anthony Santander went on the restricted list, Stowers had to wait his turn.
And then the moment arrived. On Aug. 1, the day before the trade deadline, the Orioles dealt Trey Mancini to the Astros. Parting ways with a fan favorite and longest tenured Oriole was bittersweet, to put it mildly, but at least it opened up an everyday spot in the lineup for a young prospect. All right, Kyle, now’s your chance to—
A day after dealing Mancini, the O’s somewhat inexplicably struck a deal with the Rays for the veteran Phillips, a clubhouse marvel and defensive wizard whose bat, unfortunately, was no longer major league caliber. Stowers’ arrival, much to the consternation of Orioles fans, would have to wait a bit longer. Stowers didn’t sulk. He continued to put his head down and do his thing, posting an .836 OPS for Norfolk in 15 August games.
Finally, his promotion came. The Orioles DFA’d Phillips on Aug. 19 after a 2-for-17, nine-strikeout audition, summoning Stowers from the Tides. In his first MLB game in two months, Stowers went 2-for-5, bolstering a lineup that exploded for 15 runs against the Red Sox that night. He looked ready for his big league opportunity.
And then the Orioles just sort of...stopped playing him? Not regularly, at least. Stowers was on the bench the day after his arrival, as manager Brandon Hyde cited the “reverse splits” of Red Sox right-hander Michael Wacha. For much of the remaining season, it wasn’t uncommon for Stowers to go two or three games between starts, and not once did the lefty swinger start against a southpaw. He ended up with only four plate appearances against lefties for the Orioles, in one of which he homered.
Hyde’s reluctance to play Stowers against lefties was puzzling, considering the 24-year-old was anything but a platoon player at Triple-A. Stowers hit left-handers at a sensational clip at Norfolk, batting .330/.441/.577 in a 118-PA sample size. And that wasn’t a one-year fluke. In 2021, he hit .292/.384/.567 with nine homers in 138 PAs versus lefties. That the Orioles didn’t give him even one start to test his mettle against a big-league left-hander feels like a real missed opportunity for a player they’re trying to evaluate.
The sporadic playing time and limited opportunities given to Stowers, perhaps, is a sign that the Orioles’ brain trust is skeptical he can be an everyday starter in the long term. Despite his improved strikeout rate in the minors this year, the amount of swing-and-miss in Stowers’ game remains a concern. He fanned 29 times in 98 MLB plate appearances, a 29.6 percent rate. That’s higher than any 2022 O’s regular, even guys with free-swinging tendencies like Jorge Mateo (27.6 percent) and Ryan Mountcastle (25.3).
In the early goings, Stowers didn’t show a lot of patience at the plate, walking just five times and posting an OBP of .306, down 50 points from his career minor league mark. It could be that Stowers’ plate discipline will improve with experience and more regular playing time, or it could be something that he’ll always struggle with.
On defense, Stowers carries a solid reputation — good enough that he primarily played center field at Norfolk — but he’s played so little in the bigs that advanced defensive metrics don’t have much of a read on him yet. He split his time almost evenly between right field and left field (88 innings at the former, 83 at the latter) with wildly different results. In right, Stowers graded out fine, with a Defensive Runs Saved of 1. In left, he was hit with negative marks across the board, including -2 DRS. The spacious left field dimensions at Camden Yards might have something to do with that.
There’s a lot more the Orioles need to learn about Stowers. Still, his brief career has already provided some memorable moments. He picked a wonderful time for his first major league home run Aug. 25, a two-out, two-strike, game-tying blast in the bottom of the ninth off All-Star White Sox closer Liam Hendriks. The Orioles went on to a dramatic walkoff win.
On Sept. 3, Stowers joined fellow 2019 draftees Rutschman and Henderson in the O’s lineup, the first time in franchise history that the Orioles’ first three picks from the same draft all started together. The trio combined for four hits in an 8-1 victory over Oakland. The three would share the same starting lineup eight times by season’s end.
It surely won’t be the last time Stowers teams up with the Birds’ two budding superstars, but how will he fit into the 2023 picture? Barring any offseason trades, Santander, Cedric Mullins, and Austin Hays remain ahead of him in the outfield depth chart, though Santander could see more time at DH. Still, Stowers doesn’t have much more to prove in the minors, so he should have a place on the Orioles’ roster. If the O’s can find a way to get him more regular at-bats — yes, including against lefties — they can better evaluate what they’ve really got in Stowers.
Previously: Fallen prospect roundup, Jean Pinto, Darell Hernaiz, Drew Rom, international prospect roundup, César Prieto, Mike Baumann, Hudson Haskin, John Rhodes and Reed Trimble, Cade Povich and Chayce McDermott, Joey Ortiz, Terrin Vavra, injured pitcher roundup, Coby Mayo
Monday: Heston Kjerstad