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Know Your Orioles 40-man: DJ Stewart

The former first rounder can draw walks and go on the occasional homer binge, but not consistently enough to overcome his defensive challenges. 2022 might be his last hurrah with the Orioles.

Toronto Blue Jays v Baltimore Orioles - Game Two Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

This article is part of the Know Your Orioles 40-man series, which features an article about each player currently on the Orioles roster. There will be one every weekday until we run out of players.

Note: The Orioles designated DJ Stewart for assignment on 4/19/22. He is no longer on the Orioles 40-man roster.

If you’re anything like me, the news that the Orioles were moving back the left-field fence at Camden Yards brought a number of reactions.

Like, “Wow, that’s going to look weird.”

Or, “Hey, O’s pitchers might actually look competent now.”

And, most importantly, “For heaven’s sake, we better not see DJ Stewart in left field ever again.”

Stewart, the beefy 28-year-old and former first-round draft pick, has never been a particularly good defender. He’s perhaps best known, unfortunately, for the cringeworthy but extremely gif-worthy moment moment in which he haplessly dove for a fly ball that promptly clanked him on the noggin. While that’s a particularly disastrous example, Stewart’s usual fielding exploits are simply run-of-the-mill bad — bad range, bad routes, bad arm. He carries a career -11 Defensive Runs Saved, per FanGraphs, including an atrocious -9 last season.

Mixing Stewart’s defensive challenges with a left-field wall that’s been pushed back 26 feet, well...it’s not a recipe for success. And if he loses significant playing time because of the field renovations, it’s hard to find a role for Stewart on this Orioles team. At this point in his career, he hasn’t shown enough offensive prowess to justify a roster spot as a designated hitter or bat-only bench player.

When the O’s selected Stewart with their first pick (25th overall) in the 2015 draft, they had visions of a potentially dynamic big league hitter. He was coming off a stellar junior season at Florida State in which he bashed 15 homers and posted a 1.093 OPS, following a sophomore campaign in which he was named the 2014 ACC Player of the Year thanks to a conference-leading .351/.472/.557 triple slash line. Even then, though, Stewart had his question marks, starting with a shockingly low batting crouch that never figured to fly in professional baseball. The Orioles changed his stance, but his numbers suffered; Stewart stumbled to a .219 average and .633 OPS in his first taste of the minors for then short-season Aberdeen in 2015.

To Stewart’s credit, once he got his feet under him, he began a steady ascent through the Orioles’ minor league system, reaching the majors for the first time in 2018. Since then, though, he’s been an enigma — often showing a good batting eye and, at times, capable of jaw-dropping power, but too often failing into extended slumps and failing to make hard contact.

The 2020 season was a microcosm of Stewart’s career. He began the pandemic-shortened campaign with an 0-for-14 drought, losing his grip on a potential everyday role after an Austin Hays injury, and was banished to the Bowie alternate camp for a month. When he returned, he went on a fiery power binge in which he crushed seven home runs in nine games, including five in a four-day stretch. But in his final 12 games, he batted just .103 (4-for-39) with no home runs.

Last season was the first time Stewart remained on the big league roster all year without any demotions to the minors. It was his best opportunity yet to prove he could be part of the Orioles’ future. Unfortunately, he didn’t take advantage. His OBP was a passable .324, thanks to 44 walks, but he homered just 12 times in 100 games and slugged an uninspiring .374. Those hitting stats could keep him employed if he were a solid defender at a premium position, but they’re not acceptable for a corner outfielder who’s borderline unplayable with the glove.

Stewart remains on the Orioles’ roster, because, well, why not? The O’s aren’t contending this year, and there’s no harm in evaluating whether there’s any juice left to be squeezed from a player with first-round pedigree, especially when he’s still making the league minimum. Stewart is arbitration eligible for the first time after the 2022 season, though, so he’ll need to have some kind of breakout to avoid being a non-tender candidate next winter.

End-of-season prediction: You’d like to hope there’s still some potential for Stewart to unlock, especially when he gets into one of his grooves of launching moon shots onto the flag court for a few days in a row. But at 28, he probably is what he is at this point, and he may be among the first position players to get squeezed off the roster when the bumper crop of O’s prospects arrives, especially slugging outfielder Kyle Stowers. Most likely, Stewart won’t hit enough to justify a roster spot all season, and he’ll be out of the organization by the end of the year.

Previously: Félix Bautista, Logan Gillaspie, Isaac Mattson, Cionel Pérez, Bryan Baker, Rougned Odor, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Kyle Bradish, Rylan Bannon, Yusniel Díaz, Kelvin Gutiérrez, Kevin Smith, Terrin Vavra, D.L. Hall, Jahmai Jones, Bruce Zimmermann, Mike Baumann, Ryan McKenna, Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin, Jorge López, Ramón Urías, Dillon Tate, Paul Fry, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells, Cole Sulser, Jorge Mateo, Tanner Scott

Tomorrow: Ryan Mountcastle