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Making sense of DJ Stewart’s early demotion

Trey Mancini’s return to the outfield and Baltimore’s lack of pitching depth make it difficult to find a place for Stewart this season.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles broke camp with a 28-man roster that included 14 pitchers and 14 position players. All seven infielders were expected to make the club, and the Birds were always going to carry two catchers

A lack of pitching depth and a shortened spring training increased the need for extra pitchers, but the Orioles still elected to carry five outfielders. Anthony Santander, Cedric Mullins and Austin Hays were all locks to make the club. Ryan McKenna broke camp as a versatile defensive player that can handle all three outfield spots, and DJ Stewart also made the team.

Stewart arrived in Baltimore in 2018 and exceeded his rookie limits the following year. He played in 31 of 60 games in 2020 and appeared in 100 games last season. The 28-year-old has yet to materialize as a dependable option.

Stewart does one thing better than everything else— he gets on base. With respect to the moneyball diehards, that alone will not keep you on a major league roster. Stewart posted an impressive .355 OBP compared to his .193 batting average in 2020. His average jumped slightly to .204 last season, but the OBP fell to just .324.

Stewart is not a plus defender in left field and cannot play center under any circumstances. The speedy McKenna fits the mold as a fourth outfielder. Stewart simply does not.

Still, Stewart managed to sneak his way onto the club. A quick glance at Baltimore’s Opening Day roster shows five outfielders. Unfortunately for Stewart, the Orioles do not see it that way. They think they have six.

The Orioles appear set on playing Trey Mancini in the outfield this season. They want to keep his bat in the lineup, view Ryan Mountcastle as a full time first baseman, and are apparently under the impression that Mancini can hold his own out there. Mancini confirming that notion would increase his trade value this summer, but that is a conversation for another day.

It really does not matter if Mancini should be playing in the outfield because the Orioles are going to try it. The reality is that a team with this pitching situation has no business keeping six outfielders on the active roster.

Not even innings-eater Jordan Lyles could turn in six frames in his first outing. The Orioles are utilizing piggyback pitchers this season, and the bullpen will be asked to cover at least four innings in almost every game in April.

The team needs fresh arms.

Mancini and Santander have been linked to trade rumors, but both players will likely remain on the team until at least July. Can Stewart simply wait around for the pair to get traded? Not exactly.

Kyle Stowers, Robert Neustrom, Yusniel Diaz and even Johnny Rizer will be fighting for a promotion in 2022. The Orioles named Stowers their co-minor-league player of the year last season, and Neustrom was a favorite to be selected in the Rule 5 draft before it was canceled. Diaz’s name may not carry the same weight from when he entered the organization, but the heralded prospect will still get an opportunity if he stays healthy this year.

Brandon Hyde said Stewart handled his option “like a pro” and that he needs Triple-A at bats. Suddenly, it’s fair to wonder where those at bats will come from.

Stewart could fall from making the Opening Day roster to barely cracking Norfolk’s outfield at a concerning pace. The Florida State product has just one minor league option remaining and will become arbitration eligible after this season. With several prospects expected to get their first crack at the big leagues this season, it’s fair to wonder how Stewart could cling to his 40-man roster spot all year.

It’s also fair to wonder if a team would part with anything to give Stewart a change of scenery. He is a first-round pick with major league experience and an ability to get on base. It’s unclear if the Orioles could sneak Stewart through waivers if they designated him for assignment.

It feels harsh to pile onto a guy this early in the season, but this has nothing to do with his 0-for-3 at the plate in 2022. It’s becoming less clear if there is still a place in the organization for the former top pick. Mike Elias has already called out players that need to step up this season. DJ Stewart could be next on that list.