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The curious case of Kyle Stowers

Stowers was demoted to Norfolk on Sunday after being rarely used through the season’s first week. It is a seemingly unfair outcome for a player with plenty to offer the big league squad.

MLB: Spring Training-Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles don’t seem interested in finding out what Kyle Stowers can do with a full-time role. With little more than a week of the season gone, Stowers has remained a fixture on the team’s bench, starting just once with a late-inning pinch-hit opportunity here and there. So it wasn’t totally surprising to see him demoted to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday when the team activated veteran catcher James McCann.

Orioles manager Brandon Hyde defended the decision by saying that the organization wants “to see Kyle get everyday at-bats, see him get four at-bats a game.” Apparently, that wasn’t going to happen in Baltimore anytime soon because of the “the row of left-handed starters that we’re going to be facing here, not only today (against Nestor Cortes) but in the Oakland series.” Hyde also noted that the outfield situation is rather crowded, particularly with Terrin Vavra now part of the equation.

Would it be unreasonable to ask the Orioles to slap together a PowerPoint presentation and walk us through their explanation of why it has been determined internally that Stowers is not an option against left-handed pitchers?

Stowers had a .326/.430/.547 slash line against lefties in Norfolk last season. The sample size there isn’t huge (95 at-bats), but there’s also the 61 plate appearances at Bowie in 2021, when he had a 1.062 OPS against southpaws. In the few chances he’s gotten against them in the majors (four plate appearances), Stowers is 1-for-2 with a homer, and just this past spring he was 4-for-14 against them. A scouting report from FanGraphs prior to last year even included the line “he makes good swing decisions, which allow him to hang in well against left-handed pitching.” The Orioles are seemingly the only ones harping on his (in)ability against same-sided hurlers.

It’s true that the Orioles outfield is crowded, and if Colton Cowser makes his expected ascension sometime this summer it will only get more so. But it’s not like this is the result of a slowly evolving roster made of thoughtful moves or player growth. We are just 10 days into the season. The front office had all winter to examine the team, maybe deal from areas of strength (like outfield or shortstop), and build out a winner. Instead, they largely held onto their prospect chips in deference of some potential future blockbuster to be. So mentioning the depth of a positional group in this moment won’t fall on the most empathetic ears.

What we do know is that the Orioles treat prospects they view as long-term fixtures differently than those that are more likely to be riding the Norfolk shuttle. Some (read: a lot!) of that can be chalked up to service time shenanigans, but Mike Elias has time and time again said that he prefers for prospects to force their way into the big league picture by making a promotion undeniable. And once those big-time prospects do arrive in Baltimore they stay for the long haul.

It was agonizing to wait for guys like Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, and even Ryan Mountcastle to be promoted when it seemed like they had earned the call weeks or months earlier. But from the moment they got the call, it’s been clear what the Orioles had planned. They were inserted into the lineup, and that is where they have remained.

With Stowers, that was never the case. He was first promoted in June of last year as a replacement player for the Orioles trip to Toronto when Anthony Santander was placed on the restricted list. He played in two games and went right back to Norfolk until mid-August. By that point the Orioles were in the midst of a playoff push, and Stowers was relegated to a bench bat.

That trend continued through the first week of the 2023 season. Stowers had gotten one start in eight games and been used as a pinch hitter twice. There are no at-bats to be had in the DH spot, Hyde seemed to prefer the entire package offered by Austin Hays, Anthony Santander, or even Vavra in the corner outfield spots, and Ryan McKenna has established himself as a useful speedy glove option off the bench. There was no work for Stowers.

This isn’t to say that the Orioles don’t think Stowers can play baseball at a major league level. He wouldn’t have made the Opening Day squad if that was the case. But it seems evident that they view him as a second-tier option to others on the roster—even worse against left-handed pitching—, and it’s not particularly close.

To be fair, that valuation of Stowers is not entirely dissimilar to what the public scouting industry thought of the outfielder. The aforementioned FanGraphs report, a publication that liked him more than most, gave him a future value of 45, just under the midpoint 50 on the 20-80 scale. He was never a “Top 100” type or a star in the making. But the bat is good, and has plenty of pop. It certainly seems qualified to get some starts ahead of someone like Vavra, who currently has a .311 OPS on the season, or Hays, who has been rather bad outside of his 5-for-5 game on the second day of the season.

An eventual path to playing time in Baltimore still exists for Stowers. But it relies on not only the Stanford product putting up numbers with Norfolk but also someone currently in the outfield set-up to struggle dramatically or get hurt.

The window for that to happen and for Stowers to be the one getting the call will shrink every day. One would assume that as the summer goes on, and Cowser’s numbers in Norfolk improve that he will be the one headed to Baltimore instead. And there is even the outside chance that the resurgent Heston Kjerstad—currently with Double-A Bowie—continues his impressive bounce-back from early-career health problems to force some questions later in the year.

For now, Stowers goes to Norfolk for the third season in a row. We can be certain that prodigious moonshots are to follow and hopefully some healthy experience against left-handed pitching so that he can amass even more evidence to prove that yes, he can actually handle southpaws.