|DJ Stewart at Florida State (photo credit: Thomson20192)|
While aggressive minor league assignments can be questionable at times, I think it makes sense for D.J. Stewart. Stewart was the Orioles first round draft pick in 2015 (#25 overall), as someone who the organization felt had an advanced hit tool that could move him quickly through the system. And while Stewart has already played at several minor league levels (he started his season in AA), the results haven’t been what were likely expected from him.
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The problem is Stewart’s apparent quality of contact. Full disclosure: I have never seen DJ Stewart play in person. Stewart’s approach and walk rate allow his OBP to stay in the range of “acceptable” to “good”, despite his low batting averages. However, based on the limited minor league numbers available, Stewart’s low batting average does not appear to be luck driven. While his BABIP was low in 2015, it doesn’t appear so low as to account for his overall batting line. Furthermore, it’s entirely possible that his line in Frederick was propped up by the increased BABIP during his time there.
And this leads us to the real issue, which is the lack of power that Stewart has shown during his brief professional career, which is surprising for a player who had ISO’s that ranged between 0.196 and .276 during his 3 years at Florida State. For a player who is currently playing in left field and may have to move further down the defensive spectrum to first base (ESPN’s Keith Law believes that’s where he’ll end up), he’ll need to put up more power than he has shown to date in order to become a productive major leaguer.
Scouting the stat line alone is not generally advised, and as I’ve stated, I have not seen Stewart play in person yet. However, I do think it’s worth noting that publicly available scouting reports generally echo what we have seen in the stats. Despite being a first round draft choice, Stewart is not considered anywhere close to being a top prospect at the moment. Law had Stewart 12th in the organization and MLB has him 24th, while Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America also left him out of their organizational top ten lists. And in a system as light as Baltimore’s, that’s not encouraging. The common consensus seems to be that Stewart’s bat won’t be strong enough to carry his limited defensive profile.
Having said all that, the decision to start Stewart in Bowie is an interesting (and on the surface, a confusing) one. But this may be an acknowledgement that 2017 is an not only an important season for the young outfielder, but for the major league team as well. Pushing Stewart in order to get a better idea of what they have in him as a player is a good move by the organization in my opinion.
The big league team currently finds themselves in a quickly closing window of contention, and the farm system does not offer the type of talent that can help to the MLB team. Promoting Stewart to AA is a gamble that the organization should be taking. If he handles the jump to AA well (reminder that the jump to AA is a big one), then he becomes incredibly valuable to the organization no matter what they view his future defensive position to be. If they think he will eventually be limited to 1B, he becomes a valuable trade piece this summer that the organization didn’t have to begin the season. And considering he’s blocked at 1B by arguably 3 players already on the major league roster, they can afford to deal him. If they think he can stay in LF, then a successful season allows the team to look for a short-term solution in LF next offseason (Hyun Soo Kim is a free agent after this year), with the thought that Stewart could take over as the starting left fielder sometime during the 2018 or 2019 season.
The Orioles don’t really have time to wait for DJ Stewart to develop at his own pace, so the aggressive assignment to AA makes sense considering their current window of contention. If he succeeds, he becomes trade bait or a possible starter in left field during the next season or two, depending on how he’s viewed defensively. If he flops, they haven’t really lost much, as Stewart will turn 24 after the 2017 season. And a 24-year-old hitter who can’t hit and is limited defensively isn’t all that attractive, whether he’s playing in Bowie or Frederick. DJ Stewart is essentially “house money”, and the Orioles are going to keep playing until they either get rich or end up back where they started.