12 April 2017

Aggressive Minor League Assignment for DJ Stewart Makes Sense

DJ Stewart at Florida State (photo credit: Thomson20192)
Aggressively promoting a player through a team’s minor league system is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. Every player is different, and the success of aggressively promoting a prospect depends on whether or not an individual player is physically and emotionally ready for that next challenge, as well as the front office/coaching staff being able to recognize it. The Orioles have promoted some of their prospects pretty aggressively in recent years, with varying degrees of success, and the organization has been more aggressive than usual in 2017.

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 one thing that Stewart has consistently shown is that he does a really good job controlling the strike zone. His walk rates throughout his minor league career (shown above) are a good indication of that. However, as a strong college batter transitioning from the SEC to single A, a walk rate in the 10-16% range is something you’d probably be more likely to expect than be surprised at. Additionally, with not unreasonable strikeout rates, Stewart appears to be making enough contact.

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.


Jon Shepherd said...

It might be important to note that Stewart's collegiate experience with wood bats was dreadful. He was a draftee whose assessment ranged from polished hitter with high floor to absolutely dreadful. My unpublished work suggests that wood bat performance, when available, can drop a 50 level metal bat projection to 35-40 with a wood bat. My pre-wood data suggests that Stewart would be a 55 prospect at 1B, but my second model that incorporates wood bat data has him as a 40 prospect. His minor league performance to date has him as a 40 prospect in the model.

Unknown said...

That's a good point that I probably should have touched on (at least in the general sense) at some point in the article. From what I found (quick search) Stewart played in the Cape Cod League after his freshman year and was ok, hitting .270/.328/.443.

Regardless, I still think Orioles don't have anything to lose by pushing him

H. Diggs said...

Never understood why the O's burned a 1st round pick on him, especially considering his defense was never there in the first place. There are plenty of guys in the college ranks who put up big hitting numbers; why select the guy with suspect D in the first round? Looked bad then, looks even worse now.

Jon Shepherd said...

His Team USA performance the summer before he was drafted was terrible. That is what I used.

I think the idea behind them drafting him was that he offensively did well with the things that typically translate over to professional play, so he had a high floor. His pitch recognition was solid, but his mechanics were geared up for metal bats. Now, it could be that the Orioles kept in mind his earlier Cape Cod performance and figured that he knew how to adjust, making him more desirable.

Anyway, picking at 25, anyone you pick has some promise and a big reason to fail. You look at the next 15 picks or so in the 2015 draft and you kind of go meh.

btwrestler119 said...

They are still messing with his stance, it is much different this year, very little crouch. It actually looks almost identical to the stance of Cedric Mullins. The difference is while Mullins has very little load to his swing, Stewart shifts his weight and hands back leading to a longer swing (it's a very smooth swing, and I think it'd play if he shortened it up). When he barrels a ball up he hits it very hard, but he hasn't found a lot of barrels so for this season (lots of pop ups and weak fly balls).

I think he could still turn into a regular though, this new stance is much more playable at the major league level, and he looks like he has plus game power. The defense is obviously still a work in progress and I don't know if he'll be an average corner outfielder even though he is quite athletic and quick for a stocky guy.

Unknown said...

Santander, Mullins, Hays and Rickard/Mancini all probably have front office preference over Stewart for any longterm projection. I've also read Moundcastle's future is probably corner OF. Thats alot of names for only two or three positions.