Former top pick DJ Stewart joins Orioles with plenty to prove as team continues to pass out opportunities

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

As he sat home last week and reflected on the end of his first year in Triple-A and some of the struggles he dealt with in the season’s final weeks, former first-round draft pick DJ Stewart couldn’t help but think that the major league call-up the Orioles handed him Tuesday wasn’t meant to be.

Instead, he was pulled from a period of reflection and wedding preparations onto a big league roster for the first time, leaving Stewart and manager Buck Showalter to answer for what made now the time to bring the team’s top pick from 2015 up on the heels of a second-half struggle in Norfolk that led to him ending the year batting .235.

"We kept waiting for him to get it going again, and have it come up on a positive note,” Showalter said, noting that he and executive vice president Dan Duquette had been discussing possibly adding Stewart for several weeks. “I think some of the pressure of that, too, probably weighed on him some, especially when you’re sitting there and you see guys go up. You know the opportunity might be there. I just look at it as a guy that has a potential to have a future and be in our plans. Let’s take a chance. Why not?”

Showalter told Stewart when they met ahead of Tuesday’s game that he believes some of the best player development comes in the two or three weeks after a season ends, once the day-to-day routine stops.

When Stewart began to do that once the Tides’ season ended on Labor Day, he found what he called “the tale of two seasons.” Carrying the momentum of last year’s strong year with Double-A Bowie, where he hit .278 with 21 home runs and 20 steals, plus a strong stint in major league spring training, Stewart started well for the Tides. He was batting .271 with an .814 OPS and, like many players across the Orioles system, heating up with the weather when Stewart went on the disabled list with a hamstring injury May 26.

He missed a few weeks, but never really got himself going after that, batting .206 the rest of the way.

“Now that I had time that week to think about it, I feel like when I got back I was trying to get back to where I was hitting before I got hurt instead of just playing,” Stewart said. “Early in the season, I was just playing the game, having fun, getting hits. When I got back, it was like, ‘Alright, you’ve got to get back to where you were.’ I kind of put a little bit too much pressure — not pressure on myself, just trying to do too much. Trying to get three hits in one at-bat when nobody can do that. For me, it was more of a mental thing that I let snowball on me a little bit. To have that week off now, it’s like a new start, honestly. For me, I get these last couple weeks of the season and see what an happen.”

What he and the Orioles hope happen is simple. Stewart is here, he said, to show “that I can play.”

“I think everyone who hasn’t really seen me play, they just see the statistics and stuff like that,” he said. “But when you watch me play, I think they’ll enjoy what I bring to the team, how I go about the game, and that I can play. I think that’s something I can contribute to the team, and something I think I can show.”

Stewart is right in that his profile has been met with skepticism both internally and externally. Though he’s changed plenty about his swing from the initial low crouch he had at Florida State, evaluators have struggled to envision what Stewart will be in the majors. His corner outfield profile also brings concerns that there’s some redundancy with the rest of the team’s prospect pool. But Stewart has been the type of player who has grown to be a favorite of his minor league managers as they watch him on a daily basis. He said there’s plenty that the stats don’t show.

“It doesn’t show that I’m a better defender than a lot of people think,” Stewart said. “I can run the bases pretty well. I know I’m a bigger guy, but I can move. I think that doesn’t show. It doesn’t show that I’m in there grinding every single at-bat, going to make the pitcher work every single time. Yeah, I might swing at a few bad pitches, but I’ll also try to make an adjustment each pitch instead of taking an entire at-bat to process. Once you see my entire game together, it gives you a better idea of who I am.”

Showalter said the Orioles won’t be swayed too much in the last few months of Stewart’s minor league season in evaluating him now. He, like many others, will benefit from the team’s new philosophy of giving out opportunities to see what they have. The Orioles would have had to protect him from the Rule 5 draft by adding him to the 40-man roster in the offseason, so the club figured it wouldn’t hurt to do so now and get a look at him, regardless of how his season went.

“You look at the skill set and the things they bring, do you throw out everything they’ve done for the last couple months?” Showalter said. “Sometimes, even at the big league level, guys have a really good first half and a so-so second half, and the body of work is OK.

“A lot of it is the effort. The baseball player part of DJ is really good. You’re going to like the way he plays. You’re going to like the way he competes. Sometimes, that can be rewarded too. … This is a guy that has a good eye at the plate, has got some pop. It’s the biggest jump. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t hold his own here. I really like how he approaches things from an effort standpoint, his alertness.”

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