Orioles writers Jon Meoli and Peter Schmuck discuss the roster opportunities created in spring training by the recent injuries to Chris Davis (elbow) and Mark Trumbo (quad).
SARASOTA, FLA. — Spring training is often a time for tinkering and experimenting, especially with young players, and Orioles manager Buck Showalter is taking the time to do just that in the outfield with former first-round draft pick DJ Stewart.
The 24-year-old outfielder has been a defensive replacement in right field each of the past two games as the organization looks to expand from the left field-only profile Stewart has been saddled with after a breakout season at the plate in 2017.
Orioles left-hander Richard Bleier became one of the game's most successful and consistent relievers with a sneaky sinker in 2017. It might seem hard to envision more in spring training, but manager Buck Showalter wants more of the same.
Showalter said after Wednesday's win over the Tampa Bay Rays that Stewart's varied usage was something executive vice president Dan Duquette wanted to see this spring, and that now was the time to see how such things looked in a major league setting.
"It's nothing that we've really talked about, but I know our organization as a whole, we take pride in being able to play every position," Stewart said. "You don't want to limit yourself to one position. I've played right field before in college, high school. My whole freshman year of high school, I played right field, then my three years at Florida State, I played all three positions.
"It's definitely the one where I have the least amount of work continuously, just because I've been in left so much recently, but I've played it before. Just got to get more reps in BP and stuff and read the flight of the ball. It's something I'm used to."
Stewart's calling card has always been his left-handed bat, which came around for Double-A Bowie last year to the tune of a .278/.378/.481 slash line with 21 home runs and 20 steals after an up-and-down 2016. He did so by starting his swing earlier and creating more loft at the plate, something he and the organization tinkered with constantly until they found common ground.
In his first taste of major league camp as a nonroster invitee, Stewart has three hits in 15 at-bats with a pair of walks and three strikeouts.
But the fact that Stewart has played primarily left field could limit his value as he nears the majors.
The team tried him in center field for two games upon his midseason promotion to High-A Frederick in 2016, but quickly aborted that idea and moved him back to left field. He played four games in right field last season for Bowie, and said that spring training is the perfect environment to familiarize himself with the position again while surrounded by so many experienced players.
"We're an organization that prides ourselves on defense, especially our outfielders, and we have unbelievable infielders as well — just not giving away outs,” Stewart said. "It's huge just watching the guys around me. I've got one of the best outfielders in the game (Adam Jones) right next to me. Watching him, how he goes about his business.
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“Talking to Joey [Rickard], talking to Alex Presley, guys who have experience in the big leagues and just learning the way they go about their business and how they do things, and just watching them. If they're starting, they're usually starting the game, so I let them get their reps before me, watch what they're doing, and once they go hit, I get my reps in and just kind of try to perfect my game a little bit more."
While possibly not permanent, another position outside left field could be big for both Stewart and the Orioles with Trey Mancini entrenched there for the foreseeable future. While Cedric Mullins has the ability to play center field, he could be an above-average defender in left field, and left could be where top infield prospect Ryan Mountcastle ends up as well.
Top prospect Austin Hays has the inside track on being the right fielder of the future, but as a left-handed hitter in an organization starved for them, any versatility defensively could make Stewart’s bat more palatable at the big league level.