One for the future: Evaluating Orioles prospect DJ Stewart

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Without much to look forward to this year in terms of the major league club, which is on its way to one of the worst seasons in baseball history, the Orioles' focus will shift toward the next generation of players they hope will help reverse that before long.

The twice-weekly "One for the Future," which began earlier this month, will highlight an Orioles minor leaguer who is on the radar for either prospect status, performance or pedigree.

Next, a look at 2015 first-round draft pick DJ Stewart, who has risen to Triple-A Norfolk and could get his major league debut before long.

The past

Stewart was the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year as a sophomore at Florida State and only improved from there, hitting 15 home runs and posting his third straight season with an OPS over 1.000 with a 1.093 mark as a junior, leading the Orioles to select him 25th overall in 2015.

It took him a while to show that form for the Orioles, though. He hit .218 with a .633 OPS at Short-A Aberdeen in his draft summer before going to Low-A Delmarva the next spring, where he continued to search for his swing. Part of that was because of the organization’s desire to get him out of the low crouch batting stance he’d used all his life, and there wasn’t a lot of consistency for him at that point.

Still, the Orioles promoted him out of the South Atlantic League at the All-Star break that year to get him out of what had become an unproductive environment for him, and Stewart rewarded that faith by batting .279/.389/.448 with 20 extra-base hits in 59 games at High-A Frederick to get himself back on track.

He broke out with 21 home runs and 20 stolen bases while batting .278/.378/.481 for Double-A Bowie last season, re-establishing his performance baseline and putting him back on track for a major league future in the process.

The present

Stewart made an impression at major league camp this year before beginning the year at Triple-A Norfolk, and was rounding into form by late May when he hit the disabled list with a hamstring injury. Stewart was batting .271 with an .814 OPS and six home runs before the injury, and his form dipped once he returned.

Stewart, 24, has bounced back lately, homering in two of his four games before Tuesday, but is still batting .239 with a .759 OPS. He’s split time between left field, where he’s played almost exclusively since he was drafted, and right field, a position he played through college but came back to in spring training.

The future

There are myriad reasons why Stewart’s future will include playing in the Orioles outfield, likely sooner than later. First is simply his own doing. Save for that first year in the organization, Stewart has always succeeded. He was a two-sport star in high school, one of the best players in the country through college and has more than held his own since that initial adjustment period in pro ball. He’s also caught the eye of several major leaguers on rehabilitation stints this year and last at Bowie and Norfolk, and he constantly gets good reports from the player development staff that see him often.

There’s also the simple factor that the Orioles used a first-round pick on him, and will be eager to show they got a major league piece with that pick, especially considering the uncertainty hanging over the front office with executive vice president Dan Duquette in the last year of his contract.

What’s less clear is what Stewart will be at the highest level. His swing is still unique, but can get a little flat at times and limit the impact he can make on certain pitches. He has always had a good approach, posting at least a 12 percent walk rate at every minor league level save for that first summer in Aberdeen. A left-handed hitter, he’s hit same-side pitching well at every level, meaning he could play against left-handed pitching and doesn’t need to be limited to a platoon. And when he gets his pitch, or when a pitcher doesn’t make his, he’s liable to punish it.

There’s just plenty of questions about a corner outfield profile without a standout bat and without the possibility of top-flight defense, which is where Stewart falls. That said, give him four at-bats a night and he’ll probably end up making an impact before long.

The question will be just how the Orioles end up getting him those at-bats, especially in the near-term. They’ve already moved Trey Mancini to left field from first base because of Chris Davis, and even if Cedric Mullins supplants Adam Jones in center field in the coming days or weeks, that would still leave Jones and Mark Trumbo to still rotate through right field, to say nothing of Joey Rickard. So, where does Stewart play? And whom does he move out of a regular role?

Such questions were asked last September, and the Orioles still got plenty of time for Austin Hays and Anthony Santander. But with Stewart, the sooner they get him up and comfortable, they can see if the production can come despite the lack of overwhelming tools. The only chance for players to do that is to give them a chance, and considering Stewart’s path, it’s on the Orioles to create that opportunity.

One for the future

Ryan Mountcastle – July 10

Alex Wells — July 12

Cedric Mullins — July 17

Branden Kline — July 25

DL Hall — July 27

jmeoli@baltsun.com

twitter.com/JonMeoli

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