BALTIMORE — DJ Stewart doesn’t headline the list of prospects needing to work out for the Orioles in the early stages of what’s expected to be an extensive rebuilding effort.
The 2015 first-round pick was cut from big-league camp nearly three weeks before the start of the season, leading one to believe the new regime wasn’t overly impressed with the 25-year-old outfielder who’d made his major league debut the previous September. Though some believe Stewart can become a solid everyday starter at a corner outfield spot or as a designated hitter, others project him to be more of a bench player or platoon contributor. In other words, he’s not a cornerstone talent like whichever player general manager Mike Elias selects with the first overall pick of the 2019 amateur draft next week.
But Stewart’s Tuesday arrival is still meaningful for an organization whose minor-league call-ups so far this season have mostly been dictated by someone else performing poorly or the need for a fresh reliever on a pitching staff ranking last in the majors in ERA. We’ve seen center fielder Cedric Mullins and hard-throwing reliever Tanner Scott struggle and sent down despite spending extensive time in Baltimore last year. On the positive side, right-hander Branden Kline has emerged as one of the Orioles’ better relievers of late, but his arrival was facilitated by the bullpen being taxed in April.
After batting a whopping .456 with a 1.395 on-base plus slugging percentage for Triple-A Norfolk in May, Stewart is in the big leagues to hopefully signal the start of the eventual talent pipeline to which Elias has referred as the key to the Orioles’ future. Unlike the many players on the current roster viewed more as placeholders than prospects, Stewart forced his way to the Orioles with a .316 average, 23 extra-base hits, and a 1.010 OPS for the Tides.
“DJ’s definitely earned his way here,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Like we told a lot of those guys in their exit meetings in spring training, go down to Triple A with a chip on your shoulder, prove to everybody that you should be in the big leagues, and do everything you can to get back here. And DJ did that.”
It’s no secret the Orioles want players to develop fully in the minor leagues in hopes of staying in the majors when finally promoted, which is why top-10 prospects Ryan Mountcastle and Keegan Akin aren’t being considered for a call-up after only two months at Triple A. That approach is a stark contrast to recent years in which prospects were frequently rushed to the majors and then shuttled back and forth to Norfolk due to poor performance or the roster needs of a contending club. Much like Trey Mancini a few years ago, Stewart has been challenged to master every minor-league level in a more traditional way.
Instead of sulking after his mid-spring demotion, Stewart seized the opportunity to grow as a player and improve upon a pedestrian 2018 season in which he batted .235 and posted a .716 OPS at Norfolk. The Florida State product increased his walk rate from 11 percent to 15 percent, decreased his strikeout rate from 21 percent to 14 percent, and added nearly 200 points to his slugging percentage from a year ago.
Simply put, there was nothing else for him to accomplish in the minors. And even though the recent acquisition of outfielder Keon Broxton made it look like Stewart might be forced to wait even longer, Chris Davis going to the 10-day injured list with a hip injury opened up first base for Trey Mancini and cleared a roster spot for another outfielder.
“You can only control what you can control,” said Stewart, who credits the loosening of his back elbow in his hitting approach for his Triple-A tear. “You’ve got continue to play wherever you’re at. I know that they were watching, and they were just trying to find a way to get me here. It’s nothing against them at all. It’s a business, and they had to find the right opportunity. I’m glad that it happened sooner than later.”
The wait for the next notable call-up after Stewart might be a while. Mullins is batting just .235 for the Tides since the Orioles sent him down in late April. Catcher Chance Sisco entered Tuesday with an .865 OPS for Norfolk, but lingering doubts about his defense and the surprising play of Pedro Severino in Baltimore have seemingly delayed his return to the majors. Outfielder Austin Hays has just gotten back to playing at Double-A Bowie after his late-spring thumb injury and has still never played at the Triple-A level, a reason why he was optioned to the minors despite his strong spring.
That means Stewart will serve as an object of curiosity for the foreseeable future on a club on pace to lose 111 games and needing as much young talent as it can find. The Orioles hope he’ll be the first of many call-ups over the next few years that will be based on merit more than attrition and will result in a permanent stay.
“I want him to play. I want him to not change a thing from what he’s doing at Norfolk,” said Hyde, who plans to rotate Stewart with Broxton, Dwight Smith Jr., and Stevie Wilkerson in the outfield alignment. “Not to put too much pressure on himself, not feel like he has to carry us in any way. I just want him to do what he was doing.
“I think a lot of times what happens is guys come up from Triple A and feel like they have something to prove and try a little too hard. I want to make him as relaxed as possible and make him really comfortable here, and I think we’re going to see good things.”