The former first-round pick has shown upside at the plate, but is it enough to keep him on the Orioles roster in 2022?
The Orioles have a good outfield. It may defy belief that any part of a team with only 40 wins as August draws to a close is even approaching “good,” but it’s true. As a group, they have produced 113 wRC+, the third-best mark among MLB outfields, and have been worth 7.4 fWAR, ninth-best.
Cedric Mullins deserves much (almost all) of the praise showered upon the outfield, of course. But we should not totally discount what has been a productive season for Austin Hays, especially defensively, when healthy, or the sporadic power of 2020’s Most Valuable Oriole, Anthony Santander, who has battled his own injury much of the summer. But a player you will not find much love for among Orioles fans is former first-round pick DJ Stewart.
A Florida State product, Stewart finished the abbreviated 2020 season with an Adam Dunn-like batting line of .193/.355/.455 to go with seven home runs in only 31 games. Every third fly ball he hit left the yard, and his 124 wRC+ indicated that good things could be in store.
That has not been the case in 2021 as his on-base percentage has dipped to .330 and his slugging has fallen to .383. It’s not a particularly surprising outcome given that his home run rate a year ago was unsustainable. But his performance has drawn the ire of fans nonetheless.
Of players currently on the Orioles’ active roster with at least 50 at-bats, Stewart has the highest strikeout rate (27.8%) and the second-lowest batting average (.206) in front of only back-up catcher Austin Wynns. But perhaps his most glaring issue is his defense.
Not only does Stewart’s glovework fail the analytic test (-6 outs above average), but it also fails the eye test. He always appears slow to react to balls off the bat, and even when he does make it to the spot in time he is the player on the team most prone to having an attempt to field the ball turned into a blooper reel.
A more recent development that has caused some backlash online is the usage of Stewart in conjunction with Hays. As Mullins and Santander have settled into everyday roles, the same cannot be said for the other two. Instead, it appears that Brandon Hyde favors a platoon for the time being, in which the left-handed hitting Stewart gets the majority of at-bats against righties and the right-handed Hays faces southpaws.
It’s a solution that makes a lot of sense, at least from an offensive perspective. Stewart owns a .756 OPS against right-handed pitching this year while he has slumped to .489 against lefties. Meanwhile, Hays has enjoyed lefties to the tune of an .897 OPS while he’s been less fortunate against righties with a .619 OPS.
If we are entirely honest with ourselves, Hays is the better player overall. His splits this season are drastic, but over the course of his (admittedly rocky) career he has shown an ability to handle pitchers from both sides. Add in his above-average abilities in the field and on the base-paths, and you have yourself a useful big league outfielder.
At the same time, Hays has had constant injury concerns, including a pair of hamstring issues this season. If being part of a platoon for the time being is the best way to keep him healthy and productive, then it’s not a bad idea.
Allowing Stewart to take on the heavy side of a platoon also gives him more chances to show what his offensive ceiling may actually be. That could be useful information as the offseason approaches, and crucial roster decisions have to be made.
The Orioles employ a number of players that profile like first base and/or DH types. Stewart, given his defensive struggles in the outfield, is part of that mix along with Ryan Mountcastle and Trey Mancini. There is virtually no question that Mountcastle will be a crucial part of this team’s roster for years to come. That certainty does not exist for Stewart or Mancini.
The situation for Mancini is well-documented. The fan favorite is set to hit free agency after the 2022 season, and given that Mountcastle fills an identical role on the roster it is almost definite that Mancini will be involved in trade talks this winter.
Stewart’s circumstance is different. He won’t even be arbitration-eligible for another year, and he still has a minor league option. The cost to keep him around is minimal, but he is also about to turn 28, and it’s possible the front office would prefer that his 40-man roster spot is given to someone else if they feel there is nothing else to learn.
The Orioles do have a number of minor leaguers that will need to be protected from the Rule 5 draft this December, including corner outfielder Robert Neustrom. At what point is the determination made that a player has had enough chances in a single organization?
Stewart has compiled nearly 600 plate appearances as a big leaguer. In that time, he has a .741 OPS with a 101 OPS+. He’s a league average hitter, and that’s not a slight. It’s extremely difficult to be an average major league hitter. But if his bat is meant to be his carrying tool at this level, then that is a problem for his future. Maybe there is more to the bat, but he will need to show it, and time is running out. A big September could change minds.
Put if he shows more of the same, it will be up to Elias and company. A trade of Santander or Mancini sometime over the offseason probably buys Stewart one more year to figure things in Baltimore simply due to a lack of favorable alternatives. But if the roster looks anything like its current iteration then he could be deemed surplus to requirements.