If Major League Baseball finally comes to its senses, Oriole fans can shift their focus to who will be on the team rather than if there will be a season. One player whose place on the team is most tenuous is DJ Stewart, the 28-year-old left-handed hitting outfielder who was the team’s top draft pick in 2015.
Stewart, whose 2021 season ended on September 16th because of right knee surgery, remains on the 40-man roster, but he’ll have to earn a place on the 2022 Orioles.
In 2021, Stewart received extensive playing time for the first time, playing 100 games, hitting 12 home runs, driving in 33 runs and batting just .204. Stewart’s on-base percentage was a healthy .324 because of 44 walks, third most on the team.
Stewart struck out 89 times in 318 plate appearances, just under 28 percent of his at-bats.
If you’re a subscriber to the “three true outcomes” theory, Stewart, struck out, walked and homered in 45.6 percent of his at-bats, a very high percentage.
Stewart doubled 10 times and had just 32 singles. Those stats were good enough for a .6 offensive WAR (Wins Above Replacement), but where he struggled most was on defense. His 72 games in the outfield, 39 in left and 33 in right, earned him a -1.2 defensive WAR.
Stewart, who got 12 starts as designated hitter, batted almost exclusively against right-handers, hitting all 12 home runs and recording 29 of his 33 RBIs against them. Against left-handers, he hit .220 in 41 at-bats.
Of the 16 position players on the Orioles’ 40-man roster, Stewart is one of five who bats left-handed. Anthony Santander is a switch-hitter, Cedric Mullins, and infielders Rougned Odor and Terrin Vavra are the others.
The Orioles have several young outfielders among their top prospects, including their last two No. 1 picks, Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad, but neither is expected to play for the Orioles this season.
Cowser, last year’s top pick, could begin the season with High-A Aberdeen, and Kjerstad, the top pick in 2020 who couldn’t play in 2021 because of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, might play his first professional games with Low-A Delmarva.
Kyle Stowers, another left-handed hitter, had an excellent first full pro season in 2021, hitting a combined .278 with 27 home runs and 85 RBIs and an .898 OPS in 124 games at Aberdeen, Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk. Stowers played just 22 games for Norfolk and is expected to return to the Tides.
In addition to Mullins, Santander and Austin Hays, the Orioles have Ryan McKenna in the outfield mix. McKenna, who was also taken in the fourth round in 2015, played nearly as many games as Stewart (90) and, though he hit only .183 with a .559 OPS, is valuable as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner. He also can play center field.
The Orioles also have Jorge Mateo, who’s mainly an infielder but can play the outfield, and Shed Long, who signed a minor league contract and has played second base and left field.
The organization has years invested in Stewart, and his occasional power spurts have been exciting. After beginning the 2020 season without a hit in 17 at-bats, Stewart hit six home runs in six games but concluded the season with just four hits in 52 at-bats.
There was no similar outburst in 2021. Stewart went 60 at-bats and nearly two months (June 19th-August 10th) without a home run. He didn’t have an RBI in his final eight games.
Stewart got some of his playing time last season because of injuries to Hays and Santander.
Yusniel Diaz, who has fallen off the list of top Oriole prospects, was expected to challenge Stewart for a roster spot but injuries and poor performance have held him back. Diaz was expected to begin the 2022 season with Norfolk but can’t because he’s on the 40-man roster.
With Trey Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle on the team, and the possibility that Adley Rutschman could DH on days he doesn’t catch, the designated hitter option for Stewart might evaporate.
Another factor that could impact Stewart is the glut of free-agent outfielders remaining unsigned. It seems highly possible that the Orioles will look for outfield insurance, particularly if they’re dissatisfied with McKenna and Stewart’s offense.
Stewart does have an option remaining, but it seems that if he doesn’t make the team, the Orioles might cut ties with him. With the designated hitter expanding to the National League, there might be teams interested in his strike zone awareness and occasional power.
He first played for the Orioles late in the 2018 season, one of just eight players remaining on the 40-man roster from the pre-Mike Elias days. The team has waited patiently for him to justify his top selection in 2015.
Perhaps he’ll get one more shot in 2022.