Detroit — Last week, Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire was asked about outfield prospect Christin Stewart, who has been mashing the baseball at Triple-A Toledo.
“A lot of people like that young man,” he said. “But he’s got work to do, even if he’s hitting a bunch of home runs down there. He’s got work to do on defense to become a complete player. That’s what we’re trying to do here.
“We know he can hit, but there’s more to it. We don’t need DHs up here. We need complete players.”
Gene Roof, the Tigers’ roving outfield and baserunning coordinator, has been grooming outfielders for more than three decades. He’s spent a lot of time with Stewart this season, first in spring training and then these past few weeks in Toledo.
He agrees with Gardenhire completely.
“The more he can play down there, the better foundation he can get and the better he will be when one day he comes up here,” said Roof, who was in Detroit Friday doing some early work with the Tigers’ outfielders. “The longer he stays down there, the more foundation he has so that when he gets up here, he doesn’t have to go back.
“That’s what you want.”
And Roof made it clear, that day is not far off. His assessment of Stewart’s defense was, to say the least, encouraging and more upbeat than other reports from outside the organization.
“He’s very solid in the outfield,” Roof said. “He’s getting better. He doesn’t have great speed out there, but he catches all the routine balls and he makes all the right angle turns and drop steps. He’s done well. He’s certainly come a long way from Day One.”
Roof projects that Stewart will play left field for the Tigers.
“The problem putting him in right field — it’s a shorter porch here (at Comerica Park) but you get to other parks and it’s going to be bigger,” he said. “There is a lot of territory in left field here but with all the analytics we have and the way we can position them, he will be fine out there.
“He’s not going to be a JaCoby Jones or a Leonys Martin, but he’ll be solid. He will make all the routine plays.”
Roof was asked if it was fair to compare Stewart defensively to former Tigers’ outfielder J.D. Martinez — who graded out poorly analytically in range and defensive runs saved.
“Christin probably has more range than J.D.,” Roof said. “J.D. has a pretty good arm, but those two would be comparable in a sense. The difference with J.D. now, that you’ve seen in the last couple of years, is he’s had three or four years of big-league experience, where Christin hasn’t.”
Roof drew another comparison.
“His work ethic reminds me a lot of Curtis Granderson,” he said. “When he walks on the field, he has a purpose. When you talk to him, he listens and he tries to implement everything you ask him to do. And he lets you know, this works, this doesn’t work. Those two guys are a lot of like that way. Fun to coach.”
Case in point: In the middle of a game last week, Roof had Stewart make an adjustment on his set-up. Stewart made the adjustment on the fly, without a hitch.
“It was his footwork; I just told him to stair-step his feet a little bit,” Roof said. “He was staying even. When you stair-step, you have better timing. When your feet are even, you have a tendency to want to jump turn (when the ball is hit). When you stair-step, now you have an angle to go left or go right.
“After that, every ball that was hit one way or another, he was right on. That was good to see.”
When Roof first got a hold of Stewart — summer 2015 after the Tigers drafted him in the first round out of Tennessee — he was as raw as could be. Roof said he could hardly get the ball to the cut-off man.
“He threw from up high, straight over the top,” Roof said. “How we got his arm angle down. His arm is fine. He’s already thrown two guys out at the plate — the tying run in the eighth and a go-ahead run in the ninth. He’s much better than he was Day One.
“It’s not a great arm. But it’s sufficient. Just enough to play in the big leagues and keep guys from running on him.”
Stewart’s bat is big-league ready. He’s had 1,579 minor-league at-bats over four seasons and he’s hit .265 with a .517 slugging percentage and an .881 OPS. He hit 79 home runs, 12 so far this season at Toledo.
That’s not the news here. The news is the strides he’s made defensively.
“Let him keep building that foundation down there,” Roof said. “He’s going to get here soon enough and when he does, he’s going to stay.”