Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire spoke to reporters ahead of the team's winter caravan kickoff Thursday afternoon. Tony Paul, The Detroit News
Detroit — When Lloyd McClendon, the Tigers’ hitting instructor, watches Christin Stewart swing the bat, he sees a little — or maybe even a lot — of Prince Fielder, the former All-Star slugger that McClendon spent two seasons with in Detroit. The muscular build, the short swing, the left-handed power.
And there are days, McClendon admits, when he watches the results that he finds himself marveling at the possibilities, like he did that afternoon last September, when the Tigers’ young outfielder — a couple weeks after his major-league debut — hit a towering upper-deck shot into the Pepsi sign in right field at Comerica Park.
“Oh, my God,” McClendon laughed, recalling his immediate reaction Thursday, as the Tigers kicked off their annual winter caravan ahead of February’s spring training start in Lakeland. “That’s something I’ve never seen done before.”
And just for good measure, that happened to be the day Stewart did something he’d never done before, either, belting his first major-league home run — and then his second — in an 11-8 win over the Kansas City Royals.
There weren’t many fans in the stands to see it happen. The announced crowd for that Thursday night series opener was just 20,282, and 2019 figures to be more of the same as the Tigers continue a painful rebuilding process.
Yet this was a glimpse of what some diehard baseball fans in Detroit had been waiting months for, if not years, as Stewart, a left-handed power hitter who was named the Tigers’ minor league player of the year in 2016, ’17 and ’18, finally earned a big-league call-up.
And started to make himself comfortable. Once the adrenaline rush subsided a bit and “you start to mellow out a little bit,” Stewart said, “that’s when I started to feel like myself in the box. Knowing you can compete, and getting a little bit of confidence up here, that was a big part of it.”
Really, that was McClendon’s only request when Stewart showed up last fall, arriving in Detroit on a couple hours’ sleep, getting his first at-bat as a pinch hitter with two outs in the bottom of the ninth against St. Louis, and then showing up the next day to find manager Ron Gardenhire had penciled him into the lineup facing the defending world champs and their oh-so-familiar ace, Justin Verlander.
“I just wanted him to be himself,” McClendon said. “We understand the hype he came with, but I told him to just go out and play the game: ‘Be yourself, enjoy this opportunity and learn as much as you can.’ And I thought he represented himself pretty well.”
Tigers GM Al Avila spoke with reporters ahead of the team's winter caravan kickoff Thursday afternoon. Tony Paul, The Detroit News
Almost immediately, he did. It started with his first major-league hit — a sixth-inning single off Verlander. (“After that, I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I can do this,’” Stewart laughed.) And it continued as Stewart, the 34th overall pick in the 2015 MLB draft, proceeded to hit .267 over the next 16 games, with the two homers, 10 RBIs and enough walks to finish with a .375 on-base percentage and .792 OPS in 72 at-bats.
“Obviously, there wasn’t much pressure,” McClendon said. “But given the opportunity to get out there and play every day and see what the speed of the game is like at this level, I think it was an outstanding time for him. And I think he probably grew quite a bit in the month he was here. It showed, because every day he got better as he got more and more comfortable.”
For that, Stewart credits his own comfort level with the process through 3 1/2 years in the minors, and particularly the last year or so when Tigers fans were clamoring to see the organization’s best power-hitting prospect — and the only one, for a time — get a shot in Detroit.
“A lot of it is out of my control,” said Stewart, who underwent surgery Oct. 11 to repair a sports hernia that flared up at the end of last season, but says he’s ready for spring training. “I mean, it’s a dream of every kid to play in the big leagues, and I was fortunate enough to finally get the chance. But those are the ups-and-downs of the game, being in the minor leagues, grinding it out every day. And looking back, I wouldn’t trade anything I went through.”
Maybe not, but after the disappointment of not getting invited to major-league spring training last winter — “I think maybe that motivated him,” McClendon said — he’ll head to Lakeland next month with an even bigger opportunity.
Al Avila, the Tigers’ general manager, saw enough from Stewart last season — including in that September call-up — that he opted against adding a veteran left-handed bat in free agency like he did last winter with the Leonys Martin signing. As a result, that starting job in left field probably is Stewart’s to lose this spring.
“I mean, he looked like he belonged,” Avila said of Stewart’s major-league cameo. “So we’re hoping that continues here.”
The biggest catch figures to be Stewart’s ability to handle Comerica Park’s expansive left field. A former first baseman and catcher during his record-setting prep career in Georgia, he moved to the outfield at the University of Tennessee and has spent the last few years in the minors trying to shore up that part of his game.
Stewart’s footwork and reaction times started to improve a couple seasons ago in Erie, and even if it didn’t show in his small-sample UZR rating in the majors last September, the Tigers remain bullish on his ability to make strides defensively.
“I like his attitude, and his coachability — that probably stands out more than anything,” said Phil Clark, the Tigers’ assistant hitting coach who worked with Stewart at Class-A West Michigan (2015) and Double-A Erie (’16-17) and then again last fall in Detroit.
And from the outside looking in, that’s a hopeful sign as spring training approaches. The Tigers might not be much to look at on paper, but on a roster that’s been starving for left-handed power bat for quite some time, Stewart’s worth keeping an eye on.
“As a hitting instructor, you cherish those,” McClendon said. “They just make the game so much easier for you. So he’s a happy sight.”