Why the Tigers don’t phone Triple A Toledo and order Christin Stewart to Detroit intrigues fans who wonder what it takes in 2018 to get promoted.
Stewart, who is 24 and who was a first-round pick (34th overall) in the 2015 draft, is threatening to wreck Fifth Third Field’s outfield wall and seats with his left-handed detonations.
He had six home runs as he limbered up for Sunday evening’s game at Durham and owned a .298 batting average. His on-base percentage was an outlandish .382, and, thanks to all those homers, six doubles, and a triple, his slugging average was .574, which translated into an All-Star-grade OPS of .956.
But there is no plan for Stewart to pack for Detroit. Not until September when roster limits are tossed to anarchists and Stewart, presuming he by then will have a seat at the Tigers’ 40-man table, can get his first whiff of big-league pitching.
This seems like a waste of everyone’s time, beginning either with the Tigers, who could use all the lineup crunch available, or for Stewart, who has steadily sailed the farm system’s seas and who looks as if he’s ready to blast pitches deep into Comerica Park’s seats.
Unless, of course, you’re his bosses.
They happen to love Stewart, a one-time Georgia prep star the Tigers had been following even before he opted for a baseball scholarship at the University of Tennessee.
But what they see is a player who needs seasoning Stewart can best gain at Triple A.
It isn’t so much a matter of his bat, although the junk he will see this spring and summer at Toledo is nice preparation for the off-speed mastery that normally is a rookie hitter’s toughest adjustment in the big leagues.
Mostly, it’s a matter of defense.
The good news, if you are Stewart or the Tigers, is that thanks to the usual Boy Scout litany of virtues he has shown – hard work, resolve, attention to streamlining his body – he has been upgraded in left field, significantly, from even a year ago.
The Tigers now say Stewart will play adequately at Comerica Park, where left-center field is so vast it might as well have been part of the Louisiana Purchase. He will not be JaCoby Jones, the defensive dazzler who next season could be the Tigers’ regular in center field. But he can grab fly balls and field base hits and has just enough arm to keep the cutoff man connected.
Right field? No. That position still requires more of an arm than Stewart carries, even if fans figure if Nick Castellanos can survive there, so can Stewart.
Not so. Castellanos qualifies, maybe barely, as having an average right-field arm. Stewart isn’t at that level and will need to play left field.
Other options aren’t practical.
First base is no place to stick a man who has not played infield. Defense is sacred at first and Stewart will not be moving there any time soon, if ever.
Designated hitter is another possibility as Victor Martinez wraps up what are bound to be his final months in Detroit. Don’t be surprised if Stewart takes an occasional turn next season as the Tigers join other clubs in treating DH as more of a flexible position.
They imagine Miguel Cabrera moving more and more into a DH slot but still see him as at least a part-time first baseman. On days when Cabrera is at first, Stewart could be DH as someone else gets a start in left.
The timing for these lineup twists and turns is probably 2019, and perhaps as early as spring camp.
Leonys Martin has a one-year deal with the Tigers and figures to give way next spring to Jones as the Tigers’ everyday center fielder.
Stewart, again, has a marvelous chance to be the new man in left, should his Toledo apprenticeship and spring training 2019 go as envisioned.
No one today knows what’s ahead for right field. It’s possible the Tigers will trade Castellanos as early as this summer when deadline deals flourish. He does not become a free agent until the autumn of 2019, so the Tigers have time to weigh offers and options.
Mike Gerber probably would replace Castellanos in right field in 2019 if any Castellanos move occurs. Gerber, it should be noted, is a fine defender who can play center field, which means if you buy next season’s potential lineup, Jones could shade more toward left to help Stewart as Gerber patrols a wider right field.
The Tigers have been treating Stewart with extra care, even if it has frustrated fans, and no doubt, Stewart. Left-handed power is a rich roster asset. It becomes doubly valuable when a guy who can tattoo the outfield seats with his long-distance drives knows also how to judge a pitch and take a walk. And the batting eye Stewart has shown from his first days on the farm has been elite.
He happens also to be a mature gent and serious baseball player who views his work as a craft. That’s why he has been so focused the past year on defense. He understands this is a two-way game where outfield defense has taken on greater value and emphasis, mostly as the analytics gang has gone to work on hitters’ habits and percentages.
The Tigers have invested millions the past three years on analytics. Put the data into a computer, or into the judgment of a front office that has been studying one of the few big-time bats on a team’s farm, and you arrive at a conclusion that’s not likely to change.
Stewart for now will be busting up seats, and working on his left-field choreography, at Fifth Third Field in Toledo.
See you in September at Comerica Park.