Erie’s Christin Stewart could slug way to Detroit

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Nearly a month into a new season at Double-A Erie, the Tigers have noticed Christin Stewart and how much has changed.

Very little. Which in the case of Stewart is a good thing, at least offensively.

He has six home runs in 20 games. He is batting .284, with a flashy on-base average of .384 and a high-altitude slugging percentage of .602, thanks also to the two triples and two doubles that complement those six home runs.

A man who bashed 30 home runs in his first full season of professional baseball in 2016 is likely this year to hit 40 or more if the early pace continues. And that will remain the assumption as long as a 23-year-old left-handed batter can stay in the lineup, either at Erie or at Triple-A Toledo.

Or, perhaps in September, at Detroit.

“Offensively, obviously he’s a force,” said Lance Parrish, the Erie manager, and a big-time catcher with the Tigers in the 1980s. “He continues to improve with his recognition of the strike zone, and with being aggressive on balls in the strike zone.

“He’s patient at the plate,” Parrish said of a batter who in 20 games has 11 walks and 18 strikeouts. “There’s a fine line between being patient and being aggressive. Obviously, we want him to be aggressive. But he has a good enough eye to take walks when they’re offered. From that standpoint, I think he’s grown.

“I think last year when he came up here (mid-season from Single-A Lakeland), he was a little more passive. He was looking at more pitches than I would have liked. But he seems to have adjusted to being at this level. He’s more aggressive at the plate, and driving the ball.”

While his bat sizzles, there remains this question about the second of the Tigers’ first-round draft picks in 2015 (pitcher Beau Burrows was taken 22nd overall, Stewart 34th).

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Where will he play once he makes it to Comerica Park, as is foreseen?

In one sense, Stewart’s position is no issue. He is a corner outfielder. A left fielder, to be precise.

But outfield defense these days is deeply valued. A batter who knocks in three runs in a game can also be the source for a two- or three-run inning if he isn’t able to chase down fly balls and line drives more agile defenders often snare.

Stewart isn’t a ballhawk and probably never will be.

“Defensively, I know Gene Roof (Tigers roving minor-league outfield instructor) has spent an awful lot of time with him, on his set- up, making sure his feet are moving in the outfield, getting jumps one way or the other,” Parrish said. “It looks like it’s paying off. He doesn’t have great speed, but he gets to balls he should get to and makes accurate throws to cutoff men.

“Only time will tell to see if he can improve on that.”

Parrish may be playing the diplomat here. The Tigers aren’t yet viewing Stewart as anything other than an outfielder. But will there be a time when first base, or life as a pure designated hitter, becomes Stewart’s fate?

The presence of one Miguel Cabrera complicates long-term thoughts there. It’s also possible Stewart will evolve. That he’ll grind his way into being a serviceable big-league corner defender.

What isn’t in dispute is the muscle and super-sharp eye a Georgia native, and former University of Tennessee star, unveils so regularly.

“He’s got big power, I’ll say that, as strong as they come for a man his size (6-foot, 205 pounds),” Parrish said. “And he’s a hard worker, a great kid, great in the clubhouse, a great teammate. From that perspective, also, he’s just fun to have around.”

Stewart isn’t the only position regular shining through Erie’s first month. A.J. Simcox, the SeaWolves shortstop, and a former teammate of Stewart’s at Tennesse, is playing steadily and acting as if he could crack the big leagues, at least as a utility man.

Former Tigers star and current staffer Alan Trammell had mentioned during spring camp that Simcox was a prospect who had caught his eye as the Tigers minor-leaguers prepped for a new season.

Parrish, who played with Trammell in Detroit, understands why.

“I like him,” Parrish said of Simcox, a right-handed batter who is 6-3, 185. “He has really good range at short. His hands – just his athleticism. He looks like he could be a player.”

Ah, but that early batting average: on 0-for-8 skid during Friday’s and Saturday’s games dropped it to .226.

“But he’s hit quite a few balls right on the screws that have been right at people,” Parrish said. “I like his approach. He stays inside the ball, he’s got pretty good power (one home run, two doubles).

“I think as the season progresses, he’ll get better and better at the plate.”