Orioles first-round draft pick, outfielder DJ Stewart, knows that expectations will be high for him as a top pick. He knows that makes him a bit of marked man for opponent pitchers to try and get him out as he is now 31 games into his pro career with short-season Single-A Aberdeen.
Baseball America rated Stewart as the 30th-best player in the draft this year. He was the first outfielder taken in Round 1 by the Orioles since Nick Markakis in 2003. Selected by the Orioles with the 25th pick on June 8, Stewart knows there are some pressures that go with being a top pick.
“I feel like that won’t change anything with me,” he said during a recent interview at Ripken Stadium. “I’ve had people looking at me since my freshman year at Florida State. I just have to continue to play my game and not let that affect me. Being a top pick is a blessing and an honor, but it is not going to change anything for me. Just looking to have fun and play the game the way I know how to.”
Stewart has already dealt with big-time pressure on a baseball field. When you play at a traditional college power like Florida State, expectations are always high and the pressure to win is intense for those players. Stewart feels that has prepared him well for what he is facing now.
“You play in big time conferences like the ACC or SEC, you face guys you will see in this league, every Friday (in big conference series). The only difference is now you’ll see a guy like that every single night,” Stewart said. “In the ACC, you have that dominant arm on Friday, maybe Saturday, too. But not every single night like I will see in the New York-Penn League. I’m looking forward to the challenge every day.”
After batting just .179 his first 21 games for the IronBirds, Stewart is batting .293 (12-for-41) his last 10 games, with two doubles and two RBIs. Over 31 games for the season, Stewart is batting .218 with three doubles, two triples, three homers and 11 RBIs.
Last night, by the way, Stewart didn’t have a hit and neither did any IronBird. Aberdeen was no-hit by three Tri-City pitchers in a 5-0 loss. Kevin McCanna and Ralph Garza each pitched four innings and Zac Person pitched a 1-2-3 ninth to wrap up the no-hitter. Two IronBirds reached base in the game. They were Glynn Davis on an error in the first inning and Drew Turbin on a walk in the third. It’s the first time Aberdeen was no-hit since Brooklyn’s Brandon Moore pitched a seven-inning no-hitter against the Birds Aug. 23, 2009.
Obviously Stewart is not tearing it up, although he is getting better results in recent games. But Aberdeen manager Luis Pujols said he’s been hitting the ball hard for much of the season.
“He is getting hits all over the field,” Pujols said of the 21-year-old Stewart. “He’s been pulling the ball and also getting groundballs and line drives to left field. He hit two home runs on the last road trip, and he’s really starting to swing the bat. I’ve also seen him hit a lot of hard line drives that have been caught. He’s making progress. You can start to see now why he was our No. 1 pick.”
Stewart hit .318 this year as a junior for the Seminoles, with 10 doubles, two triples, 15 homers, 59 RBIs and a .500 OBP, as he walked 69 times and struck out 49. He was the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year as a sophomore in 2014 with a slash line of .351/.472/.557.
I asked Stewart what expectations he has for himself in his first professional year.
“My expectations are to play to the best of my ability as I have my entire career. And hopefully move up fast, but that is not in my control. I have to just play my game, and the organization will move me whenever they are ready for me to move up,” he said.
While college players use aluminum bat,s they move to the exclusive use of wood bats in the pros. This is not much of an adjustment, Stewart said.
“Every summer since my freshman year, I played with wood bats,” he said. “Played in the Cape (Cod League) after my freshman year, and last year I was with Team USA in the summer. I’m used to them.”
Stewart has been batting third and starting in left field for the IronBirds. How is his defense coming?
“I feel good about my defense and confident in that part of my game,” he said. “One thing people don’t give me as much credit for is my defense. But I pride myself on defense just as much as I do hitting. I don’t want to be known only as a hitter. There are things to work on every day on defense.”
In his first two years at Florida State, Stewart played all three outfield spots, but he was strictly a left fielder this year. Pujols said his defense has been solid.
“His defense is good. He’s a hard worker. He made a great catch the other night going back on the ball in left center. I can see good defense coming, too,” Pujols said.
By now, most fans have heard that Stewart bats out of a pronounced crouch at the plate. Pujols feels there is no reason for Stewart to adjust that right now. In this earlier blog, Stewart explained to me how he began to hit that way.
Elsewhere in the minors: First-place Triple-A Norfolk and first-place Double-A Bowie both won on Thursday. The Tides (65-46) beat Louisville 2-1. Right-hander Elih Villanueva, just called up from Bowie, gave up just one hit and one run over six innings.
Due to recent roster moves and injuries, Villanueva was the ninth different starting pitcher the Tides have used over their last 11 games. Joining Villanueva over that stretch were Mike Wright, Eddie Gamboa (two times), Tyler Wilson, Zach Davies, Chris Jones (two times), Steve Johnson, Terry Doyle and Kenn Kasparek. OIiver Drake pitched the ninth to earn his 18th save. Drake has now recorded 26 consecutive scoreless outings with Norfolk, as he’s not allowed a run since April 26.
Bowie (62-48) won 4-3 at Binghamton as first baseman Trey Mancini went 4-for-4 with a double and two RBIs. He is now batting .354 with a .951 OPS in 53 Bowie games. Chris Lee gave up three runs and hits over 5 1/3 innings in his first Baysox start since moving up from Single-A Frederick.
While they were off: The Orioles lost some ground last night as the Yankees beat Boston 2-1 and Toronto beat Minnesota 9-3. The Orioles are now six games out of first place and 1 1/2 games out of the second wild card.
The Orioles, winners of nine of 12 games, play in Anaheim tonight against the Angels, who currently hold the first AL wild card spot by a 1/2 game over Toronto and two games over the Orioles.
While the Orioles and Angels meet over the weekend, Toronto plays at Yankee Stadium. The Blue Jays then host the Yankees next weekend. New York is 8-0-1 in its last nine series since July 3. Toronto has won eight of nine games heading into the series at New York, and those two teams have 13 games remaining against each other.