SARASOTA, Fla. - Baseball free agency is not great for all. The players that will not be getting big-dollar contracts sometimes have to sweat out the process, not sure where their next opportunity will come or if that opportunity will be a good one.
Right-hander Kohl Stewart, signed by the Orioles on Dec. 29, admits he had some anxious moments . The Minnesota Twins outrighted him off their 40-man roster Nov. 4 and he elected free agency.
Then came a few weeks when he weighed his options before he agreed to a deal with the Orioles on a major league contract that will pay him $800,000 when he’s on the major league roster. He also has options remaining.
Stewart is set for his spring debut tomorrow, when the Orioles host the Yankees at Ed Smith Stadium. Right biceps soreness has kept him out to this point, but now he’s ready to pitch in a game.
Trying to find a new organization for the first time, he said, was not an easy process. Quite the opposite.
“Absolutely. It can be a little scary,” he said. “You never know what can happen, and that factor of unknown can get kind of scary. So, free agency might sound attractive, but sometimes it can be a little scary. Especially if you didn’t have the kind of year you wanted to the previous year. But I feel lucky and really excited to be a part of the Orioles. There are a lot of good things going on here. My focus is just doing what I can on a daily basis, but as far as everyone here, they have been great. I’m very happy with my decision.”
Stewart has pitched better in his career than he did last year. He was originally a first-round pick, No. 4 overall by the Twins in 2013. His signing bonus was $4.54 million.
Over a big league career consisting of 17 games, he has a 4.79 ERA and a 1.435 WHIP. In seven years on the farm he’s gone 39-40 with a 3.60 ERA and 1.374 WHIP.
But last year he posted worse numbers. In 20 games at Triple-A Rochester he was 8-6 with a 5.14 ERA, and in nine games with Minnesota he went 2-2 with a 6.39 ERA.
So yeah, he had some anxious free agent moments until he agreed with the Orioles. So how did he settle on Baltimore?
“Just advice from my agent and conversations he had with (general manager) Mike (Elias),” Stewart said. “You know, I just wanted to go somewhere where I felt like I had an opportunity to start, and they were going to provide that. There were different teams with different interest, in terms of what they saw me as. But I lean on my agent for that type of thing.”
Now Stewart wants to actually show the Orioles what he can do. But the injury set him back at the start of camp.
Stewart was ranked four times among Minnesota’s top 10 prospects, and at the end of the 2013 season he was No. 52 in Baseball America’s national top 100.
“I like to be really horizontal,” he said of his method of attacking hitters. “If I have my cutter-slider going, you know, in to lefties, away to righties, then I have my sinker creating a lot of ground balls. And if I’m keeping the ball on the ground I can try to put away guys when I have the chance with my bigger slider. Then to lefties sometimes with the changeup. My goal is to keep the ball on the ground, give my infielders a chance and then when I am ahead in counts, I can go to some of the off-speed offerings and kind of get guys leaning or feel the ball will come in on them and I can run it away. That has basically been the gist of my offseason work, just making sure all those pitches complement each other.”
Once a marked man as a high draft pick, Stewart said those days are long over and being that high pick is no longer relevant.
“I mean, years ago it was some sort of a factor, but it’s seven years ago,” he said. “I don’t think anyone in here worries about where they were drafted. You’re in the big leagues and trying to get guys out. It doesn’t change anything now or do anything for you. You still have to earn your spot up here.”
So add Stewart to the mix of young pitchers in this camp trying to make an impression and show they can take minor league success and eventually turn it into major league success.
In that respect, he is just like many of his teammates, and he’s enjoyed being an Oriole so far.
“It’s been great,” Stewart said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys that are hungry. We want to prove that we belong and we want to get opportunity and prove that we deserve that opportunity. It’s a good mix of a few old guys and guys that been around and had a lot of success in the big leagues and young guys working their butt off to prove they belong. That can be a good environment for young players to come up in. They’re going to give you the ball and they want you to go out and apply some of things they’ve been working on us with. It’s a great opportunity for a lot of us.”