Will DJ Stewart face a challenge to hold his roster spot?

There were high hopes for the two hitters the Orioles selected at the top of the 2015 First-Year Player Draft. There was Florida State outfielder DJ Stewart, taken No. 25 overall by the club in round one. There was Florida high school infielder Ryan Mountcastle, taken No. 36 by the team.

Both, of course, have made the big club, but save for a few stretches here and there, Mountcastle has been much more productive than Stewart. And while Mountcastle seems to have a future on the team batting in the middle of the order, Stewart’s future is much more cloudy.

He remains on the O’s 40-man roster but his grip on a spot can’t be too firm. On the plus side, he has been a strong on-base-percentage player and swings a lefty bat. He has one option remaining, so there is some roster flexibility. On the downside, the strikeout totals are too high, the batting average too low and his defense has been questionable, and that is probably being nice.

Baseballs-at-Camden-Yards-Workout-Sidebar.jpgAnother plus for Stewart is high character. You get the feeling his teammates and coaches love the guy, and that counts for something. He’s no doubt a very good teammate. But all that can only carry one so far.

Stewart got his biggest chance yet at the major league level in 2021. Over 100 games and 318 plate appearances, he batted .204/.324/.374/.698. He produced 10 doubles, 12 homers, 33 RBIs and an OPS+ of 90. Among players with a batting average less than or equal to .205, his .324 OBP ranked second behind only Joey Gallo’s .351 (minimum 300 plate appearances).

Among O’s players with 200 or more plate appearances last season, Stewart’s walk rate of 13.8 led the team, and by a wide margin. Ramón Urías was next at 9.5, followed by Cedric Mullins at 8.7 and Trey Mancini at 8.3. His ability to work the count is as good as the O’s have.

But on that same list of players, none had a higher strikeout rate than Stewart at 28.0 last summer. His career mark is not great, either, at 26.5.

Stewart has produced power in bunches in small stretches. During September 2020, he hit seven homers over a nine-game stretch. But then he went without one over his last 48 plate appearances. So the consistency was certainly lacking.

There is also another injury issue he is dealing with. He missed the last two weeks of the 2021 season and underwent surgery on his right knee. It was a procedure to correct an “osteochondral defect,” which also is known as “osteochondritis dissecans” - damage to the cartilage surrounding the knee joint and the bone underneath the cartilage.

No doubt the knee may have hampered his play at times, and the Orioles surely considered that in their evaluation of his play. But Stewart is expected to be a full go for spring training and should start baseball activities in early January.

Stewart’s challenge is that he is already behind starters Austin Hays, Mullins and Anthony Santander on the depth chart, and some of the young outfielders, including Yusniel Diaz, Kyle Stowers and Robert Neustrom, could be pushing for time during the 2022 season. When it comes to potential use as a fourth outfielder, a player like Ryan McKenna seems better suited than Stewart for that role. He runs better and is a better defender.

Stewart is still a pre-arbitration-eligible player, and that works in his favor for now. He will be first-time arbitration-eligible at the end of the 2022 season. But he’s getting squeezed right now, not having played well enough to earn a starting nod and not possessing tools that make him a good fit for a bench role.

A team usually wants to give first-round picks every chance to show they can get the job done, and Stewart got a lot of chances in 2021. Moving forward, those could be dwindling for him.

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