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Tigers Prospect Notebook: Christin Stewart is making Double-A look easy

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We might see the slugging outfielder in Triple-A Toledo soon.

Minor League Baseball: Arizona Fall League-Fall Stars Game Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The defense is a problem, according to scouts. But if Christin Stewart continues to hit like this, his glove won’t matter. After an excellent 2016 season in which he posted a .936 OPS and hit 24 home runs in the pitcher-friendly High-A Florida State League, Stewart is off to another hot start. The 23-year-old outfielder is hitting .278/.381/.567 with six home runs and 18 RBI in 24 games for Double-A Erie.

His early offensive surge is particularly welcomed after how he finished 2016. Stewart was called up to Erie in , but hit just .218/.310/.448 in 24 games for the SeaWolves. He improved his average and on-base percentage to .268 and .350, respectively, at the Arizona Fall League, but hit just one home run in 80 plate appearances. These weren’t red flags by any means — his continued high walk rate suggested the opposite, in fact — but there were still some questions in his prospect profile.

Among those questions were the aforementioned walk rate. Stewart walked in 8.3 percent of his 216 plate appearances with the Single-A West Michigan Whitecaps in 2015, but doubled that when he moved to Advanced-A Lakeland in 2016. For a hitter who didn’t walk a ton in college, this was a significant enough boost to wonder if he could sustain it going forward.

So far, so good. Stewart walked in 12 percent of his plate appearances with the SeaWolves last year, and has maintained a 13.1 percent walk rate so far this season. If he can continue to show this kind of power and plate discipline while cutting down on his swings and misses — FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen says he was quicker to the ball in 2016 — he might be able to force his way into the outfield conversation come 2018.

Advanced-A Lakeland: LHP Jairo Labourt

While we can be reasonably content with Stewart’s improvement after 700+ plate appearances, lefthander Jairo Labourt is a different story. The 23-year-old was the third player received in the trade that sent David Price to the Toronto Blue Jays in 2015, and things... have not gone well. Labourt posted a 6.31 ERA in 35 23 innings with Advanced-A Lakeland after arriving in 2015, then doubled down with a 5.26 ERA in 87 13 frames last year. At the heart of Labourt’s issues is his control, or lack thereof. Heading into the 2017 season, he had walked 85 hitters in 123 innings with the Flying Tigers, a staggering 14.9 percent rate.

Somehow, those control issues have vanished. It’s early, but Labourt has amassed 22 strikeouts to just three walks in 13 23 innings. The Tigers moved him into a relief role, where he has been dominant in his eight appearances. Opponents have managed just eight hits, scoring a pair of runs (one earned). The performance has already earned him a call-up to Double-A Erie, where he will continue to work out of the ‘pen.

Again, it’s early, and we need to see a lot more of this before we say he is a sure thing. However, this is a potentially staggering improvement from a prospect who looked dead in the water late last season. As a starter, Labourt arguably had more upside than either of the players he was traded with (Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd) because of his mid-90s fastball and sharp slider. While his ultimate ceiling is slightly lower as a reliever, he is quickly drawing praise from all corners of the prospect-sphere.

Baseball Prospectus:

On Wednesday night against Port St. Lucie, Labourt demonstrated a 95-97 mph heater, which either cut like a hot knife through butter or tailed like a loose car tire, and paired it with an often back-footed slider at 87-90. He toyed with a firm 87-90 mph changeup that had tepid movement—an ugly reminder to his yester-years as a starter. That reminder aside, as a reliever you need to command at least two pitches, and he did that with his fastball and slider, both of which registered plus.

2080 Baseball:

In his new role, Labourt looks to be one of those power arms with matchup stuff who can give you multiple innings out of the pen late in the game. Dellin Betances (RHP, Yankees) and Andrew Miller (LHP, Indians), are two big-name relievers who had many of the same struggles are young starter, but who found another gear once they didn’t have to turn over lineups multiple times and worry about a third pitch. The ingredients are there for Labourt to work himself into that sort of mold.

The lofty comparisons offered by 2080 illustrate just how good Labourt could be for the Tigers. He may not become their own homegrown bullpen monster this season, but he could become a valuable piece as they look to build up their farm system over the next few years.

Triple-A Toledo: RHP Arcenio Leon

While not a prospect anymore — Leon is a 30-year-old with 12 seasons of minor league experience under his belt — the Venezuelan righty has certainly piqued Detroit’s interest. He had a strong spring and has dominated Triple-A hitters thus far, allowing just one run and four hits in 10 innings. His 0.90 ERA and 0.50 WHIP aren’t sustainable, but they are numbers that would turn just about anyone’s head given how bad the Tigers’ bullpen has been so far.

The jump to the majors is a big one, though, and it remains to be seen if Leon is ready to make the leap. He has never appeared at the major league level in his career, and his sparkling numbers in Triple-A this year look ripe for regression. He has only struck out five of the 37 batters he has faced, a 13.5 percent rate. His .133 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is wildly unsustainable, and he will give up a home run or two at some point as well. Leon has succeeded in getting hitters to pound the ball into the ground over 65 percent of the time, but it’s tough to decipher whether that will translate to the MLB level. Still, if the Tigers bullpen continues to struggle, Leon will get a shot at some point.