I have good news, and I have bad news.
Let’s start with the good news. If you are dying for a prospect to come up to Detroit and make an immediate impact this season, you’re in luck. After raking his way through the minor leagues, Christin Stewart arrived last September and is poised to start every day in left field for the Tigers in 2019. In just 72 plate appearances with Detroit last season, he was 20 percent better than league-average hitters, according to wRC+, which would have placed him 12th among 28 American League outfielders (had he amassed enough plate appearances).
Here’s the bad news; Stewart is somewhat of a one-dimensional prospect. He is poised to put up large numbers at the plate moving forward, but he has struggled in the outfield throughout his professional career, and is projected to be a below-average defender in the majors.
Nevertheless, Stewart has the best bat of any prospect in the Tigers system, and posted phenomenal numbers at Triple-A Toledo last season. His sharp eye and his power will assuredly catch eyes this year and beyond.
Four years ago, the Tigers selected Stewart out of Tennessee with a supplemental first round pick in the 2015 MLB draft. Since then, the 6’0, 205-pound Stewart has accumulated 1,930 plate appearances in the minor leagues, knocked 51 home runs between his two seasons spent in Double and Triple-A ball, and he has walked at a 10 percent clip or better at every minor league stop.
Let’s stick with these offensive numbers for a moment just to show how Stewart mashed his way through the minor leagues. He posted a 174 wRC+ in Lakeland in 2016 — 74 percent better than league average — a 126 wRC+ in Erie in 2017, and a 138 wRC+ in Toledo last season. He also managed to draw walks at a 12.8 percent clip in Toledo last year. It’s hard to put into words how much of a force Stewart has been in the minor leagues, so it’s easy to see why he will presumably win the Tigers’ starting job in left field in spring training.
Stewart’s bat is not some well-kept secret. FanGraphs rates his hit tool as below average at present, but with a Future Value (FV) of 50, or league average. That seems fair, as Stewart has only hit .262 in his minor league career. To his credit, he has made some nice adjustments to help create more contact and cut down on strikeouts, as MLB Pipeline detailed.
There will always be some swing and miss to his game, but he did cut down his strikeout rate a touch in 2017 and he does offset the whiffs by drawing a good amount of walks. He has worked on his overall approach and tried to cut down on his swing to allow him to tap into his tremendous raw power consistently.
Stewart’s marquee tool, of course, is his power. Fangraphs grades Stewart with plus potential in-game power, and 65-grade raw power. MLB Pipeline is not quite as optimistic, but still grades it an above-average tool. Even though his below-average speed isn’t going to help him leg out a ton of triples, expect plenty of doubles and home runs from Stewart at Comerica Park. As our preview mentioned last year, Stewart’s power has primarily been to the pull field, but according to FanGraphs, he did spread the ball pretty evenly in a small sample of major league plate appearances last September (though both home runs were indeed to right field).
Stewart also has the plate discipline to supplement his power. He drew walks in 12.8 percent of plate appearances at Triple-A Toledo last year, and slightly improved that rate in his September audition in the bigs. All in all, should he continue to hit at close to the rate he has throughout the minors, Stewart should be able to produce a .800-.850 OPS in the major leagues. Steamer already projects him close to that, with an estimated .777 OPS (and 10.2 percent walk rate!) for 2019.
It starts and ends with Stewart’s glove. First things first: FanGraphs gave it a 30 on the 20-80 scouting scale. He also only has below-average (40) grades on his arm and speed, which further contribute to his poor fielding. That 40-grade speed will make him a below-average base runner even at his peak, though he didn’t look too bad in limited action last year.
Thankfully, while Stewart’s 17-game stint in Detroit painted a doom-and-gloom picture for his future defense — he was worth -5 runs in 17 games, according to dWAR — other scouting reports are a bit more positive on his fielding prowess. In September, John Sickels of Minor League Ball wrote on Stewart’s fielding potential.
The negative is defense: his speed and arm are below average. He’s worked hard to improve his routes and isn’t a butcher in left field; his error rate is actually quite low, but the lack of natural speed and range limits what he can do. Still, the glove is playable if he hits enough, which he should. His makeup is another positive.
That’s a good sign; Stewart doesn’t commit many errors and has put a lot of effort into his routes on fly balls. While he projects to be more of a designated hitter in the distant future, the Tigers will give him every chance to make strides in the field for now.
Projected Team: Detroit Tigers
Assuming his bat doesn’t go ice cold this spring, Stewart should be the Tigers’ starting left fielder throughout 2019. He will also hit in the middle of the lineup, or in the No. 2 spot like he did last fall. If he can hold himself in the field as well as Nicholas Castellanos does — anything approaching league average would be a huge win — his bat will help him contribute solid value to the team as an everyday player. Prepare yourself for some highlight-reel home run clips in 2019, but his below-average glove will sap some of his value in the years to come.