Why Christin Stewart's struggles with Detroit Tigers is a sign of a bigger problem




 

Detroit Tigers outfielder Christin Stewart finally got chased down.

By Daz Cameron, the team's seventh-best prospect, according to MLB Pipeline.

Riley Greene, ranked No. 2, is coming next. Parker Meadows, as well. And in a few years, Daniel Cabrera. Meadows is 13th among Tigers' prospects; Cabrera is No. 11 as the No. 62 overall pick in this year's draft from LSU.

Perhaps Stewart, 26, should've seen this coming.

Maybe he always knew.

After all, he once did the chasing: As the Tigers' third-best prospect (in 2016), he pounded home runs at the minor-league level: 30 in 2016, 28 in 2017 and 25 in 2018. His projected value encouraged the tryouts and subsequent disposals of Steven Moya and Mike Gerber.

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"The thing about him, obviously, he's gonna hit," general manager Al Avila said about Stewart on July 21, at the end of summer camp. "He's swinging the bat very well right now, so he's going to get his opportunity to see what he can do. Right now, he's put himself in a good position."

It was one he couldn't capitalize on in 2019, with a .233 average and 10 homers in 104 games, or in 2020, with a .172 average and three homers in 35 games. His distasteful numbers brought a demotion Sept. 9 to the alternate training site in Toledo.

That move speaks to a bigger organizational problem: Stewart is a symptom of the disease that afflicted the Tigers' farm system for years, resulting in struggles at the major-league level in 2020.

Now, he's not the only one - the 2020 numbers for right-handers Beau Burrows and Kyle Funkhouser, reliever Joe Jimenez and outfielder Derek Hill have been similarly disappointing. In 2016, they, along with Stewart, were five of the team's top six prospects. (Right-hander Matt Manning, who was shut down at the alternate training site with an arm strain in late August, was No. 1 even then.)

To be fair, the Tigers' system wasn't well-regarded in 2016. Manning was the only Tigers prospect to show up in MLB Pipeline's top 100 players. (No. 100 in that ranking, Jeimer Candelario, would join the organization in 2017.) Still, players further down the rankings from that year - Harrison Bader, Mike Soroka and Matt Chapman, to name a few - have made an impact recently.

Four years later, the Tigers are still waiting for these homegrown players to produce.

[ Detroit Tigers' Daz Cameron struggles with his helmet, but wants 'to show I can belong' ]

Simmering Stew

"You hit 30 home runs, you become a hell of a left fielder," interim manager Lloyd McClendon said Friday, shortly after Stewart returned to the active roster for the final three games. "Hopefully, he swings it well for us."

But let's be realistic.

This might be Stewart's last chance, a few games to finish this season, followed by a spring training tryout. By that point, if he can't turn things around, the starting outfield may already be filled: Cameron, JaCoby Jones and Victor Reyes. Not to mention Greene or a potential veteran free agent (just as the Tigers signed Cameron Maybin before this season).

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"I know what type of player I am," Stewart said Friday. "I know what I can do out there on the field. I've done it before, just have to do it here. When it happens, it's going to be a beautiful thing. I'm just really excited to be able to do what I did in the past now."

It's a familiar statement, with little to back it up. He set the tone with two homers in 17 games as a September 2018 addition, with 10 walks to soften the blow of 13 strikeouts. But 2019 brought just 34 walks and 103 strikeouts, and 2020 was worse, with five walks and 27 whiffs.

His power numbers haven't improved, either.

It's tough to make the argument that much has changed due to Stewart's time in Toledo; he spent just 10 days at the alternate training site before it closed on Sept. 19. What did Stewart gain from 10 days with the reserve squad?

"Getting my confidence back," Stewart said. "I went down there and did pretty well. I wouldn't say there was anything that changed mechanically that I was working on. Pretty much just staying on the heater and ripping it."

Yet time is running out for him, as it seems to be for Burrows, Funkhouser, Jimenez and Hill.

Yet to produce

Hill was called up Sept. 2 but has mostly seen time as a late-inning defensive replacement and pinch-runner, with Saturday being his first start. (He did, at least, single in the first inning for his first career hit.) While Hill sat on the bench, Brandon Dixon, Harold Castro and Jorge Bonifacio got at-bats. Those choices alone speak for the organization's evaluation of him.

Funkhouser and Burrows worked as starters in the minors, but when holes developed in the rotation - before new top prospects Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal arrived - the Tigers plopped them in the bullpen. Neither made it through their first year without being demoted.

Jimenez's tale has had more ups and downs, as the 2018 All-Star went from "closer of the future" to "closer of the past" in less than a year. Since being pulled from the closer role, he has five consecutive scoreless outings, but his 7.48 ERA this season looks particularly gruesome while 25-year-old Bryan Garcia is thriving at the end of games.

[ Detroit Tigers feel 'most comfortable' with Bryan Garcia as closer ]

As Stewart is down to his final chance, it's important to remember what he signifies - another group of prospects unable to meet projections set by the franchise.

The next wave is chasing them.

And they're hungry to capitalize on the opportunity.

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why struggle of Detroit Tigers' Christin Stewart is sign of big issue

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