Tigers' Christin Stewart Armed For Huge Opportunity That Awaits

His arrival feels like a long time coming.

Will Burchfield
January 28, 2019 - 7:57 pm

© Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

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At first blush, Christin Stewart doesn't look like much of a slugger. Wearing his white No. 14 jersey, loose-fitting and untucked, over a blue dress shirt Saturday afternoon at TigersFest, Stewart looked more like a guy who just got off work and strolled down to Comerica Park to catch some baseball, the snow on the field and the 18-degree January air notwithstanding. He’s listed on the Tigers website as 6’0, 205 pounds. That sounds...generous.

But take it from Niko Goodrum. In a game late last season after Stewart’s call-up from Triple-A Toledo, Goodrum collided with Stewart in the outfield. Goodrum, the lankier of the two, got the worst of it – and in the process learned there’s more to Stewart’s frame than first meets the eye.  

“Oh my goodness, if y’all could see – I wish y’all could see him when he has his Dri-Fit on,” Goodrum said as he wrapped his hands around his biceps. “He’s just massive. His back is about this wide,” and now Goodrum spread his hands a couple feet apart.

“He's very compact,” he went on. “I ran into him out there in the outfield and I know what that felt like, the knee, the elbow, whichever one he gave me. But he’s just a strong dude. He finds a way to get (the bat) to the ball and after that it’s pretty much gone.”

Put it this way. If Stewart played football, he'd surely be a fullback. 

“He’s got that Mike Alstott," Goodrum said with a smile, "got the neck collar going on.”

It’s a big year for Stewart, and an important one for the Tigers. The first-round draft pick in 2015 is about to get his first crack at an everyday job in the majors. The role of starting left fielder is his to lose. Whether or not Stewart holds onto it will depend in part on his defense, the biggest question mark in his game. But it will hinge primarily on his bat, which most often reads like an exclamation point.

It’s funny to say it, but the Tigers want for power. Miguel Cabrera is all that remains of those teams that were built to hit the ball out of the park. The farm system is pitcher-heavy, and the best hitters aren’t big boppers. Both now and in the future, there’s a need for middle-of-the-order muscle, especially with Nick Castellanos no longer looking like a part of the long-term picture.

“Opportunity,” Stewart said when asked what most excites him about 2019. “The opportunity to play baseball again, to have a good year, to perform, to compete, try and win games with my teammates. That’s the big thing that I’m looking forward to.”

Meanwhile, much of the Tigers fanbase is looking forward to watching Stewart. So is the team’s manager. In fact, had Ron Gardenhire had his druthers last season, Stewart likely would have been summoned from Toledo long before rosters expanded in September. Stewart led the Triple-A International League in homers from wire to wire – finishing tied for first with 23 – and ranked fourth with an .844 OPS.

Then, shortly after he arrived in Detroit, he cranked the first two homers of his career on the same night – the second of which landed about 15 rows deep in the right field seats. He wound up hitting .267 with a .792 OPS over 17 games, and finished stronger than he started.

“We wanted to see him a lot earlier and they kept him down in Triple-A, but this kid can flat-out hit,” Gardenhire said earlier this offseason. “I'm excited to see him get a full season in and see what he can do, because he can drive a baseball." 

Beyond that, Gardenhire loves Stewart's demeanor. When he’s not at the dish, a smile seems permanently plastered on his face. (And it’s never far from returning when he is at the dish.) His passion for baseball is evident in his committment to improving his defense, even if the work has yet to pay off. Stewart, who grew up playing catcher and first base, wants to show the Tigers he can hit home runs and man left field.  

Over the last few years, this sanguinity surely served Stewart well. His was a slow, if steady, climb through the Tigers’ minor league system. There were times it felt uncertain as to whether he’d ever arrive. Now that he has, Stewart insists nothing’s changed. He doesn’t feel any more or less like a big-leaguer at age 25. He feels, as he always has, like himself.

“Honestly, to tell you the truth, I feel like I’m still the same kid playing the game. It’s a blessing to be able to do what I do, play the game of baseball and have fun with my teammates,” Stewart said. “It’s the same game, essentially, it’s just elevated a little bit more.”

Just consider. Stewart spent most of last season hitting third or fourth in Toledo's lineup, in front of either 22-year-old Dawel Lugo or 33-year-old minor-league veteran Chad Huffman. Then he showed up in Detroit and found himself hitting second, right in front of Nicholas Castellanos. There's a good chance he retains that spot in the order to start this season, which, in all liklihood, would put him directly in front of...Miguel Cabrera...and then Castellanos. 

Stewart’s eyes lit up at this thought, and then he laughed out of giddiness. 

“That’s great protection right there, I’m mixed in with great company right there,” he said. “But they’re both great players and I’m just excited to be in the lineup.”

And the Tigers are just excited he’s in the picture, four years after they drafted him. Stewart says it feels like it was only yesterday that he signed, that time has flown by ever since. To others, this spring and this moment probably feels like a long time coming.

Upon one thing, though, everybody can agree. What stood out about Stewart back then is the same thing that immediately stands out now. Take it, once more, from Goodrum.

“His power...” Goodrum said, shaking his head, at a near loss for the right word. “His power is crazy.”