Tigers' Surprising Start Calls For Christin Stewart Promotion

"He could hit in the big leagues right now," said Mud Hens manager Doug Mientkiewicz.

Will Burchfield
May 16, 2018 - 9:26 am

© Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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This isn't about Victor Martinez, a respected veteran in the Tigers locker room and not long ago one of the toughest outs in baseball, but it's the logical place to start.

V-Mart is hitless in his last 19 at-bats. Among Tigers regulars, he ranks last in batting average (.222) and third-to-last in OPS (.637). His impact on a game-to-game basis is maybe best understood through the mini surge that has seen the Tigers draw within one game of first place in the AL Central. With contributions coming from up and down the lineup, Martinez is the only player who's been left out. 

Naturally, this is about Christin Stewart. The 24-year-old left fielder and the Tigers' No. 6 prospect is destroying the ball in Triple-A. He leads the International League in home runs (11), slugging percentage (.628) and OPS (.995). At the same time, his strikeout rate sits at a career-low 17 percent, evidence he has fixed his biggest flaw at the plate. The Tigers, who are pesky but short on pop, could use Stewart's bat right now. Heck, they could have used it yesterday. 

Triple-A Toledo manager Doug Mientkiewicz, a former 12-year MLB vet, believes Stewart is ready.

“He doesn’t chase pitches in the way big-league hitters don’t chase. He could hit in the big leagues right now. He doesn’t chase down. He does chase some balls that are up, but a lot of hitters do. And when he does hit the ball, it carries," Mientkiewicz said last week, via the Toledo Blade

The reason Stewart continues to toil in the minors is three-fold. For one, his defense lags far behind his bat. He has limited range and a below-average arm. 

"We talked about this in spring training," Ron Gardenhire said on Tuesday. "There’s a lot of people that like that young man, but he has work to do. Even if he’s hitting home runs, he still has work to do defensively to become a complete player, and that’s what we’re trying to do here. We know he can hit, but there’s more than that. We don’t need DH’s up here. We need full players, and we want him to be one of those guys, a full player, so that’s where I’m at with it.

For another, Al Avila and the Tigers want Stewart to play as much as possible. He'd be stuck behind JaCoby Jones and others, Gardenhire said, in Detroit's outfield. 

But the trickest impediment to Stewart's big-league arrival is the DH on the Tigers roster at the moment. Despite his lack of production, Martinez continues to get regular at-bats. In each of his 33 starts this season he's hit third, fourth or fifth. That invites all kinds of scrutiny from a batting order perspective, but the crux of the matter is Martinez appears to be blocking Stewart's path to Detroit.

This type of dilemma wasn't supposed to have such immediacy this season. But the Tigers have been more competitive than many thought they'd be, quite possibly Avila included, and now there's a short-term outlook to consider. With every win, the burden grows on Avila to field the team that is best equipped for success today. The irony to the notion that the Tigers "don't need DH's up here," is that, well, that's exactly what they need. 

By the way, is there a chance Stewart's defensive shortcomings are overblown? Even if they're not, would it be impossible for him to work on the same things in the majors that he's working on in Triple-A? The Tigers started Nicholas Castellanos in right field and Niko Goodrum in left field Tuesday night versus the Indians, neither of whom is a polished defender. But they're learning on the fly, and surely Stewart could do the same. 

Fact is, there's a good chance chance Stewart would be with the Tigers right now if it weren't for Martinez. Avila might suggest otherwise, but it's hard to accept the idea that one player isn't standing in the way of the other. Stewart, Detroit's first-round compensation pick in 2015 for losing Max Scherzer in free agency, is ready to hit in the majors. Martinez, a 39-year-old in likely the final season of his career, is holding down a spot on the roster because of his $18 million salary. 

So, what to do with V-Mart? The unfeeling answer, and maybe the right one, is to release him. The Tigers went this route last year with Francisco Rodriguez, and probably should have done so sooner. Martinez is getting his money one way or another (barring early retirement), and it's pretty clear at this point he's a sunk cost. It might be time for the Tigers to acknowledge that themselves. Other options include trading the once-fearsome slugger -- but who's buying? -- or turning him into a bat off the bench. 

The more pertinent question is, what to do with Stewart? Avila, Gardenhire said, "has a master plan here, and that kid's part of it." That sounds like the long view, which, in fairness, was supposed to be the only outlook that mattered this season. But the Tigers' surprising start has brought the immediate plan into focus, and Stewart should be a part of that one, too. Maybe he takes the roster spot of Martinez, maybe he displaces someone else. Maybe he comes up as a designated hitter, maybe the Tigers let him take his lumps in the outfield. 

But with a bat like his, which is exactly the kind of bat the Tigers lack, Stewart belongs in the bigs. And the longer the Tigers hang around, the greater Avila's duty to place the slugger into the picture.