First-Round Flops or Unfinished Projects?
Image courtesy of Rick Osentoski, USA TodayWhen prospects reach a certain threshold of service in the minors, they become eligible for the Rule 5 draft if not added to the 40-man roster. Stewart was at that point last offseason, and the Twins elected not to add him. He went unclaimed in the Rule 5.
That's pretty telling in terms of his perceived value, just four-and-a-half years removed from being the top prep pitcher drafted. Stewart's minor-league career has been interesting, in that he has consistently been fairly successful, but has never shown characteristics of a dominant pitcher.
To reach Triple-A by age 22, and the majors by 23, is impressive. Stewart posted a sterling 3.36 ERA while allowing only 24 homers in 570 minor-league innings. Great numbers. And now he's holding his own as an MLB rookie with a 4.40 ERA through seven outings. Recent history with more highly acclaimed prospects like Jose Berrios and Stephen Gonsalves shows how difficult it can be to achieve even so-so results out of the gates.
But beneath the veil of Stewart's results are major shortcomings. At no point has the right-hander excelled at throwing strikes. He averaged 3.5 BB/9 in the minors and has had a tougher time since graduating to the majors, issuing 18 walks in 30 frames. He's thrown only 56% strikes, a staggeringly poor rate. And he's done so while allowing a ridiculous amount of contact; among 458 pitchers to throw 30+ innings innings this year, his 6.3% swinging strike rate ranks 451st.
That formula sounds disastrous. Yet, in the month of September, Stewart has made it work. In three appearances this month, he's posted a 1.88 ERA while holding opponents to a .174 average and .196 slugging percentage over 14 1/3 innings. That includes zero home runs allowed over a span of 56 batters – truly an impressive feat for a 23-year-old whose matchups have included the Astros and Yankees.
His success owes to an elite-level ground ball rate (55.1%), which was his calling card throughout the minors. Despite yielding all that contact, Stewart has allowed just one home run and a .368 slugging percentage overall with the Twins, while inducing six ground-ball double plays. In the minors he averaged 0.4 HR/9, a lower rate than Berrios or Kyle Gibson.
Consistently preventing opponents from being able to lift the ball is a real skill, and it's very encouraging Stewart has carried it up to the majors. I still don't think it's enough to make him a quality starting option unless the control and/or whiffs improve considerably, but of course, he's only 23. Hardly an outlandish hope.
Somewhat of an afterthought as recently as this spring, Stewart has put himself squarely back into the mix of rotation depth, and locked down a 40-man spot heading into an offseason that figures to feature plenty of turnover.
The outlook is murkier for fellow first-rounder Jay.
In the 2012 draft, Minnesota deployed a strategy of taking college relievers with high picks, and attempting to convert them to starters. Even though the method hadn't borne much fruit three years later, the Twins tried it again in 2015, with much higher stakes. They took the Illini closer sixth overall, letting Andrew Benintendi slide to the Red Sox at seven. Again, they expressed hopes for a successful transition to a starter's workload.
Three years later, the pick is shaping up as a major bust, worsened by the questionable underlying thought process.
Jay's shoulder evidently wasn't up to the task. He started 13 games at Fort Myers in 2016, and pitched fairly well, but was shut down with shoulder fatigue after a midseason promotion to Double-A. Last summer, the arm issue had become so severe that the team weighed thoracic outlet syndrome surgery – a dire step for a 23-year-old – though it didn't end up happening. He threw 11 2/3 innings total.
Here in 2018, the lefty was healthy enough to make 38 appearances at Chattanooga, but he wasn't good, posting a 4.22 ERA and 1.58 WHIP over 60 innings. Double-A batters hit .310 against him.
If the Twins don't add Jay to the 40-man this offseason, they'll risk letting another team snag him away. The only thing that would compel Minnesota to roster him over any number of more deserving candidates on merit is where he was drafted. That's also the only thing that would compel another team to draft him.
Take a flyer on a 24-year-old former top college player with plenty of Double-A experience? I could see someone doing it. And I'm not sure the Twins would kick themselves much if it happened. Unless they've seen glimmers of something hidden deep within, Jay looks fairly expendable at this point, which is a real shame.
As a rebuilding team in desperate need of pitching, you can't really afford to miss on arms with two top-10 picks in the draft in three years.
The Twins are dangerously close to writing off one, so they really need Stewart to pan. Luckily, he's showing some real signs of promise. Not a moment too soon.
- h2oface, mikelink45, dgwills and 6 others like this