Ranking Ian Happ, Dansby Swanson, and Alex Bregman in the top three of all 2015 college hitters isn’t particularly challenging. Coming up with a name you have some confidence in for the fourth spot is. Florida State OF DJ Stewart is the last college hitter I have confidence in as a viable first half of the first round, so he takes the fourth position for now. There are a few higher upside guys that will undoubtedly challenge for his spot (and those of Happ, Swanson, and Bregman, for that matter), but we’ll get to them soon enough. Today is Stewart’s day in the spotlight, so let’s get going.
DJ Stewart is an outstanding college hitter who, in my view, will very likely become a very good professional hitter in relatively short order. It’s never going to be pretty for a guy with a fire hydrant build and limited value outside of the batter’s box, but hitters with his kind of power/patience blend are at a premium now more than ever and Stewart’s stick is arguably as good as any draft-eligible college contemporary’s. I’ve mentioned it elsewhere, but comparing Stewart, both as a player right now as he begins his junior season (i.e., current tools) and as a draft prospect set to take off these next few months (i.e., potential growth curve), to Oregon State/New York Mets outfielder Michael Conforto makes way too much sense to avoid.
The two big questions currently facing Stewart pertain to his unique physical condition and his professional defensive utility. I don’t mean to be dismissive of the first big question, but…is this really something we’re still hung up on in 2015? I’ll resist the urge to make a bad jeans salesman joke here, but come on. I’d understand some of the hand-wringing if Stewart was an unathletic slug, but that’s decidedly not the case. Stewart’s build evokes the same kind of bowling ball vibe that has garnered comparisons to a pair of intriguing hitters: Matt Stairs and Jeremy Giambi. Physically those both make a lot of sense to me, but the comps go even deeper than body type. I could very easily see Stewart having the kind of career of either player. If we split the difference with their 162 game averages, then we get a player who puts up a .260/.360/.450 yearly line with 20 HR, 25 2B, 70 BB, and 100 K. A career that mirrors that of Billy Butler feels like a reasonable ceiling projection, though I could see that bumping up to something closer to Carlos Santana territory with a big final college season. Those are all really good hitters, so take the “reasonable ceiling projection” phrasing to heart.
Now we get to the question of defense. Conforto, last year’s best all-bat/little-glove college prospect, never directly answered any of the defensive questions that scouts had for him heading into his junior season. As June rolled around, there was still debate about his long-term defensive future. Baseball America noted that he managed to improve his “fringy outfield defense” enough to be deemed “adequate for left field.” I know others think his defense is underrated and that he’ll be more than fine in either left or right (probably the closest to my personal view); others still would rather see him give up the outfield entirely and remake himself as a first baseman. The Baseball America report splits the difference, which makes the most sense to me based on what I’ve otherwise heard and saw firsthand. In any event, even at his best, his defensive consistency leaves something to be desired; we knew that a year ago and we knew that on draft day and we know that as he is set to begin his first full pro season.
That leads us back to Stewart. Like Conforto, I think he can “answer” the questions about his defense much like Conforto did last year by continuing to hit the shit out of the ball. At the plate he’s a guy who is capable of better than league average on-base numbers and a steady run of seasons with twenty or more home runs. He’s a good enough athlete with impressive instincts to do a decent enough job of chasing down balls in an outfield corner while also swiping the occasional bag when a pitcher is caught napping. I haven’t loved the arm strength in my looks, so there’s a chance he’s locked in with the dreaded “LF only” tag, but, like Conforto, if he hits as expected then you’re still looking at an all-around above-average middle of the order regular. In discussing this year’s draft class with some pals who happen to be Phillies fans, Stewart’s name came up. I’d consider him as a “sleeper” for the Phillies first pick this year, especially if they look at him as the counter-point (i.e. quick moving, moderate ceiling, high floor hitter) to the Aaron Nola selection from last year’s draft. I bring this up not only because I enjoy giving a shout-out to fellow Phils fans when I can, but also because I think Philadelphia likely represents Stewart’s realistic draft ceiling at this point. The Phillies pick tenth overall this year. Coincidence or not, that’s the exact same spot the Mets took Conforto at last year. Now that’s some quality narrative symmetry right there.
Anyway, if it really works, I think you’re looking at a Stairs/Butler/Santana kind of impact bat capable of playing close to average defense in an outfield corner. If not, it could be something closer to the cautionary tale of the one-dimensional (yet still plenty productive when his head was screwed on right) Jeremy Giambi. Even if it splits the difference, that could wind up being a worthwhile late first round/supplemental first round selection.