| Detroit Free Press
AJ Hinch: ‘In a perfect world’ Detroit Tigers sign a catcher
Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch checks in Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, to discuss the roster and free-agent market as spring training looms.
Evan Petzold, Detroit Free Press
His name: Willie Horton.
“Keep that kid in you when you play,” Horton, a member of the 1968 World Series squad, told him. “When you were younger, there wasn’t any care in the world. You were just having fun. Have that confidence and swagger every time you go out there.”
In January, Horton called Stewart to catch up, and the 78-year-old delivered the same message.
Once projected as a power bat with a long future in the lineup, the outfielder hasn’t lived up to the expectations set by his first-round pick in the 2015 draft. Last year, he hit .167 with three homers and nine RBIs in 36 games, leading to his demotion to the alternate training site in September.
Entering his fourth year in the majors, there’s no guarantee Stewart will be around for end of the Tigers’ rebuild. He has a career .225 batting average — with 15 home runs — in 157 games.
“There’s always a sense of urgency,” Stewart told the Free Press on Wednesday. “But I don’t feel any more inclined to do anything now than in the past. … For me, personally, I always knew I wanted to get to the big leagues and play for a long time. Nothing changed in my mentality with that. I want to play at the highest level and have success.”
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Horton spent 18 years in the majors, with parts of 15 in Detroit. A Detroit Northwestern alum, he made vast contributions to Detroit’s community during the racial tensions in the late 1960s, trying to halt the rioters while in uniform.
On the field, Horton’s bat helped the city heal, with a career-high 36 home runs in the Tigers’ 1968 World Series championship season. He made the All-Star team that year and finished fourth in MVP voting. Overall, he hit .273 with 325 homers and 1,163 RBIs over 2,028 games.
“All the things he did,” Stewart said about Horton, a special assistant to the general manager. “I’m honored to know some of these players who played when there was a lot of racial tension in the U.S., even more than there is today. It’s great to talk to him and see how what he went through shaped where we are today.”
Stewart leans on Horton as a person, but he also looks up to him as a fellow left fielder and power hitter. Baseball brought them together, and Stewart doesn’t want an early exit from the majors.
In 2019, Stewart hit .233 with 10 home runs and 40 RBIs in 140 games. That was enough to claim a spot in left field on Opening Day 2020, but not enough to keep him in the majors for the entire season. Likewise, his 2020 production wasn’t nearly enough to pencil him in as an outfielder of the future.
The struggles pushed Stewart to improve. He returned to his Nashville home and worked out at Chadwick’s Fitness under trainer Joshua Costello. With him at the facility were James McCann, Logan Forsythe and Adam Frazier, to name a few big leaguers.
“Without getting too technical, we had all these phases to build your body up to where you maintain your strength and won’t lose it when you get to spring training,” Stewart said. “I’m pretty much at my peak right now.
“I feel like the best I have. I really do. This is one of the best offseasons that I’ve had. I’ve grown. I’ve learned a lot.”
Stewart plans to arrive in Lakeland, Florida, for spring training Feb. 15 to undergo a COVID-19 screening. The first full-team workout is scheduled for Feb. 22, when he will begin to fight for his job.
Last week, new manager AJ Hinch said he felt “pretty solidified” with his starting outfield: Robbie Grossman (left field), JaCoby Jones (center field) and Victor Reyes (right field). Earlier this winter, Grossman signed a two-year, $10 million contract as a free agent.
One or two backup spots up will be up for grabs, forcing competition between Stewart, Cameron, Travis Demeritte, fellow former first-rounder Derek Hill and Rule 5 draft pick Akil Baddoo.
“Nothing ever changes,” Stewart said about Grossman filling his position. “I’ll still go balls to the wall. You got to let everything happen as it happens. You can only control what you can control. Nothing has ever been given to me. I always have to work for it.
“Nothing comes easy. You just have to do what you do and work hard.”