Lakeland, Fla. — The odds against Christin Stewart starting the season with the Tigers were long the day outfielder Robbie Grossman was signed to a two-year, $10 million deal. They grew longer when the club subsequently signed outfielder Nomar Mazara.
Finally, all bets were off after Stewart struck out 10 times in 17 plate appearances this spring. The hammer fell Tuesday when Stewart, a three-time minor league player of the year, was among six players optioned to Triple-A Toledo.
“I don’t know if he was pressing,” manager AJ Hinch said. “I just think we was trying to find his way back to the big leagues and state his case. When we signed the outfielders in the offseason the writing was kind of on the wall, and then the swing-and-misses … it’s something he’s going to have to address in Triple-A.
“It’s an important year for him. He has to show us a reason to bring him back to the big leagues. He knows that. He was super professional about it.”
The power Stewart showcased in his rise through the Tigers’ organization — 34 homers in A-ball, 34 in Double-A, 27 in Triple-A — never translated to the big leagues. He hit 15 home runs in 586 plate appearances over three seasons, with a 25 percent strikeout rate.
That, coupled with his subpar throwing arm and defensive rating (minus-9 career defensive runs saved), made seeking outfield help this winter a priority for Tigers general manager Al Avila.
“He’s super confident in the minor leagues but he didn’t have that confidence in the big leagues,” Hinch said. “And, too, his history with the organization and the prospect status he’s had adds another dimension to things he’s dealing with mentally.”
Stewart was optioned to Toledo along with outfielder Derek Hill, shortstop Zack Short and pitchers Matt Manning, Franklin Perez and Alex Lange. Second baseman Kody Clemens was reassigned to the club’s mini-camp, reducing camp to 42 players.
Hinch said Manning and Perez will likely remain in Florida to participate in minor league spring training, which begins in April.
“We discussed a couple of different options for (Manning),” Hinch said. “The reality is, he may be a guy we leave down here in Lakeland to build up and play in spring training games in minor league camp. The alternate site is an option, but we’re concerned about building up a pitcher with no competition in 40-degree weather in Toledo in April.”
In terms of calling up players to the big-league roster, only players at the alternate site are eligible. But, Hinch said, it’s only a five-day process to transfer a player from minor league camp to the alternate site.
Come May, if he continues to progress, Manning is expected to be in the rotation at Toledo.
“You have to strike a balance between what our overall, long-term plan is over the next couple of months versus the availability of a call-up right away,” he said. “We don’t know if we can play games at the alternate site. If they open it up, maybe create a small pod of teams within busing distance, it may open things up a little bit.”
As for Lange, his strong showing this spring has made him a call-up option in April.
“Yeah, we were able to get a free look at him and I think he leaped a few guys and is an option faster than I expected,” Hinch said. “We knew he had good stuff and we knew he had the back-end-of-the-bullpen mentality and the aggressiveness that comes with it.
“But I think he showcased himself very well and opened some eyes. If we need help in the bullpen, I think he’s equipped to help us fasters than I anticipated.”
Hill was optioned after the game Tuesday.
“It had nothing to do with how he did in the game, he was great,” said Hinch. “The little hitting adjustments he’s made have been noticed and his defense is excellent. I just told him he’s going to play for us, just not right out of the chute.”