This is the tenth part of a series of posts on the keys to the Toronto Blue Jays 2010 season. Part I, where we introduced and laid out all the keys, is here. Most recently, we discussed young Travis Snider's emergence as one of the rising stars in the American League. This post will focus on the development of Zach Stewart in the high minors.
9. Zach Stewart -- We'll see what the Jays do with him, but wherever he starts in 2010, Stewart figures to be an important part of the Jays rotation (hopefully) over the next several years. He hasn't had any problems missing bats, but while the Jays stretch out his arm this year, hopefully we'll see him around the plate a bit more, since over 25 2/3 innings at AAA, he walked 14.
Zach Stewart, as we all know, was acquired -- along with Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Roenicke -- last summer at the trade deadline in the Scott Rolen trade. Stewart, a 22 year-old drafted out of Texas Tech, pitching in his first full professional season, immediately strengthened the Jays' farm system, becoming one of their top prospects prior to the haul they received when they traded Roy Halladay this past offseason. The trade was seen as something of a coup for J.P. at the time (though it obviously did not save his job), but Josh Roenicke has not lit the world on fire in the big leagues yet and Edwin Encarnacion has had some trouble in the field and at the plate, in spite of flashes of power and patience (hopefully he can turn things around post-DFA). At the time, it seemed like Stewart would be the most important piece the Jays received and, if anything, that seems more likely now.
Stewart was a 3rd round selection, who quickly signed and was assigned relieve (to limit his innings) at A-ball in Dayton. He dominated A-ball (13 K and 3 BB in 16 1/3 IP) and was promoted to A+, the Florida State League in Sarasota, where missed even more bats (23 K in 16 2/3 IP) but his control was a bit erratic (11 BB) before the season was out. Since Stewart hadn't yet made a professional start and the Reds didn't want to rush him, they let him begin the season as a starter in Sarasota and he started the season well. After just seven starts (32 K, 8 BB, 55.9 GB% over 42 1/3 IP) they felt inclined to promote him to AA-ball, where he pitched almost as well over his next seven starts (31 K, 10 BB, 51.4 GB% over 37 IP). Stewart was forcing their hand, but to protect his arm, he was moved to the bullpen when promoted to AAA Louisville, where his control was erratic but he continued to miss bats at a fine rate. After trading for him, the Jays let him finish the season at Las Vegas (30 K and 14 BB over 25 2/3 combined AAA innings).
Riding high on a strong season which saw him climb from advanced-A ball to AAA, the Jays decided to play it safe with Stewart this year, letting him work his way back up from AA New Hampshire. Since the Jays want Stewart to start, it is important for him to work on his secondary pitches (supposedly his change needs the most work) and the hitter-friendly confines of the parks in the PCL (and, particularly, Las Vegas) might not have been the best places for him to do so. Stewart got off to a bit of a rocky start, but he seems to have gotten back into his stride of late (striking out 36 and walking 16 over 41 2/3 innings in his last seven starts). All told, Stewart's K/BB-ratio currently stands at 54/30 in 68 IP (7.1 K/9, 4.0 BB/9) and he's still inducing a fair number of grounders (45.6%). While his numbers aren't spectacular, they are still fairly solid and -- particularly given that he's recently strung together a few good starts -- there's plenty of reason to remain hopeful. Over the rest of the season -- barring promotion -- it would be nice to see Stewart keep up what he's done of late. Stewart only pitched 108 innings in 2009, so I can't imagine the Jays will let him go much higher than 130 or 140 this season, but that still gives him around 75 innings or so to work with. Over those 75 innings, it would be nice to see him get his strikeout-rate back to between 7 and 8 (where it was in the high minors last year) and continue to get his walks down closer to 3 BB/9.