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Meet Your New Jays: Zach Stewart

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Out of the three players the Jays' got in the Scott Rolen trade, I find Zach Stewart the most interesting.  Stewart was assigned to Las Vegas after the trade. 

Zach was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, on September 28, 1986, so he'll be 23 in about two months.  Stewart attended Texas Tech, which is in Lubbock, Texas, quite possibly the worst city that the first world has to offer.  Zach did a little starting in college but was mostly a reliever at Tech.  Stewart, a 6'2", 205 pound righty, was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 3rd round of the 2008 draft. 

Stewart signed right away and went right to work in the Midwest League, which in and of itself gives you an idea that he was pretty polished at draft time.  He pitched so well in the Midwest League (3 earned runs in 16 1/3 innings, with 13 strikeouts and 3 walks, that he was quickly promoted to the Reds' advanced A affiliate.  Zach continued to breeze, ending the season with more strikeouts (36) than innings (33), 14 walks, and a 1.09 ERA.  Although he was a reliver in his first taste of professional ball, he was used in more than one inning on occasion. 

Zach started 2009 doing something different - namely, starting.  He made 7 starts for the Reds' high-A affiliate and was very good - though his strikeout numbers dipped a bit (32 in 42 innings), he was extremely stingy with the free pass (just 8 walks for an even 4 K/BB ratio) and gave up just one home run, allowing him to post an excellent 2.13 ERA despite some bad luck (given his excellent ground ball numbers) on balls in play.  Stewart was promoted to AA, pretty impressive for a 22-year old in his first go of starting, and once again acquitted himself extremely well, with a 31/10 K/BB ratio over 37 innings (7 starts, so he was clearly still building up arm strength) and again just 1 HR for a 1.46 ERA. 

There was nothing to do but to promote him again, with just one problem - Stewart was already coming close to maxing out his innings (he threw 80 in 2008 and was already at 79 1/3 by the end of June) so he had to move back to the bullpen to limit his innings.  Stewart got into 9 games for Cincinnati's AAA affiliate, and -- surprise! -- was excellent, 16 Ks and 8 walks over 12 1/3 innings, with a 0.73 ERA.  The walks look more like a small sample size blip than anything - his overall walk numbers are quite good, with a < 3 BB/9 over his professional career. 

Now that he has been traded to Toronto, he'll continue relieving in 2009 for workload reasons, but the Jays have to decide long-term whether he should start or relieve.  The Jays seem to have a philosophy, which I share, that if a pitcher can physically handle the workload of a starter, he's much more valuable as a starting pitcher than as a reliever.  They also have a track record (Brett Cecil) of converting college relievers into starters successfully (obviously the jury's not fully out on Cecil yet, but early returns are quite good on the former U Maryland closer).  That to me indicates that Stewart will begin 2010 as a starter in either New Hampshire or Las Vegas, depending on how aggressive they want to be and how things shake out.  But scouts also have said that Stewart could make the majors more quickly as a reliever and some see him as a reliever long-term.  So it'll be very interesting to see. 

Stewart owes his success to a simple, time-tested modus opperandi.  Pound the bottom of the strike zone with his fastball and induce tons of ground balls (2.05 outs on the ground for every 1 in the air this season), and compliment that with a very good strikeout-quality slider (8.3 Ks/9 IP in his minor-league career) and a changeup, a pitch that has improved for Zach since he took up starting.  It's no surprise that the Jays coveted Stewart - in a lot of ways, he's a right-handed Brett Cecil - a former college reliever who pitches to groundballs with his low to mid 90s sinking fastball and gets strikeouts with his slider.  Stewart probably doesn't have the slider that Cecil has (it's definitely not as tight as Cecil's slider and can look slurvey at times), but he arguably has better control with his fastball and is still very much developing as a starter.  The changeup is an essential pitch for Stewart to continue to cultivate if he's to be a major-league starter, as it is crucial to his ability to get lefties out. 

The more I read about Stewart, the more I like him, and the trade.  Encarnacion is young enough that he could still break out, but if Stewart can make it as a quality mlb starter, the deal could work out extremely well for the Jays.  Zach is one to keep an eye on.  Welcome to the Jays, Zach!