DETROIT -- The drive up Interstate 75 from Fifth Third Field in Toledo takes just under an hour on a good traffic day. For Christin Stewart, the trek from Triple-A to the big leagues was a five-month journey to get ready.
After a solid September with the Tigers, Stewart looks like he should be up for good.
:: Complete prospect coverage ::
"I'm excited about him," Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He's kind of what we're looking for here, talented people with great upside, and I think he really does have that."
For the work Stewart put in along the way, MLB Pipeline honored him as the Tigers' Hitting Prospect of the Year. Former first-round pick Matt Manning, the big right-hander who rose from Class A West Michigan to Double-A Erie this summer, was named MLB Pipeline's Tigers Pitching Prospect of the Year.
Each team's Hitting and Pitching Prospects of the Year were chosen by the MLB Pipeline staff. To receive consideration, players must have spent at least half the year in the Minors and appeared on the team's Top 30 Prospects list. The Tigers honored Stewart as their Minor League Player of the Year last month.
Stewart entered the season as the Tigers' 10th-ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline, just behind fellow outfielder and eventual Mud Hens teammate Daz Cameron. But while Stewart wasn't the highest-rated Tigers position prospect at that point, he was the closest to the Majors, needing some final work at Toledo to complete the package.
A scorching hot start to the season put Stewart in the spotlight for an eventual call-up from the end of April on. He hit .311 (23-for-74) with five doubles, four homers, 14 RBIs and a .972 OPS in the opening month, and ended May batting .281 (52-for-185) with a .931 OPS.
The Tigers resisted the temptation to rush him, despite a need for offense. This was about the player, not the team. It was about an outfielder who needed reps on the field, and a young hitter who still needed to figure out how to adjust when pitchers and their scouting reports adjust to him.
A midseason slump took care of the latter. Stewart saw his average drop below .250 and his OPS under .810 on July 25 before hitting .299 (38-for-127) with seven homers, 24 RBIs and a .950 OPS over his final 37 games in Toledo.
Stewart joined the Tigers once the Mud Hens' International League postseason run ended and showed a surprisingly veteran approach, arguably benefitting from the Triple-A time. His first Major League hit was a single off former Tiger Justin Verlander on Sept. 10. He put a three-hit game in Cleveland six days later to help delay the Indians' division-title celebration. He followed his first big-league home run Sept. 20 in Kansas City with another homer the next inning, sparking a six-RBI game in his 10th Major League start.
A lower abdominal strain ended Stewart's season a few days early, but the 24-year-old hit .267 with 10 RBIs and a .792 OPS.
"He's been fun to watch, a lot of good at-bats, a lot of pitches thrown," Gardenhire said after his final game. "He fouls balls off, fights them off. He's been good. He's been fun to watch. We've got things that we want him to do that we'll need to see, like running the bases, stealing, not being afraid."
For a team that desperately needs young impact hitters, however, he has the makings of the Tigers' next run producer. And after waiting his time, Stewart came out of his September stint feeling like the work paid off.
"I feel like I belong," he said. "Obviously you are always going to have to make adjustments. You always have to get better, offensively, defensively and even the mental side of the game. But being up here shows I can compete at this level. It gives me a little confidence coming into next year."
Manning has some time to go before he makes that jump, but he might be closer than expected. Detroit used the ninth overall pick in 2016 on the two-sport star who didn't begin pitching until high school, believing his body frame and athleticism as the son of a former pro basketball player would allow him to learn. What Manning did this season exceeded expectations, even for someone now ranked second among Tigers prospects and 53rd in baseball by MLB Pipeline.
"I'm pretty happy with how this year has gone, coming off injury and then going from low-A to [Erie]," said Manning, whose season began late thanks to an oblique strain. "That's all stuff that I wanted to work for."
After returning to West Michigan to begin 2018, Manning not only earned a midseason promotion to Class A Advanced Lakeland, he quickly ruled the Florida State League, despite being three years younger than the league average. Beyond a 4-4 record and a 2.98 ERA in nine starts was a .994 WHIP; he allowed just 32 hits and 19 walks over 51 1/3 innings while striking out 65 batters. Midway through the year, he was rewarded with a selection to Team USA in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game.
After Manning struck out 25 batters over just 16 2/3 innings in his final three starts for Lakeland, the Tigers gave him one more challenge with a pair of starts for Erie. He blanked Harrisburg for six innings with eight strikeouts in his Double-A debut, then struggled on Labor Day.
"I think he's got a chance to have three plus pitches and have really good command," Erie pitching coach and former Tigers pitcher Willie Blair said. "He's got a lot of intangibles, got a lot of tools. Great kid, works hard, good head on his shoulders. I think he's going to be really good."