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Raking at Triple-A, Stewart fine-tuning other skills

Callup may not be imminent, but Tigers prospect impressing amid latest tear
MLB.com @beckjason

TOLEDO -- Christin Stewart slowed up at second base, took another look at his double, and pointed to the sky.

His hit parade through the International League has featured 11 home runs, including a drive to the upper-right-field seats at Fifth Third Field last month. His hit off Braves prospect Kolby Allard last Saturday was a slow grounder down an unoccupied third-base line and into left field. He couldn't help but smile about it afterward.

TOLEDO -- Christin Stewart slowed up at second base, took another look at his double, and pointed to the sky.

His hit parade through the International League has featured 11 home runs, including a drive to the upper-right-field seats at Fifth Third Field last month. His hit off Braves prospect Kolby Allard last Saturday was a slow grounder down an unoccupied third-base line and into left field. He couldn't help but smile about it afterward.

"I've beat the shift a few times this year," Stewart said. "I'm going down the line a lot more this year than I have in the past, and so those hits are always nice to have."

The left-handed-hitting slugger has faced the shift since last summer at Double-A Erie, when his torrid June caught notice. Everyone is noticing Stewart now. That includes the Tigers, who hope their 10th-ranked prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, is blossoming into the kind of impact hitting prospect they desperately need in their rebuild.

"He has a master plan here," Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said last week, referring to general manager Al Avila, "and that kid's a part of it."

Stewart looks past it -- the shifts, the prospect buzz, all of it -- and keeps on hitting.

"We always talk about, 'Be here.' The more that you're here, the faster you go there," Mud Hens manager Doug Mientkiewicz said. "If you stay here, you'll work, you'll get better and you'll go. We're trying to get him to where he dots every 'i' and crosses every 't' so when he goes to the big leagues, he doesn't come back.

"Baseball's all about controlling the things he can control, and he can't control when they call him up. He can only do his job every day, and he's been doing a really good job at it. Right now, to me, he's the MVP of this league."

Stewart has had hitting tears in three years since the Tigers used their compensation pick from Max Scherzer's free agency on the University of Tennessee slugger. This feels different. For starters, it's longer: Stewart has a chance to post consecutive months with an OPS over .900 for the first time as a pro.

It has also come with a disciplined approach. Even Stewart's torrid months used to feature lots of strikeouts. He's on pace to finish with more hits than strikeouts in a league where older hurlers have enough serviceable pitches to make ambitious hitters chase.

"He makes the pitcher come to him," Mientkiewicz said. "He takes his walks. He uses the whole field, with power to all fields, and that's what separates him from everybody else."

That last part is just as impressive. The hits have fallen all over the field.

"You can't be scared to strike out -- it's part of the game," Stewart said. "It's more of a mental thing for me in the box, just trying to see the ball deeper and trusting that my hands are quick enough to get to something inside. I've just stuck with that."

This is the maturation the Tigers hoped to see, part of the reason they've been patient with Stewart. The other reason is defense, for which he has been scrutinized more than anyone in the system.

Stewart had 14 assists against five errors from 2016-17. The questions trend more toward reads, instincts or arm. He spent a season-plus playing a short left field in Erie, where the neighboring hockey arena impacts dimensions. Stewart has a bigger outfield in Toledo, one better resembling Comerica Park.

"You have room to run back on balls," Stewart said.

Stewart has been a focus for outfield instructor Gene Roof, but early-season weather in Toledo limited extra practice. A lot of Stewart's work has been on getting reads in batting practice and taking it into games.

"I've said this earlier: The industry itself always picks on somebody. If they're exceptional at one side, if they're not equal to that on the other side, they pick on it," Mientkiewicz said. "If he was good defensively as he is offensively, he'd be Torii Hunter defensively. It's a little far-fetched."

That's the balance. Stewart is too young, too good of an athlete, to be a designated hitter. Moreover, it's a tough task for a young hitter to sit between at-bats and not dwell on mistakes at the plate.

"He's got an accurate arm," Mientkiewicz continued. "When the ball's hit to him late in the game, he knows where to go with it, knows what to do with it. He's prepared. I've seen a lot worse in the outfield in the big leagues. That's not a knock on him by any stretch of the imagination."

The more Stewart hits, the better he'll look in the field, and the more Detroit fans will wonder when he'll arrive. It could happen near season's end.

"He has a lot of work to do," Gardenhire said. "We know he can hit, but there's a lot more to it. We want him to be a full player."

That patience was evident in Spring Training, when Stewart was not given a non-roster invite. He made a few appearances in Grapefruit League games as an extra player and made an impression on hitting coach Lloyd McClendon and others.

The way Stewart hits is a statement. He sees the speculation, he said, but he tunes it out.

"You can only control your attitude and effort in this game," Stewart said. "I believe everything else will take care of itself if you focus on those two things."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook.

Detroit Tigers, Christin Stewart