Jays indicate patience will pay off for Stewart

Jays indicate patience will pay off for Stewart

Jays indicate patience will pay off for Stewart
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Blue Jays have so much pitching depth in the Minor Leagues, it would be easy to overlook some of their up-and-coming prospects.

One right-hander who doesn't have to worry about getting lost in the shuffle, though, is Zach Stewart. The 24-year-old power arm turned heads last season with his breakout performance in the Minor Leagues.

After spending a full year in Double-A, it doesn't appear Stewart is quite ready to make the jump to the Major Leagues, but less than three weeks into camp, he is proving that he might not be too far off.

"He has such a quick arm," Blue Jays pitching coach Bruce Walton said. "It's explosive -- the way he can sink and slide the ball.

"He has pitches that can get Major League hitters out. The only thing he is lacking is experience and how he handles the game at our level."

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Stewart possesses a fastball that reaches the mid-90s and a mid-80s slider that tends to miss a lot of bats. That arsenal initially seemed best suited for the bullpen -- the main reason he was tabbed as a closer of the future after being selected by the Reds in the third round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft.

In 2009, Stewart was acquired by Toronto along with third baseman Edwin Encarnacion and right-hander Josh Roenicke in a deal for Gold Glove third baseman Scott Rolen. When the Blue Jays made the trade, they made it clear that the club wanted to give him every chance to succeed as a starter.

Last season with New Hampshire marked Stewart's first opportunity to assume that role over a full season. He responded with an 8-3 record while posting a 3.63 ERA and 106 strikeouts over 136 1/3 innings.

Stewart continued to display the power pitches, which made him a high Draft pick, but he also began to develop a changeup that could make the transition to a starting pitcher successful.

He often gets overshadowed by fellow top pitching prospect Kyle Drabek, but Stewart would have been considered for a September callup in 2010 if he had not already reached his innings limit. This year, Blue Jays manager John Farrell said the club will closely monitor his workload to try and avoid that situation.

"We'd like to get him to the 160-165-inning range," Farrell said. "But we also want to be sure that he is available late in the season.

"If we choose to adjust, or bring him along a little bit slower in the month of April, to budget those innings effectively that's one potential option. But barring how we try to control the innings, what we're not going to be able to control is his ability and he'll find himself at the big league level, I think in a relatively short period of time."

While the club may opt to ease Stewart's start to the season, he says it's not something that has affected his preparation in Spring Training. He's going about his business with an eye on being ready for the start of the year.

"My approach from now to the start of the season is take the things that I know I need to work on and get those done," said Stewart, who allowed two runs on four hits over 2 2/3 innings in a 6-2 loss to the Tigers on Tuesday afternoon.

"Innings, that's their decision. That's something throughout the year, they'll slow me down whenever they need to. It's something I don't think about too much."

Despite Stewart's innings being a concern, Farrell wouldn't specifically eliminate Stewart from the Blue Jays' rotation race, but he also didn't mention the young right-hander when he listed his four contenders for the two open spots earlier this week.

The logical next step for Stewart would be advancing to Triple-A Las Vegas. That league has a reputation of being tough on pitchers, but Farrell ruled out the possibility of sending Stewart back to Double-A to avoid the hitter-friendly competition.

"We're going to make sure that he makes every stop along the way," Farrell said. "Sometimes in those offensive environments, pitchers learn more about themselves with the conditions they find themselves in.

"There's a lot of good pitchers that have come through the Coast League. We want to make sure he gets exposed to those adverse conditions at times and learns to deal with it."

It's too early to know when exactly Stewart will be ready to make his Major League debut, but the organization doesn't have much doubt that his time will eventually come. For now, it's just a matter of remaining patient and making sure the process isn't rushed.

"I think he does have the makeup to handle it, and I'm sure he will," Walton said. "With him it's timing, when is the time right? You never want to bring someone up when they're not quite ready. I always go by the policy that when someone comes to me from the Minor Leagues that has been with us for three or four years, I want them to stay."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.