In retrospect, the key player going back to Toronto looks like former Dragon Edwin Encarnacion, who slammed 42 home runs for the Blue Jays in 2012 to rank fourth in the American League. But at the time of the deal, as much attention was focused on the one player in the trade who had never spent a day in the Major Leagues as it was on Encarnacion. That player, also a former Dragon, did eventually reach the big leagues, but to date, he has yet to reach the heights for which he appeared headed. And while he is still young enough to reach his potential, he has been traded three more times since the Rolen deal and is now in his second tour of duty with the Chicago White Sox, who claimed him off waivers from the Pirates in January. His lightning-fast rise through the Reds organization four years ago was no fluke, and he has remained healthy despite struggling to find a home. He is right-handed pitcher Zach Stewart, the 49th Dragon to play in the Major Leagues.
Stewart was drafted by the Reds in the third round in 2008 out of Texas Tech University and made his professional debut a few weeks later with the Dragons. In his first inning on the mound at Fifth Third Field, his fastball registered a blistering 96 miles per hour. He was one of the hardest throwers in Dragons history, but he also featured a sharp slider that was almost unhittable when he located the pitch. In Stewart's time with the Dragons, opposing Midwest League hitters simply had no chance. In 11 relief outings, he allowed a total of one earned run. Opponents hit .175 against him, and his earned run average was 0.55. He was promoted to Sarasota and finished his first season of professional baseball with a 1.09 ERA in 24 games combined.
The next spring, Stewart returned to Dayton for the Reds Futures Game at Fifth Third Field. The game matched the Reds against their top prospects from all levels of the farm system. Stewart was the most impressive prospect in the game. After he froze one hitter with his slider for a called third strike, Reds broadcaster Thom Brennaman turned to color commentator Kent Mercker and offered superlatives. "Wow, this Stewart kid is something else," said Brennaman. Everyone who saw him pitch that day went away with the same thought.
The rest of Stewart's 2009 season was more of the same and eventually carried him all the way to Triple-A. He made 14 starts between Single-A Sarasota and Double-A Carolina, giving up a total of 16 earned runs and posting a 1.82 ERA. He moved up to Louisville and pitched even better there. In just over a year's time, Stewart had gone from a college pitcher to jumping through four Reds farm clubs, and his ERA with the four teams was a combined 1.51.
Stewart's success was coming in a dominant manner, thanks to a fastball in the mid-90's and his tremendous slider. The Reds surely hated to give him up in the trade for Rolen, but General Manager Walt Jocketty has been very effective at utilizing prospects to obtain key pieces that fit needs for his big league team. Stewart went to the Blue Jays on July 31 and he finished the season with their Triple-A club.
Baseball America rated Stewart as the #1 prospect in the Toronto organization entering the 2010 season. The publication's Prospect Handbook also looked into the future and predicted the Blue Jays lineup for the year 2013. They listed Stewart as the Blue Jays' closer for the year that has now arrived. But mysteriously, Stewart has never been able to solidify himself as a Major League pitcher.
The first sign that something was amiss might have come at the start of the 2010 season when Toronto surprisingly assigned Stewart to their Double-A club despite the fact that he had pitched extremely well in Triple-A the previous year. He did not dominate as he had before, going 8-3 with a 3.63 ERA in 26 starts. Then in 2011, Stewart went back to Double-A again, going 5-5 with a 4.20 ERA in 16 starts.
On June 16, 2011, Stewart was called up to the big leagues by Toronto, straight from Double-A. He made his Major League debut against Baltimore and allowed just two runs in seven innings. After two more starts (one good, one poor), he was returned to Double-A. Then just before the 2011 trade deadline, almost exactly two years after he was traded by the Reds, Stewart was dealt to the White Sox in a deal that sent Major League starting pitcher Edwin Jackson to Toronto. It was another trade where Stewart was anything but a throw-in. He was a key component in a compensation package that sent a big league all-star to his previous club.
Stewart went to the big leagues with the White Sox and made eight starts. On September 5, Stewart again resembled the pitcher he had been in 2008 and '09 when he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning and settled for a one-hit shutout against the Minnesota Twins. He struck out nine and walked no one. The only thing separating Stewart from a perfect game was a double by the Twins' Danny Valencia. But Stewart also endured some rough starts with the White Sox. He finished the season with a record of 2-6 and a 5.88 ERA.
Stewart opened the 2012 season pitching out of the White Sox bullpen. But on June 24, it happened again. Stewart was one of two players traded to Boston for slugger Kevin Youkilis. The game of musical chairs continued in November when Stewart was traded to Pittsburgh, and then in January, he was claimed by the White Sox off waivers. He returned to Chicago exactly seven months after he had left them.
Stewart is now 26 years old. This spring, he has already appeared in three games for the White Sox, allowing no runs in four and two-thirds innings. Perhaps this will be the season when Stewart's once-shining star finally takes hold at the big league level. Without question, his 2009 season in the Reds organization was one of the finest organizational climbs up the ladder in recent memory, perhaps dialing back to Charlie Leibrandt's climb through the farm system in 1978. Stewart's success was based on his power arm, not a mix of junkball deception that sometimes does not translate against big league hitters, so the potential for excellence remains. Like each of the other 56 Dragons in the big leagues, his photo now hangs in the main lobby at Fifth Third Field. Stewart was number 49. Up next: Zack Cozart.
Click here for Zach Stewart's Major League statistics, photos, and video highlights.
Click here for Zach Stewart's Minor League statistics.