JUPITER, Florida -- Will Stewart stood outside the door to the Marlins' Minor League locker room -- adorned with the logo that was added this offseason, just like him -- and noted how different everything was this spring. Not just the uniforms or his move of Spring Training complexes from
JUPITER, Florida -- Will Stewart stood outside the door to the Marlins' Minor League locker room -- adorned with the logo that was added this offseason, just like him -- and noted how different everything was this spring. Not just the uniforms or his move of Spring Training complexes from Clearwater on the Gulf side of Florida to Jupiter near the Atlantic coast. There's more than those surface-level changes.
So what about the thing that made all of this so different? What of the trade that sent him from the Phillies system to the Marlins along with Jorge Alfaro and top prospect Sixto Sanchez for All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto? To that, he said the magic words.
"OK, so my trade story's a little messed up," Stewart said, as a means of introduction.
Long story short, he was back home in Hazel Green, Alabama, shoveling gravel with his father. Having left his phone at home, Stewart was only marginally interested when his dad received a push notification announcing Realmuto's move to Philadelphia, only to hear he'd have to be a lot more engrossed in the details of this particular transaction.
"So we both thought, 'Oh, who we'd trade,'" Stewart said, referring to the Phillies. "He opens the story and it says Alfaro, Sixto and me. I was like OK, I just got traded to the Marlins. Then my agent called. I had been getting calls and text messages for 40 minutes, and I didn't have my phone with me anywhere. So I ran back home. It's insane. All my coaches are calling me. My first reaction is, 'Why? Why am I getting traded? Why me?' Because I just got put into this huge, big category with Alfaro and Sixto, and I'm thinking that's not me."
Now in Marlins camp, Stewart is the team's 22nd-ranked prospect, something that didn't seem possible in 2015 when he was a 20th-round pick out of a town with a population of about 3,500 or even last year when he threw one pitch for a full-season affiliate. With the Marlins in full rebuild mode, however, Stewart is trying to carve a big role in his new club's future, and he's on the way to make that happen.
The 21-year-old left-hander is coming off his best Minor League season. After spending each of his first two campaigns in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and the 2017 season at Class A Short Season Williamsport, Stewart broke out with Class A Lakewood in 2018. He finished with a 2.06 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 90 strikeouts over a career-high 113 2/3 innings and was a South Atlantic League mid- and end-of-season All-Star, the first time he received either honor. This coming from a southpaw who'd never posted an ERA in the 3's before, never mind the 2's.
"It was probably the only reason I got picked up in this trade because my other seasons weren't that good," he said. "I was not the power guy like I was last year. Then I came in, had a great year and they took notice. It was awesome for them to do that. It was like validation."
Stewart's two greatest strengths are his control and his ability to force hitters to pound the ball into the ground. He issued only 21 walks in his 113 2/3 frames last summer and finished with a 4.8 percent walk rate that ranked sixth among Sally League qualifiers. He was even more elite in his ground game. Utilizing a low-90s fastball with movement and average offerings in his slider and changeup coming out of a three-quarters delivery, Stewart was able to force grounders on 62.1 percent of his batted balls. Only three Minor League qualifiers -- out of a group of 579 -- posted higher ground-ball rates. His ratio of 2.79 groundouts per flyouts was sixth-best among the same group.
At a time when so much emphasis is placed on hitters putting the ball in the air, Stewart has been able to get them to do the exact opposite.
"I'm a sinker guy," he said. "I throw two-seam sinkers. I guess it's just something where I put it or where it happens or how it moves keeps them off-guard. I don't have a 100 percent factual answer for you on that, I don't know. I stay low in the zone. I throw a sinker and it gets guys off-balance and they don't know what to do with it. Until I find the guy that knows what to do with it, I'm going to keep going."
It hasn't always been that way. Stewart's ground-ball rate was 33.3 percent during his first run in the Gulf Coast League, and it wasn't until 2017 [when it jumped to a career-high 67.8 percent] that he felt it would define him as a pitcher.
"I don't think you choose to be a sinkerball guy; I think it chooses you," he said. "You throw it a few times and think, 'Oh, this works.' Then it starts really working. 'Oh, wow, this is who I am now.' It took me a few years to realize who I am. I can't be the guy that throws 97, 98, 99. I'm not that guy. I stopped trying to be that guy a long time ago. Now I'm just gonna work with what I've got and be one of those John Smoltz guys that literally paints. That's who I want to be. Everybody wants to throw 100 -- I'm not interested. I want to get ground balls. I want to finish nine innings in 90 pitches. That's who I want to be."
It didn't take long for last season to look like a new one for Stewart. He didn't allow an earned run or even a walk in his first two outings with the BlueClaws. His first career shutout came on May 30, when he fanned 10 and allowed three hits over nine innings against Greensboro. (He needed 98 pitches for that one and threw 71 for strikes.) His ERA was 1.28 as late as July 16.
That would make even a casual fan's eyes pop, but it wasn't the numbers on his MiLB.com player page that made Stewart think he was turning a corner in his career.
"I stopped caring about results completely," he said. "I don't really care. If I throw my best pitch here and it gets there and I do everything I'm supposed to do and we make an error, so what? They hit the ball out? Good for them. They score 10 runs on me? Whatever. I didn't care. My entire mentality changed, and when my mentality changed, my pitching changed. And when my pitching changed, I became one of the key guys on that Lakewood rotation. I felt like I earned the respect of the Phillies at that point."
That went double for the Marlins, who sought him out alongside a promising Major League catcher and the game's No. 27 overall prospect in a deal for arguably the game's best catcher with two more seasons of team control. Now Stewart is trying to fit in alongside low-level Miami arms with tremendous potential like Braxton Garrett, Jorge Guzman, Jordan Holloway and Trevor Rogers. It's somewhat similar to 2015 when he entered the Phillies system at a time of rebuilding when future ace Aaron Nola was debuting in the Majors and the club was hoping to build around acquired arms like Mark Appel and Jake Thompson. Then, Stewart was just hoping to find any place. Entering his first season in Marlins colors, he's got a different feeling.
"The Phillies always had a few great arms," he said. "They always had a few of those great few marquee players. Here, we're very young. Everyone's young. The rebuild in Philly was a little different. But it's also different because I wasn't really a part of it. I was too young and I wasn't going to make an impact. Here, I'm with guys that could make an impact right now. We're talking months from now. It's very different. I like this one a little bit more because I might be a part of this one. Yeah, I'm excited."
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.