Kyle Stowers wasn’t surprised when he was sent down to Triple-A early in the season, but that didn’t make the demotion sting any less.
“Those first couple days, it was kind of a tough pill to swallow,” he said. “It was humbling.”
The Orioles outfielder entered the season with the opportunity to earn a larger role on an emerging team, one that has spent most of the season as the American League’s second-best. Instead, he was back in the minors less than two weeks into the year.
Stowers was barely playing for the Orioles, totaling just six plate appearances in the club’s first eight games. At just 25 years old, Baltimore wanted the outfield prospect to get consistent playing time in Norfolk rather than wasting away on the big league bench.
“Obviously, it was hard. Really hard,” Stowers said. “You want to be up in the big leagues and help the team win. Especially in a time that’s so fun right now with such a good group, that was tough. At the same time, I wasn’t really that surprised just because I wasn’t really playing. They didn’t want me to go weeks on end without somewhat relatively consistent at-bats. But it was still tough, obviously. I kind of allowed myself to feel that at first and then get back to work and keep going and trying to get better.”
Stowers, now back in Baltimore after spending most of April in Norfolk, is hoping to stick in the majors for good. But he’s running into some of the same issues he did early in the season. His playing time is sporadic — the only time he’s started back-to-back days is when left fielder Austin Hays was out with a finger injury — and he’s also struggling at the plate. Stowers went 0-for-2 in Friday’s win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. On the season, the left-handed hitter is 2-for-26 for a batting average of .077.
“He’s just not on time with the fastball right now,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Not a ton of at-bats up here so it’s hard to really evaluate, but a little bit of underneath in Atlanta for me and just trying to go get the baseball, which is making him a hair late at times and a little bit lungey, trying to get his at-bat over a little too quick. Typical trying too hard to produce issues, and I think that once he kind of can relax a little bit and drop one or two in, I think that’ll be really helpful for him.”
One factor that allowed Stowers, Baltimore’s No. 8 prospect according to Baseball America, to mentally “accept” his demotion was his own recognition that he’s “by no stretch a complete baseball player.” One part of Stowers’ game Hyde said he wanted to see improve in the minors was his defense, and the Orioles have gotten both the good and the bad in that regard since he was recalled on April 30. Stowers nabbed a runner at home from left field in what is one of the most impressive outfield assists by any player in the majors this season. But on Tuesday he had a lapse in right field and allowed a base hit to trickle off his glove for an error.
As a hitter, Stowers smashed Triple-A pitching like he had throughout every minor league level. In 75 plate appearances with Norfolk in April, the 6-foot-3 lefty hit .293 with five home runs. In his career, Stowers has a .855 OPS against minor league pitching and a .618 OPS in the majors. He had a near-league-average .724 OPS in 98 plate appearances with the Orioles last season.
“Baseball and hitting aren’t linear. Sometimes you’re working on things that you felt like you had figured out in the past and sometimes things you didn’t have figured out you do now,” Stowers said. “For me, it was just getting back to being in a good position to hit and drive the baseball. That was something I wasn’t doing a crazy great job of when I was sent down.
“I believe that when I go through a tough time I use it as a way to catapult and go forward rather than just thinking of it as a step back.”
One player who is having a similar experience as Stowers is utilityman Terrin Vavra. Also a prospect, Vavra was called up in the second half last season and spent the end of the year in the majors alongside Stowers. To open 2023, Vavra got more playing time than Stowers but was ultimately sent down to Triple-A, too.
“The team is winning and doing really well, and it’s pretty fun to be in this clubhouse. When you get told you’re not gonna be doing that for a while and you don’t know when you’ll be back, there’s a stress and a let down, no doubt,” Vavra said. “It’s an adjustment, and it can be frustrating, it can be painful. It can be motivating, though, in the same sense. There’s good and bad that come with it. The reality of the situation is it might not be the last time, so just see how you can take an experience like that and turn it into a positive the best you can.
“Ultimately, it takes more than just the 26 guys in here to put together a competitive team. So if something like that does happen, you just kind of got to wear it on the chin and keep trying to get better so you can get back.”
For players like Stowers, Vavra and infield prospect Joey Ortiz, who has also been shipped between Norfolk and Baltimore this year, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias described their development as a “balancing act.”
“We’re still wanting to develop these guys as everyday players and make sure they have everyday playing time or a lot of playing time, but we’re bringing them up in spots to help out off the bench or in short spurts,” Elias said earlier this week. “So I think it requires a little bit more of a balancing act between developing their careers and then maybe getting them some part-time play up here, taste of the major leagues, a little more sporadic playing time in the major leagues. But they’re brought up to help our team win in spots, so I think that part is relatively new for us kind of in the last calendar year, where that balance is more to the forefront. I’m very happy that that’s the situation because it means we’re winning.”
Stowers understands the new landscape. He rose through the minors in an organization whose big league team was the worst in the majors, and now he’s aiming to be part of a team, whether as a part-time player or more, that is pushing for a playoff spot.
“That’s the beauty of this. It’s a double-edged sword with the team being so good,” Stowers said. “There’s a lot of good players. I’m happy to be here right now, and just happy to see the team win. I just want to be a part of it any way I can.”