Tigers’ Uncertain Outfield Offers Chance For Young Players To Carve Out A Role

The Tigers have had a fairly quiet offseason. First-year baseball operations leader Scott Harris has shied away from long-term additions on the heels of the team’s “Murphy’s law” 2022 campaign. The club took a couple upside dice rolls on Matt Boyd and Michael Lorenzen for the rotation, likely with an eye towards a possible deadline deal if they get off to strong starts. They’ve shipped out Gregory Soto and Joe Jiménez and could consider further subtractions from the bullpen.

Detroit hasn’t added any slam-dunk regulars on the position player side over the past few months. They brought in a couple upper level players in the Soto deal who could factor into the mix. No one acquired this offseason should be guaranteed an everyday job, and the lineup-wide underperformance last year means there’s plenty of uncertainty around the diamond. That’s particularly true in the outfield, where Detroit has a handful of options who could vie for a spot in A.J. Hinch’s lineup early in the year.

Lineup Locks

Greene’s a lock for the center field job if healthy. The former fifth overall pick has raked throughout his minor league career and entered 2022 as one of the top handful of prospects in the game. He looked to be trending towards an MLB job out of camp last year but a Spring Training foot fracture kept him on the injured list and required some ramp-up time at Triple-A Toledo.

The Tigers promoted the left-handed hitter in the middle of June. He was the club’s center fielder from then forward, starting 93 games. Greene hit .253/.321/.362 with five home runs through his first 418 MLB plate appearances. While it wasn’t the eye-popping debut enjoyed by some other rookies in the class, hitting at a roughly league level in the majors as a 21-year-old is no small feat. He hit a few too many grounders but posted above-average exit velocities and solid contact skills. It’s a strong offensive foundation and he’s arguably the most important player in the organization. Some prospect evaluators have suggested he might eventually be a better fit for left field than center, but there’s no real reason for Detroit to move him to a corner in what’s going to be an evaluative year anyhow.

Like Greene, Meadows will also be an everyday player if healthy. Unfortunately, he’s coming off an almost totally lost season. Acquired from the Rays during Spring Training, he only appeared in 36 games with Detroit during his first year as a Tiger. He battled vertigo-like symptoms early in the year, then lost time after contracting COVID-19. While attempting to ramp back up, he suffered strains in both Achilles tendons. Towards the end of the season, he and the club agreed to shut down his rehab so he could focus on his mental health.

Getting Meadows right both physically and mentally is obviously the top priority and a prerequisite to him rediscovering his past success. He’s shown the ability to be an impact left-handed power bat at his best, twice topping 25 home runs during his time in Tampa Bay. Meadows is limited to the corner outfield or designated hitter and should get extended run somewhere, assuming he’s ready to return to the diamond. With two remaining seasons of arbitration control, he could be a deadline trade candidate if he gets back on track.

Immediate MLB Mix

Baddoo looked like a great find for Detroit’s scouting staff in 2021. A Rule 5 draftee from the Minnesota system, he stuck on the roster and played in 124 games as a rookie. Despite making the jump directly from High-A, the left-handed hitter put up a solid .259/.330/.436 line with 13 homers and 18 stolen bases over his first 461 plate appearances in the big leagues. It’d have been a strong showing for any player but was particularly impressive for a Rule 5 selection.

The Tigers secured his long-term contractual rights and opened last season with Baddoo in center field. His second year against big league arms was a significant struggle. He stumbled to a .204/.289/.269 line across 225 trips to the plate, seeing his power production and hard contact rate decline. The Tigers optioned him to Toledo in early May. He responded to the demotion extremely well, hitting .300/.405/.500 in 30 games during his first real upper minors action. Detroit recalled him around the All-Star Break but he again hit at a below-average level down the stretch.

Baddoo is still just 24. He’s shown a patient plate approach at the MLB level and plays plus defense in the corner outfield (though he’s stretched in center field). His strong Triple-A performance means 2022 wasn’t a complete lost year, though he’ll need to make more of an offensive impact against MLB pitching to establish himself. He still has two minor league options remaining, so the Tigers can keep him in Detroit or Toledo depending on his performance.

A former 19th-round draftee, Carpenter wasn’t regarded by most evaluators as more than an organizational depth player heading into last season. He altered that perception with a breakout showing in the upper minors. Between Double-A Erie and Toledo, Carpenter connected on 30 home runs with a massive .313/.380/.645 line over 400 plate appearances. He earned his first MLB call in August and hit another six longballs with a .252/.310/.485 slash over 31 games.

The 25-year-old has put himself firmly in the mix for playing time. There’s still some skepticism about his viability as a long-term regular, though. He’s limited to the corners and regarded as a below-average defender there, raising the possibility he’s best suited for DH work. He has big power but an aggressive offensive approach that could limit his on-base marks. Baseball America named him the #8 prospect in the Detroit system last month, calling him a possible low-end regular or lefty platoon bat. While that would still be a great outcome for a 19th-round pick, Carpenter should get a chance to see if he can outperform that projection this year. He still has all three options remaining.

Acquired from the Phillies in the Soto deal, the 26-year-old Vierling steps right into the outfield equation. He’s appeared in 151 games with Philadelphia over the past two seasons, hitting .260/.309/.374 through 434 plate appearances. After accounting for the Phils’ hitter-friendly ballpark, that checked in 12 percentage points below league average, as measured by wRC+. He hasn’t hit for a ton of power and has walked at just a 6.2% clip, tamping down his on-base numbers.

While Vierling hasn’t established himself against big league pitching, he’s shown some interesting traits. He’s made hard contact at an excellent 48.2% clip while demonstrating strong bat-to-ball skills. A right-handed hitter, he’s posted solid numbers against lefties (.307/.343/.423) while struggling with same-handed pitchers (.227/.285/.339). Vierling bounced around the diamond in Philadelphia, playing all three outfield spots with occasional looks on the infield dirt.

Public defensive metrics haven’t liked his work in center field. He’s probably better suited for a corner while covering center field and second or third base in a pinch. It’s at least easy to see him carving out a multi-positional role against southpaws with the potential to take on more responsibility if he can translate his promising underlying offensive indicators into more consistent production. He has one remaining option season.

Multi-Positional Options

Also part of the Soto deal with Philadelphia, Maton’s a left-handed hitting utilityman. He’s mostly an infielder but could see some time in the corner outfield if the Tigers are looking for ways to get him in the lineup. He owns a .254/.330/.434 line in 87 career MLB games and posted a strong .261/.368/.436 showing in 250 Triple-A plate appearances last year.

It’s essentially the same story with Kreidler, whom BA ranked as Detroit’s #9 prospect. He has spent virtually his entire career as an infielder, playing mostly shortstop in the minor leagues. Kreidler’s professional outfield experience consists of two MLB innings of center field work last season, so it’s possible Detroit doesn’t consider him a real option for the outfield. It’s not uncommon to see multi-positional infielders eventually branch out into corner outfield work, though, as expanded defensive flexibility increases their utility off the bench. Kreidler’s a good enough athlete it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Tigers experiment with him in the outfield at some point. The more straightforward path to playing time for both Maton and Kreidler is at second/third base, though.

Haase has some left field experience in his MLB career. He’s primarily a bat-first catcher who has spent the bulk of his time behind the plate. As things stand, he looks like Detroit’s primary catcher. If a player like Donny SandsJake Rogers or non-roster invitee Austin Wynns seizes the bulk of the catching time, Haase could factor into the corner outfield mix more frequently.

Late-Season Possibilities

Detroit also has a pair of notable outfield prospects who could factor into the mix in 2023. Former second-round pick Parker Meadows had a .275/.354/.466 line with 16 longballs and 17 stolen bases in 113 games for Erie last year. He walked at a strong 10.6% clip while cutting his strikeout rate to a career-low 18.4%. He just turned 23 and is already on the 40-man roster.

Justyn-Henry Malloy, 23 next month, came over from the Braves in the Jiménez trade. The right-handed hitter traversed three minor league levels in 2022, briefly reaching Triple-A after strong showings in both High-A and Double-A. Malloy walked at a massive 18.1% clip en route to a .268/.403/.421 line over 54 Double-A contests. He’s not yet on the 40-man.

Both Meadows and Malloy figure to start the upcoming season with Toledo. There’s no need for Detroit to push either player to the majors before the front office is convinced they’re ready. With another strong upper minors performance, either could put themselves on the map for a midseason promotion. In the interim, the Tigers figure to get looks at players like Baddoo, Carpenter and Vierling to sort out where that group fits in the long-term picture.

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