Forgive those fans at West Michigan — those merry folks already loving their promotion to the high side of Single-A baseball — who wanted Riley Greene to do a 2021 encore as the Whitecaps this week begin playing honest-to-gosh baseball for the first time in 20 months.
Ah, but the Tigers had other ideas.
Greene is headed not to West Michigan but to Double-A Erie. He might be 20 years old, which is about as young as Double-A competition allows on its diamonds. And it might be all of 24 months since he was playing baseball on high-school fields.
But this is no conventional farm talent. This is a left-hand mashing outfielder who was talented enough in 2019 to have been the fifth overall pick in the MLB draft. This is a prospect who all but thwarted COVID-19 and last year’s canceled minor-league season by proving a then-teen could shine while working with players much his senior.
With each game and at-bat during last summer’s taxi-squad performances at Toledo, and this spring at Lakeland and again at Toledo’s satellite big-league camp, Greene implied he can handle grooming against older and advanced pitching.
He simply has an abundance of skill. It is why Tuesday night, at Reading, Pennsylvania, Greene is set to be in the SeaWolves’ starting lineup as Erie and virtually all of MLB’s farm leagues begin their 2021 calendar.
“He’s going to be a heck of a player,” said Dave Littlefield, who heads the Tigers’ player development efforts. “We understand it’s aggressive (Double-A promotion), but we feel like there are good players, and we’ve got one in him.
“He’s a talented guy, extremely well-rounded. We all understand you’ve got to do it on the field. But it’s his advancement combined with experience — you mesh them all together and that’s what’s helped him move a little faster than the norm.
“Ultimately, he’s just a talented guy.”
Sorting players to stock the various Tigers farm rosters was not in every case pleasing duty, Littlefield said of talks that involved much of the Tigers front office and most of the minor-league manager and coaching staffs.
There were occasional disagreements. The decision-makers also wished, collectively, they could find enough roster room and playing time to push some players to higher rungs. This certainly was the case as the Tigers tried to fit two of last year’s draft picks, Trei Cruz and Gage Workman, into shortstop slots at West Michigan.
Cruz is the more experienced and elder prospect and won the duel there. Workman, who is moving to shortstop from his old college-days station, third base, will instead begin work at Lakeland, which is now the low-Class A outpost after MLB late last year realigned its entire minor-league galaxy.
The same logjam made one of last year’s draft prizes, Dillon Dingler, the choice for West Michigan, while Cooper Johnson will work at Lakeland. This, despite the fact Detroit is high on Johnson, who two years ago was a sixth-round pick from the University of Mississippi.
“He’s real nice-looking player, and that bat seems to be coming on,” Littlefield said, “but with six games a week (and Mondays off under the new MLB farm guidelines), the idea is to play each of those starting catchers four games a week. It doesn’t add up to have them both on the same team, even though we feel both are ready for West Michigan.”
If there were a true surprise promotion as the Tigers crafted their minor-league rosters, it might have been shortstop Ryan Kreidler’s ticket to Erie.
Kreidler was a fourth-round pick in 2019 from UCLA. As with his minor-league brethren, he missed the entire coronavirus-canceled 2020 minor-league season.
But the Tigers first saw signs last October at their instructional camp that Kreidler might be a cut above the class. He is 6-foot-4, 208 pounds, swings right-handed, and plays with a poise that has marked his at-bats.
He stung the ball during spring’s Grapefruit League games and looked the part of a prospect who steadily is blossoming. The Tigers intend to learn during Kreidler’s intro at Erie if he might be one of their farm crop’s better surprises.
They also will be keeping an eye on last year’s first-overall grab, Spencer Torkelson, who as expected will be playing third base at West Michigan. Torkelson hasn’t yet had an official minor-league at-bat and the Tigers don’t mind giving him a shot at rediscovering his bearings with the Whitecaps after he had a rugged spring at Lakeland.
Truth be told, the Tigers understand West Michigan, if anything, could be an ambitious first step for Torkelson, Dingler, Cruz, and Daniel Cabrera, all of whom were members of that 2020 draft class and all of whom haven’t had even one official minor-league at-bat.
Greene is in a different category altogether. In part, that’s because he has had at least a taste of farm life. Greene two summers ago played 57 games at West Michigan and at Connecticut, a former low-A venue that’s no longer part of MLB’s minor-league galaxy.
He has gulped steady doses of seasoned pitching, all thanks to last year’s stint at Toledo and this spring’s dual roles at Lakeland and again with the back-up big-leaguers at Toledo as COVID continued to rearrange MLB’s roster furniture.
If he somehow shows during his Double-A baptism he isn’t yet ready for life at baseball’s gateway to the big leagues, the Tigers can always ship him to West Michigan for a refresher course.
But no one, Greene included, is thinking those thoughts. Not in early May, 2021.
“I definitely feel comfortable,” Greene said during a Saturday Zoom interview, all while acknowledging that the “adrenalin is flowing.”
He wasn’t sure until Thursday’s rosters were unveiled that he was destined for Double A. There were rumors, he said, on Twitter and elsewhere that he was Erie-bound. But not until the Tigers made their minor-league choices known, in a Thursday morning release, did he have a clue.
What he might also know, given the social-media chatter, is that should he pass this Erie examination with nice grades it will be a matter of time until Comerica Park’s customers demand that he be delivered immediately to Detroit.
Greene isn’t ready for such talk yet, he said. He has some growing and fine-tuning ahead.
The maturation process might or might not have anything to do with the fact Greene these days is sporting a nifty new beard, befitting a man who has joined all those MLB farm elders as he prepares for his Double-A audition.
“I wasn’t really thinking about where I was going,” said Greene, who was actually hoping a media group would believe that no thoughts had crossed his mind about where he might be playing minor-league ball in 2021.
“I’m just trying to control what I can control. Focus on playing games. And helping the team win.”
The Tigers will settle for those goals from any of their prospects. That he’s their overwhelmingly top talent, with a mindset straight from the MLB guidebook, is one more reason they’re convinced this promotion was the right call.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.
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