Lakeland, Fla. — The working assumption has been, if the Tigers carry Rule 5 rookie Akil Baddoo on the Opening Day roster, they will have to carry five outfielders. A logical assumption given the Tigers presently have four mostly-established outfielders — Robbie Grossman, JaCoby Jones, Nomar Mazara and Victor Reyes.
But you know the deal about assumptions.
Tigers manager AJ Hinch, whose headache it would be to try to navigate a roster with five outfield-only players and just one utility player on his bench, was asked about the possibility of carrying four outfielders, with one of them being Baddoo.
“There are all sorts of roster construction conversations going on,” he said. “Al (Avila, general manager) and I talk just under 100 times a day about that. There’s a lot that goes on. Yes, of course, there are scenarios in play.”
Hinch knew the question was shrouded in the reality that Reyes and Jones both have minor-league options left. Barring an injury, Jones seems locked as the Opening Day center fielder. But Reyes, through no fault of his own, could end up taking the bullet, at least for a few weeks while the Tigers extend their evaluation of Baddoo.
“All options are possibilities but not all are strong options,” he said. “I can see a team with five outfielders. I can see a team with four outfielders. I can see a lot changing in the last seven days of camp that doesn’t include the outfielders.”
Another way to carry five outfielders and an extra bench player, of course, would be to carry one less pitcher. Given the inevitable weather issues and three off-days already built into the first two weeks of the season, perhaps the Tigers could get through a stretch with 13 pitchers.
These are some of scenarios Avila and Hinch are trying to hammer out as Opening Day draws rapidly near. And don’t think for a minute the players involved aren’t feeling the stress.
“It’s a curiosity and there are players who are on edge a little bit who might have minor league options across our team,” Hinch said.
The Tigers took Baddoo from Minnesota with the third pick of the Rule 5 draft, even though he hadn’t played in nearly two years because of an injury and then the minor leagues shutdown in 2020. To say he’s been a revelation would be understating it.
He began the day Tuesday slashing .344/.475/.781 with four home runs, nine RBIs, eight walks and 11 strikeouts. He’s played nearly flawless in all three outfield positions.
“He’s created a big decision for us,” Hinch said. “We love the talent. Every time we’ve put a challenge in front of him, he’s been able to answer it. He looks like he belongs…He’s forcing our hand to consider something to make him a part of what we’re doing moving forward.”
Like, contemplating starting the season with Baddoo as the fourth outfielder and Reyes possibility at the alternate site in Toledo. The Tigers have to keep Baddoo on the active roster all year or offer him back to the Twins or put him on waivers.
Reyes, because of travel delays and COVID-19 protocols, got a two-week late start to camp. As always, though, he came in shape and was able to hit the ground running. He’s hit the ball harder than his actual production (3 for 18) would suggest and he’s also played well in all three outfield positions.
Unlike Baddoo, though, Reyes has a track record against big-league pitching. The Tigers were able to carry him as a Rule 5 player in 2018, a very different time in terms of being pre-pandemic and at the beginning of the Tigers roster teardown.
He hit .304 in 292 plate appearances in 2019 and .277 in 213 plate appearances last season. He has a low walk rate (4.8% in 2019, 4.2% last year) but high contact efficiency (41% hard contract with just a 11% swing-and-miss rate).
“All the different stats and analysis tells you how the hitter gets to what he is,” Hinch said. “Chase rates are really a big deal. Lower chase rate usually means more production. But you might not chase a pitch out of the zone, but that doesn’t make you a good hitter.”
Just like a low walk rate, by itself, isn’t a fully accurate predictor of a hitter’s value.
The reality is. Reyes is 26 years old with just 724 big-league plate appearances under his belt. He’s still a developing player. His chase rate (44%) and strikeout rate (21%) are probably still too high. But that is offset by his excellent bat-to-ball skills. He hits the ball hard, if not for home run power yet. He runs the bases well, has perhaps the strongest throwing arm in the Tigers’ outfield and frankly, doesn’t deserve to be sent to Triple-A to make room for a Rule 5 audition.
But then again, outfielder Mike Gerber probably didn’t deserve a similar fate in 2018 to make room for Reyes.
It can be a suffering business.
“The end of spring training is one of my favorite times,” Hinch said. “The games start to matter, you start playing in the big stadiums and you are getting your team together. But it’s also one of the worst weeks. I remember getting sent down on the last day of spring training. I remember not breaking with the team. They were all excited and getting on a plane and I’m getting on a bus.
“It’s not going to be a great week for us, but it comes with the territory when you are starting build a better team. There’s tougher competition for the last spots.”
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