Niyo: Greene gives Tigers a power boost to look forward to

John Niyo
The Detroit News

The only thing Riley Greene was looking forward to more than meeting Miguel Cabrera during his first visit to Comerica Park on Friday was batting practice.

“Taking BP is one of my favorite things to do, like, ever,” said Greene, the Tigers’ newest first-round draft pick, sounding like a teenager for just a brief moment during his introductory press conference. “Especially on a big-league field.”

Tigers' first-round draft pick Riley Greene takes questions from reporters, along with Tigers scouts Scott Pleis, right, and RJ Burgess, far right.

But as luck would have it, Greene got to do both later Friday afternoon. And as the 18-year-old outfielder from the Orlando, Florida, suburbs put on a show in the batting cage — highlighted by a towering second-deck shot to the Pepsi Porch in right field — the loudest encouragement was coming from none other than Cabrera in the Tigers’ dugout.

“He’s 18, for real?” Cabrera asked as Greene took his cuts. “Leave him here! We need him.”

They do, actually. Perhaps more than even Cabrera realizes, as the Tigers rebuild — still behind the curve in many ways — moves forward under the care of general manager Al Avila and his boss, Tigers chairman and CEO Chris Ilitch.

Both were in attendance Friday for Greene’s press conference. And while neither is willing to offer a timetable for when this franchise might be viewed as a playoff contender again, what’s clear is that the Tigers’ future is anything but certain.

All the more reason, then, the Tigers — and their fans — better hope Greene is, in fact, a home-run choice.

A jolt of energy

For all the talk about the pitching prospects the Tigers have accumulated in recent years — investing their last four first-round picks on Beau Burrows, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo and Casey Mize, and trading Justin Verlander for another promising arm in Franklin Perez — the organization is sorely lacking in high-end position players.

“It’s an area of concern for us,” Avila admitted Thursday, prior to another shutout loss for the Tigers. “We’re well aware of our needs.”

That’s why the Tigers went heavy on the college lumber in this most recent draft, using 10 of their first dozen picks on hitters, with Greene the lone prep player among that group. Avila called it “an energy boost “ for a farm system that obviously could use it.

But whatever this draft produces in the way of future major-league bats, the Tigers know the success likely will be measured by Greene’s smooth left-handed swing. The 6-foot-2, 190-pounder is the best hope for a real jolt of energy from Avila’s gambles on high school hitters the last two summers.

The Tigers spent the bulk of their bonus-pool money last summer to get Parker Meadows (second round) and Kingston Liniak (fourth round) to forego college, and now have added Greene, a confident, bright-eyed University of Florida commit who signed quickly after the draft for the full slot value of nearly $6.2 million.

Greene, who watched Monday’s MLB draft with a big group of family and friends, said the moment didn’t truly hit him until he got home that night.

“Probably around like 11:30 p.m., I was like, ‘Dang, I’m a professional baseball player now,’” he laughed.

He won’t waste any time in getting to work, either. After spending Friday in Detroit with his parents and his sister, he’ll head home to Florida this weekend and then report to Lakeland on Monday. Avila said the plan is for Greene to start playing for one of the Tigers’ two rookie-level Gulf Coast League teams there “and then at some point we’ll move him along.”

“He needs time to mature,” said Scott Pleis, the Tigers’ director of amateur scouting. “I don’t care what player we’re talking about: This is just the beginning, this isn’t the end. They have to get better every year.”

Facing the struggle

Still, some of the same “makeup” traits the Tigers’ grew to love about Greene — his maturity, his work ethic, his competitiveness — are the ones they’ll be counting on now.

“Because sooner or later, they’re gonna face adversity and they’re gonna struggle and that’s when you’re gonna find out what kind of player you’ve got,” Pleis said.

That said, the Tigers feel about as comfortable as any club could about a high-school prospect. Mostly because they’ve been scouting him for years. James Orr, the Tigers’ regional scouting supervisor, has a daughter who went to the same high school in Oviedo, Florida, as Greene. Orr also is friends with Gators head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, who offered Greene a scholarship as a ninth-grader. And as closely as the Tigers have followed Greene’s prep career — “They were always there helping me, talking to me and trying to get to know me better,” he said — they began to feel like part of the family.

“There were a lot of teams that wanted Riley in the draft,” said his father, Alan, a longtime hitting instructor and former collegiate player himself. “But he really wanted this.”

He sure sounds ready for everything that comes next, a fact that probably should come as no surprise. Greene says he learned early on his prep career “not to look back,” knowing just how many scouts were there behind home plate at every game or showcase tournament he played in. (Among those behind the cage Friday during batting practice was Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline.)

He’s also well-versed in understanding the mechanics of hitting, thanks to his dad’s tutoring. Greene already has tinkered with some of the advanced tools that’ll be part of his daily routine now, too, utilizing sensor-based technology — Blast Motion, K-Vest and so on — to refine a swing that some MLB scouts say has the most upside of any in the 2019 draft.

Friday wasn’t exactly his debut in a major-league ballpark, either. Last summer, Greene was among the nation’s top prep prospects invited to MLB’s All-Star weekend in Washington, D.C., where took part in a home-run derby at Nationals Park, crushing one into the third deck. A week later, he homered off the scoreboard at Wrigley Field, taking fellow 2019 draftee Brennan Malone (33rd overall to Arizona) deep in the first inning of the Under Armour All-America game. In August, Greene one-hopped a ground-rule double over the wall in left-center field at San Diego’s Petco Park.

As for when he’ll be ready to be a regular at Comerica Park, Greene shrugs.

“I mean, hopefully I’m here in a few years,” he said.

But that’s typical, his father says.

“There’s never been a doubt with him,” Alan said. “He’s always worked hard, he’s always done what he needed to do.”

And whenever his father would check, just to make sure everything was OK, and that all the attention and the pressure that came with it wasn’t getting to be too much, “He’d just say, ‘I’m fine. I’m good,’ ” Alan said, smiling.

His dad even asked the same thing prior to Friday’s press conference, letting him know it wasn’t necessary.

“And he was, like, ‘Dad, I’m good,’ " Alan said. "And you know what? He is.”

Just how good, we’ll all have to wait and see. But for a teenager, the early returns do look promising.