Henning: Moya a pivotal prospect for Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Tigers right fielder Steven Moya can't reach an RBI double by Seattle's Ketel Marte during the second inning in Detroit Monday.

Detroit — This would have been five years ago, when Steven Moya was a 19-year-old kid outfitted with training wheels at Single A West Michigan.

Al Avila was overseeing the minor leagues as part of his Tigers assistant general manager chores.  A man who now runs Detroit’s baseball front office happened during a casual conversation that summer day to mention Moya.

He made something of a prediction, startling in that Moya was on his way to a .204 batting average and .597 OPS in 86 games for the Whitecaps.

Avila said if there was one Tigers position prospect who might surprise on the plus side it was Moya. Forget the early numbers, Avila insisted. Forget them, in fact, for the next couple of years. But check in when Moya was closer to 25.

Moya is now in Detroit and Avila isn’t yet Nostradamus. But a baseball man who fundamentally is a scout looks as if he was closer to reality that day than was a scribe and skeptic.

Moya is the Tigers’ new everyday right-fielder now that J.D. Martinez is on the shelf for a month or more with a fractured elbow.  A man who stands 6-foot-7, who is still two months from 25, showed up for work Monday against the Mariners at Comerica Park. He was batting .311 in 12 games. He had three doubles, two triples, and a home run. His OPS was .859.

Baseball's flip side

Monday night, in an ordeal of a game the Tigers won, 8-7, in 12 innings, Moya was treated to baseball’s flip side: 0-for-4, courtesy of a groundout, a deep fly-out to center field, a strikeout, and a fly to right.

Not much of a sampling, 13 games. A month from now the numbers will carry more weight. They also could answer, maybe once and for all, whether Moya is a legit everyday outfielder on the rise as he learns the ropes, or perhaps, is a tenderfoot who needs overtime at Triple A.

This is an important prospect for the Tigers. If he can survive in Detroit, at this age, this season, the Tigers can plug into their lineup a left-handed hitter with serious power and the tools to break up a game.

If he looks as if he can be trusted, it becomes a double-bonus for a team that then could conceivably trade J.D. Martinez – or even Justin Upton if Upton is finally coming out of his early funk – for help the Tigers could always use elsewhere, particularly on the pitching side.

Doubters can easily build a counter case as they size up Moya.

He has walked four times in 32 big-league games, 139 times in 656 games on the farm. He has struck out a combined 821 times.

That high-rise height provides pitchers lots of square footage ready to be exploited. His swing arc is naturally long and can make timing that much more challenging for a young hitter.

Strike-zone judgment

He will encounter in Detroit pitchers and tacticians who will probe and prod and find areas and speeds he doesn’t handle well. His pitch-recognition and zone strike-zone judgment have been improving. They are skills that will need to get steadily sharper.

It’s all about that word: adjustments. Moya will need to make them as Nick Castellanos, another young hitter who had talent and needed time, learned to shift tactics and expectations for what pitchers had waiting for him.

Moya, in fact, has been doing just that. He played 50 games at Triple A Toledo ahead of last week’s call-up and his numbers showed a brand of growth the Tigers had hoped to see. .298 batting average, .326 on-base average, and a muscular .571 slugging percentage.

Not great, but good. And getting better.

The strikeouts will be more than some can handle. But baseball isn’t as bothered anymore by strikeouts that might average one or even a tad more than one per game. It’s what you’re doing when you make contact. And in Moya’s at-bats you don’t see a lot of cheap hits.

He can run, of course, which explains those two triples. He plays, at best an adequate outfield, which wasn’t good enough Monday to keep Tigers manager Brad Ausmus from sending in Mike Aviles, no Gold Glover himself, as defensive protection in the late innings.

“He’s got to hone his skills there,” Ausmus said afterward, cutting to the key words that define Moya as the Tigers approach mid-season. “He’s still young.”

The Tigers will watch and assess. The general manager, for now, hasn’t changed his mind. He talks much as he did five years ago.

“I’m impressed and not necessarily surprised,” Avila said Monday as the Tigers settled in at Comerica for a nine-game stand. “He had a good winter (.298, four homers, 35 games). We all know strikeouts are up everywhere, even among some guys who are considered good hitters.

“It’s all about production.”

Moya’s obliged, ideally, to drive in runs as he learns the intricacies of big-league culture. It’s a heavy order when so much, on either side of the ledger, is bound to be on display in these coming weeks.

So keep an eye on him. Every at-bat. Interesting viewing’s ahead.