Injuries won't slow Tigers prospect Derek Hill

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Derek Hill had 102 hits and 35 stolen bases at Single-A West Michigan this year.

Detroit — Derek Hill had Tommy John surgery Wednesday and the Tigers’ prized outfield prospect already was back in Lakeland, Florida, by Friday, ready to start working out.

What? No vacation?

“I don’t need one,” he said, chuckling, during a lengthy phone interview with The News. “Playing baseball is my vacation time.”

Hill, the Tigers’ first-round draft pick in 2014 out of high school in California, had a breakthrough season, of sorts, in 2016.

But just like last season, it was cut short by a fluke injury. Pitchers typically have the Tommy John surgery or ligament-replacement in the elbow.

It can happen to position players, too, however, as Hill found out the hard way a couple weeks ago when he double-clutched on a ball in the outfield in Bowling Green, Kentucky, then reared back and fired.

Right then, he heard a small pop.

“That’s probably not good,” Hill said, recalling what he was thinking that day. “It’s a little disappointing. I showed that I could go out there and compete (this year) like they want me to, so it wasn’t a complete loss.

“But I’m a little disappointed I couldn’t finish it out and go to the playoffs.”

Hill, 20, played all season at Single-A West Michigan, and while his numbers don’t exactly wow yet — .266/.312/.349 — they’re the best of his young career.

He also had 102 hits, including 17 doubles, and stole 35 bases in 41 attempts.

Last year, also at West Michigan, he batted .238/.305/.314 in 53 games before a quad injury suffered while slipping on some wet grass in spring training finally got the best of him.

Tigers' Iglesias eager to get back into action

Is he starting to feel just a tad snake-bitten?

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that,” Hill said. “It’s just luck of the draw.

“It is what it is. I’d rather get it out of the way in low-A rather than when I’m knocking on the door to the big leagues.”

That’s Hill in a nutshell, almost annoyingly positive through and through.

That’s just who he is, and who he’s always been.

There’s no sense moping, is what he believes.

“You’ve gotta stay positive,” Hill said. “Being around this game since I was little, knowing how it is, if you have a negative outlook already, you’re not gonna get anything accomplished.”

He takes that same approach to his rehab, the exact plans of which haven’t been established yet.

But Hill pointed out that having last season cut short actually helped him this season. He was able to watch a lot of baseball on TV, and observe how the big-leaguers go about things. He also was able to spend the second half of the year working out like crazy, gaining muscle, and getting stronger and more durable.

That paid off this season, even though...

“It didn’t transfer into home runs,” Hill said, laughing.

Hill had just one home run this season.

But the improvements — he said he worked hard to get his body, up from 185 pounds to now around 196, in the shape he hopes to play in the next five-10 years — were noticeable in his agility, his ability to go gap-to-gap in the outfield, and his durability. Last year when he would play five games in a row, he could feel fatigue setting in. This year, he felt fresh.

Hill remained in Baseball America’s top 10 list of Tigers prospects in January, but just barely, at No. 10. He was down from No. 4 in 2015. He’s now behind a couple outfielders, Double-A left fielder Christin Stewart (No. 4), drafted in 2015, and Triple-A center fielder JaCoby Jones (No. 5), acquired from the Pirates in 2016.

Still, he’s only 20, and there’s plenty of time to right the ship — which he was well on his way to doing already this year, which he split between center and right. He had the surgery in Arlington, Texas, under the knife of Dr. Keith Meister. He’s happy to report he’s already off the pain meds.

“Those things made me sick to my stomach. I had to bag that and get on the Tylenol,” Hill said. “I’m ready to get after it.”

The kids are all right

A look at the current status of the Tigers’ recent first-round draft picks:

2016: RHP Matt Manning — Rookie ball in Lakeland, 0-2, 4.44 ERA, 41 K’s in 26.1 IP

2015: RHP Beau Borrows — Single-A West Michigan, 6-4, 3.83 ERA, 54 K’s in 87 IP

2014: OF Derek Hill — Single-A West Michigan, out for season (Tommy John)

2013: RHP Jonathon Crawford — Single-A Daytona with Reds (Alfredo Simon trade)

Twitter: @tonypaul1984