Prospect Grayson Greiner puts himself back in Tigers’ fast lane

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Grayson Greiner takes aim at second playing for Erie last season.

Surprise, Ariz. – The perception around baseball is the catcher’s cupboard in the Detroit Tigers system is relatively bare.

You should know that David Littlefield, the Tigers’ director of player development, disagrees with that.

“There isn’t a lot of depth in our industry overall, in regards to catching,” Littlefield said. “This came up in our organizational meetings (three weeks ago) and my opinion was, we actually have a pretty solid group of catchers.

“There have been things said and written about where we are, negatively, but we have a fairly young guy in James McCann starting in the big leagues who I think is going to be a real fine player as time goes on.”

And then Littlefield went down the list – veteran John Hicks and Miguel Gonzalez at Triple-A, Austin Green and Drew Longley at Double-A, Andres Sthormes and Tim Remes at high Class-A, Franklin Navarro, Arvicent Perez and the oft-injured Shane Zeile at low-A.

“Relative to my experience, I think we have a pretty solid group of catchers,” he said. “I feel good about where we are there.”

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Which brings us to Grayson Greiner, the Tigers’ third-round pick in 2014, who has a chance to put himself in position to be the organization’s No. 3 catcher sometime in 2017.

“It’s rare that you see a guy make the kind of adjustments and improvements year to year like he has,” Littlefield said. “Look at his numbers. The progress is remarkable.”

Greiner, all 6-6 of him, was a star on some good South Carolina teams in 2013 and 2014, and when he hit .322 at West Michigan in his first couple of months as a pro, the Tigers were certain they had something special.

He was invited to pro camp the following spring. And that was the last good thing to happen to him for about a year. He mangled his finger in the first bullpen he caught, missed a big chunk of spring training and then proceeded to hit just .183 in his first full season at High-A Lakeland.

Just that quickly, he was off the Tigers’ organizational radar. Manager Brad Ausmus was asked in February 2016 why Greiner wasn’t invited to pro camp, even just for pitchers and catchers.

“You have to earn those kinds of things,” was his answer.

Greiner, who is part of the Tigers’ contingent at the Arizona Fall League, admitted the snub stung.

“It kind of was (a wake-up call),” he said Monday. “I was honored to go my first year. But then, I didn’t feel like I deserved to be invited after 2015. It was such a crappy year. That motivated me a little bit, though.

Grayson Greiner

“Big league camp was awesome and something I want to do again. I hope I have that opportunity.”

That seems almost assured now. He earned a spot in the Arizona Fall League by hitting .293 with a .763 OPS, with seven home runs, 15 doubles and 42 RBIs last season. He rose from Lakeland, to Double-A Erie and finally, in the last week of the season, to Triple-A Toledo.

“I just sat down (after 2015), looked myself in the mirror and realized what I had to do to change things,” Greiner said. “I know I needed to work my way back up in the organization’s eyes. I know I needed to show them I could still play and drafting me in the third round wasn’t a mistake – that it was smart.”

A couple of things happened between the end of the 2015 season and the start of 2016. First, he got Lasik eye surgery.

“You can’t hit what you can’t see, right?” he said. “I had that done in the offseason and it has been amazing. I would recommend it to anybody.”

Just as significant, he went back to South Carolina and worked with coach and former big-leaguer Brian Buscher.

“I asked him what he thought I should do,” Greiner said. “He said I didn’t have much rhythm in my swing, or that much timing. He suggested trying a leg kick. So I gave it a shot, took it to spring training and I felt comfortable with it.

“The coaches liked it and they worked with me to refine it more.”

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The work put in with Buscher and with Tigers roving hitting coach Bruce Fields clicked and Greiner started hitting the ball hard, his confidence grew, and now 2015 seems like only a bad dream.

“I consider 2015 a fluke,” he said. “I know I can hit. That year was my first full year, it was in the Florida State League and I got off to such a bad start, I couldn’t crawl out of that hole. I am glad I got off to a hot start last year and now all that matters is what I do from here on out.”

Greiner has played in just eight games this fall – splitting time between catcher and designated hitter. He’s got eight hits in 30 at-bats – including four doubles and a home run.

If spring training started tomorrow, Greiner would likely be playing for Triple-A Toledo. The Tigers are expected to sign a left-handed hitting, veteran backup catcher this offseason – Greiner bats right-handed.

Hicks would likely be the Mud Hens’ starting catcher, with Greiner or Gonzalez backing up.

“I try not to look too much into that stuff,” Greiner said. “I just need to come out and do my best every day. Obviously, it’s my dream since I was a little kid to play in the big leagues. Getting that final promotion to Triple-A showed me I’m one phone call away from realizing that dream.

“That motivates me even more to get after it even harder. If it’s Toledo, good. I love Toledo. But I’m not stopping there.”

Twitter @cmccosky