Tigers invitee Pill, back from Korea, seeks MLB shot

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — He had to wonder what he’d gotten himself into.

Brett Pill, 32-year-old first baseman in camp as a non-roster invitee, spent the last three seasons tearing up the Korean professional league.

He went there in 2014 after playing parts of three seasons (hitting a home run in his first big league at-bat and getting a championship ring in 2012) with the Giants. So imagine his thoughts when, in his first week in Korea, he stepped into the batter’s box and suddenly a fan jumped the fence and started beating up the home-plate umpire.

“That was a little different,” he said. “It was right behind me. I had to help out, no one was helping to get him out of there.”

Then two weeks later, he noticed a fairly sizable fire in the stands.

“Back then they allowed you to bring alcohol in, they let you bring anything in,” he said. “Somebody brought in a gas grill. All of a sudden, I guess somebody lit their foil on fire.”

But, the eccentricities, the food, the people, the culture, it all grew on him and he managed to spend three enjoyable seasons in Korea. Both of his daughters were born there.

“I loved it over there,” Pill said. “I learned a lot. But, it’s good to be back.”

In 111 games with the Giants, 240 at-bats, he hit .233 with nine home runs and a .683 OPS. But he was out of minor league options going into 2014 and he had to make a decision.

“It was looking like it would be tough to make the team that year,” he said. “The Giants agreed to let me explore that option. That team (Kia Tigers) came to me and we agreed on a deal.”

It was a one-year deal, but before the end of 2014, the club approached with another one-year deal for 2015. Pill accepted. The same thing happened for 2016. As much as playing in Korea appealed to him, getting the chance to play every day appealed to him more.

“It was a tough transition with San Francisco, from playing every day at Triple A to more of a bench role and pinch-hitter,” he said. “I didn’t really flourish at that. I was looking for an opportunity to play every day, then possibly come back to the big leagues and play.

“They kept coming to me early and asking if I wanted to sign back and I always said yes. I never even explored any options here (in the states).”

Playing regularly worked for him:

2014: .309 average, 19 homers, 66 RBIs.

2015: .325 average, 22 homers, 101 RBIs.

2016: .317 average, 20 homers, 86 RBIs.

“They throw a lot of off-speed over there,” Pill said. “That helped me hit it a lot better. That was something I needed to improve. We will see if that translates.”

Pill knew what he was walking into in Detroit. Miguel Cabrera, future Hall-of-Famer, is an institution at first base. The Tigers also signed veteran Efren Navarro and have prospect Dominic Ficociello working his way up the ladder.

But he also knows that both Cabrera and Navarro will be leaving camp to play in the WBC. He should get some extended playing time in their absence.

“I wanted to get to spring training and get a chance to play,” he said. “But, they’ve got a good team. So, whatever I can do”

He is 0-for-5 and scored a run thus far in exhibition play.