Will Tigers' Derek Hill ever make the bigs? The bat will tell

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Derek Hill

A question is asked. The answer, in terms of a definitive forecast, is – today – impossible.

It has to do with Derek Hill.

As he wraps up another half-season of work at Single A West Michigan, does Hill’s bat show enough potential, even at this point at which a player can’t fairly be judged, to offer the Tigers a prayer he’ll someday play in the big leagues?

This is where you sense hesitancy, even as Hill, 21, and a Tigers first-round draft pick in 2014, has had a more upbeat August at Single A West Michigan.

“I hadn’t seen him since 2014, but the ball’s definitely coming off the bat a lot better,” said Mike Rabelo, who already has been named 2017 Midwest Manager of the Year Award for his deftness in keeping the Whitecaps in first place during a year when West Michigan has had 14 players promoted, at different times, to more advanced farm teams.

Hill’s bat has warmed in line with August’s temps. He is hitting .274 in 33 games with the Whitecaps. His on-base percentage is .355, his OPS is .770. It’s happening against low Single A pitching, but it’s a step up from his four-season career farm numbers of .245, .313, .651.

“He’s been piecing together some better at-bats from the day he got here,” Rabelo said. “He’s staying on the fastball better. Not swinging at balls off the plate. His numbers are reflecting that. He’s coming along.”

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It should be remembered Hill has been in 2017 minor-league lineups for only the past seven weeks. And that’s because of Tommy John surgery from August of last year after a center fielder’s right (throwing) elbow needed reconstruction.

The nation’s Top Prospects lists have not, then or now, been overly impressed by Hill’s displays. Except, of course, for his defense, which was the biggest reason the Tigers wanted him in 2014 out of Elk Grove, Calif. He is a spectacular athlete and defender.

“It wouldn't have mattered it he had Tommy John on both elbows,” said Rabelo, who is known for a wry line. “His defense is a plus. And no complaints about his arm. The ball comes out of his hand pretty good when we take infield.”

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nd yet he must hit if Hill is to make it to Detroit.

“Six triples, seven doubles,” Rabelo said. “He’s holding his own.”

That’s very much the Tigers’ impression, overall.

“It’s hard to hit, and in Derek’s case, you’ve got an incredible athlete whose defense is ahead of his offense,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers’ vice president of player development. “There are some signs of improvement. And yet he missed such a long time that it’s difficult, as a baseline, to jump into the year at midseason.

“Everyone else has gone through spring training. They’re sharp and ready to go, and you’re still rusty. It’s not a normal thing when you’ve missed so much time. He’s someone who’s still developing with the bat, still knocking off the rust.

“I would say, candidly, he’s a great athlete whose defense is exceptional and who has tremendous speed, and his bat is improving.

“The bat is a hard one to evaluate. It’s always a separator.”

The Tigers haven’t yet decided how they’ll approach Hill’s offseason. It’s probably too early for a trip to the Arizona Fall League. It would be logical that he would head for the post-season Instructional Camp at the Tigertown complex in Lakeland, Fla.

Next year, if the progression follows, Hill would begin the year at Single A Lakeland. Then, once more, it will become a matter of his bat. If it evolves, he’ll get a ticket to Double A Erie.

But that’s two levels beyond his current station.

“The bat’s always the question, “Rabelo said. “Time will tell. But he’s got the other tools.”