Detroit — Baseball scouts tend to have long memories. If a player makes an impression on them, that impression can linger for years and years.
Such was the case regarding the Tigers’ seemingly random minor-league signing of light-hitting utility player Kaleb Cowart on Thursday. Cowart had made a strong impression on Tigers scouts back in 2010 — as a pitcher.
"I always followed his career because of what I saw him do on the mound," said David Chadd, the Tigers assistant general manager who was in charge of the club's amateur scouting in 2010.
Cowart was a standout high school pitcher in Georgia, his fastball topping out at 95 mph.
"He was extremely athletic, obviously," Chadd said. "His fastball was 92-95 with heavy life and a slider he threw for strikes. He also threw a split-fingered fastball in high school, and that was rare to see.
"He wasn't a position player trying to pitch. He had feel with all his pitches and control. I liked him a lot back then."
The Angels ended up drafting him in the first round, the 18th overall pick. The Tigers initially had the 19th pick, but traded it to Atlanta (which took pitcher Mike Foltynewicz).
They did all right for themselves, though, taking Nick Castellanos with the 44th overall pick.
“The thing is, he was such a great athlete,” general manager Al Avila said of Cowart. “So a guy like that, you give him an opportunity to play a position and see if he can hit.”
Cowart, though he’s put up good numbers at Triple-A, has scuffled mightily against big-league pitching over parts of four seasons — .177/.241/.293. The Angels released Cowart in December and he was claimed off waivers by the Mariners.
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto was with the Angels in 2010 and also remembered that Cowart could pitch. His plan was to try to transition Cowart to a pitcher and maybe using him as a two-way player.
That plan lasted less than a month. The Tigers picked up the baton after the Mariners waived him.
“We felt there was a possibility of a two-way guy here,” Avila said. “We’re going to put him on the mound and see if he can recapture what our guys saw when he was drafted.”
Dipoto told reporters that Cowart was still throwing in the mid-90s. Avila and his staff will get their first look at him next week in Lakeland, where they are holding workouts for a few draft-eligible players.
“Yeah, that sounds entertaining,” manager Ron Gardenhire said of getting a look at Cowart. “He can go two ways. In a National League game, who knows, maybe I’d bat him second.”
Cowart is out of minor league options. So, he is going to have to make a fast impression.
“As far as his velocity, he was a pitcher before he became an infielder and they said he has a great arm,” Gardenhire said. “Now you just have to take it out there, let it fly and see what happens … We’re looking for infielders, too. We haven’t filled all the holes.
“He will come into camp and we’re going to look at his arm. But there are other options for him. Let’s just see what he does.”
The Tigers are seemingly set at shortstop (Jordy Mercer) and third base (Jeimer Candelario). They signed veteran Gordon Beckham to compete with utility player Niko Goodrum and rookie Dawel Lugo at second base.
They also signed veteran Pete Kozma to a minor-league deal and still have infielders Ronny Rodriguez and Brandon Dixon on the 40-man roster.
So, Cowart's best hope could rest on whatever magic is still in his right arm.
"I can't tell you how this will work out," Chadd said. "But when he was in high school,he was one of the best right-handed pitchers in the country."