Going deep: Better days ahead, but outfield remains a weak link in Tigers' system
Editor's note: This is the second installment of a four-part series in which The Detroit News explores the depth of the Tigers organization.
Detroit — For a variety of reasons, the talent pool in the Tigers' outfield ended up virtually bone-dry in 2018.
Justin Upton and J.D Martinez were traded. Nick Castellanos was moved to right field (and would be traded himself in a year). On top of that, a long list of one-time hopefuls had by then stumbled and failed to launch at the big-league level — Steven Moya, Tyler Collins, Anthony Gose, Mike Gerber, Jason Krizan, Derek Hill, Ross Kivett, to name a few.
And though the club has recently infused the outfield ranks with some exciting talent the last three drafts — Riley Greene being most prominent among them — this is still by far the thinnest position group in the organization, especially at the higher levels, Triple-A and big leagues.
Other than Castellanos, Victor Reyes was the only regular outfielder who posted a plus-WAR last season. And he spent the first half of the season in Toledo.
►JaCoby Jones: Such a dynamic athletic presence — comparable in many ways to a young Kirk Gibson: fast, strong, aggressive to a fault. But injuries and offensive struggles have kept him from breaking out. And, as he enters his age-28 season, he is reaching now-or-never time. He seemed last season to figure out how to harness his freakishly fast hands and keep his bat in the hitting zone longer, which was encouraging until a broken wrist ended his season.
►Harold Castro: His primary role will be as a backup infielder, but he impressed last year filling in for Jones in center. In fact, the Tigers’ best defensive outfield alignment might be with Castro in center and Jones in left — similar to when Leonys Martin played center field in 2018.
►Victor Reyes: When spring training was shut down, Reyes, 25, had put himself in position to be either be the starting left fielder or right fielder. He hit .304 in 69 games last season, 34 in center field. He was having a terrific spring, too, hitting .357. Whatever the team decides to do in left field (keep reading) will determine where Reyes plays. But he will be in the every day lineup.
►Daz Cameron: The Tigers still have high hopes for Cameron, the No. 7-ranked prospect in the system, despite his struggles at Triple-A Toledo last season (.214 average). His attempt to increase the launch angle of his swing failed and he was still fighting to regain his old swing this spring. But he’s still only 23 and would have likely made his big-league debut this year.
►Derek Hill: The former first-round pick has been in the system for six years and has yet to play above Double-A. Still, the Tigers made the decision to keep him on the 40-man roster this offseason for a reason. It seems like he’s just now coming into the best version of himself. And he’s only 24 years old. He is a brilliant defensive outfielder, that’s always been his calling card. Last year he started hitting ball with more authority — career-best 14 home runs. He and Cameron were expected to start at Toledo this year.
►Danny Woodrow: In a different era of baseball, his skills would have been far more marketable. He is a prototypical top of the order hitter, circa 1981. He’s a fleet-footed slap hitter who gets on base and wreaks havoc on defenses. But with defensive shifts becoming more intricate and effective in the big leagues, coupled with his inability to power balls over them, his strengths would be negated.
►Jose Azocar: Entering his age-24 season, he is coming off a good year at Double-A Erie. After hitting six home runs in his first six minor-league seasons, he hit 10 last year while posting a .286 batting average. He also went 6-for-20 with a home run this spring. He’s growing into his body. Still, for a guy with great speed, his 587 strikeouts to 96 walks is a worrisome ratio.
►Christin Stewart: At the time camp shut down, Stewart was scuffling. Trying to make some swing adjustments, he was 4-for-28 and not making hard contact. With a minor-league option left, there was a good chance that he was going to start the year at Toledo. Whether the shutdown changed things or prolonged the inevitable remains to be seen. With his defensive limitations, he needs to be a consistent run-producer to stay in the lineup.
►Cameron Maybin: The energy level of the clubhouse surged the day Maybin walked in. He immediately took control of the young outfield group. He may not have been the Tigers’ first choice (Kevin Pillar was) but he may end up being the right choice. At 33, there are still a couple of productive years left in him.
►Travis Demeritte: Acquired from the Braves in the Shane Greene trade, the Tigers gave him a two-month audition in right field last year. It didn’t go well. His swing was long and he had trouble hitting fastballs (63 strikeouts in 186 plate appearances). He also has some bad habits in the outfield, namely floating and drifting to fly balls. But he tightened up his swing in the offseason (four home runs in 17 spring plate appearances) and was still in the fight for a spot when camp shut down.
►Jorge Bonifacio: The Tigers were hoping Bonifacio, given new life after floundering in Kansas City, would come in and seize the right field job. Didn’t really happen. He wasn’t in the best shape at the start of camp and by the time he started rounding into form, he was very much on the roster bubble. Being a non-roster player, the Tigers would have to cut a player off the 40-man roster to keep him.
►Brandon Dixon: He seems destined to start the season at Triple-A Toledo, if there is a season at Triple-A Toledo. But he could be the first man up if there is an injury at any of the corner spots — infield or outfield.
►Troy Stokes Jr.: The Tigers had no real idea what type of player they were getting when they claimed him off waivers from the Brewers last September. But he opened eyes this spring. He’s fast, covers a lot of ground, can play all three outfield positions, is aggressive on the bases and has some pop in his bat. He’s caught in a numbers crunch right now — story of his life, it seems — but he’s an intriguing talent.
►Jacob Robson: He’s 25 and a promising 2018 season seemed to flatten out last year. He’s also had some rough luck — suffering freakish injuries that cut short his two big-league camps. He’s a tireless worker, a great teammate and a solid player, but his best opportunity to take the next step will almost certainly be with another organization.
►Cam Gibson: Same can be said for Gibson. He’s 26 and hasn’t played above Double-A. But his stat line doesn’t truly reflect his value to the team. He’s a dirtbag, a grinder. He may not hit for power or high average, he just consistently makes plays that helps his team win games. There used be a place in the big leagues for players like this. Less so now.
►Chad Sedio: He could also have been on the list of corner infielders, but his best chance of getting to the big leagues may be as a left-handed hitting outfielder. He's 26 and made it to Toledo at the end of last season. He has hit the ball well at every rung so far.
►Riley Greene: If you were to ask manager Ron Gardenhire who stood out the most to him this spring, he’d probably say Greene — who is 19 and wasn’t in camp. And he still ended up playing in seven games hitting .417 with two home runs. The fifth overall pick in the 2019, the Tigers got this one right. Barring injury, this guy has all the characteristics — tangible and intangible — of a perennial All-Star. Estimated arrival in the big leagues: 2022.
►Brock Deatherage: This was to be a big year for him. He’s 24 and is coming off a disappointing season at High-A Lakeland where he hit .228 with a 135-23 strikeout-walk rate. But he still managed to steal 45 bases.
►Parker Meadows: A second-round pick in 2018 and the No. 11-ranked prospect in the Tigers system, he spent the last part of last season sharing the outfield with Greene at Low-A West Michigan — a hitter’s nightmare. He’s 20 years old and still working through some swing adjustments (.221 average).
►Bryant Packard: He’s not much of a fielder. In fact, he might end up being a first baseman, but he can hit. He blew through short-season Connecticut (.351) and West Michigan (.309) before wearing down at High-A Lakeland last August (2-for-17). He’s 22 and still hasn’t found his power swing. That’s coming.
►Others to watch: Jose De La Cruz, Roberto Campos, Kingston Liniak, Ulrich Bojarski, Kerry Carpenter, Matthew Jarecki.