The minor-league season has been canceled, but the development of the Tigers' prospects is still a critical aspect of the team's rebuild. In this series, Lynn Henning will take a look at some of the key players. Today: Parker Meadows.
Assume for a moment that a certain virus didn’t show up in 2020 and life, baseball life specifically, would have had its normal seasonal flow.
Parker Meadows would be playing at either of two Single-A stops: West Michigan or Lakeland. Four months before he turns 21, Meadows would be sprinting in center field or right field, and focusing hardest on his hitting, which is the biggest reason the Tigers drafted him with the 44th overall pick in 2018.
But rather than sweating at some Single-A outpost, Meadows this week is at his folks’ home in Loganville, Georgia, a 45-minute drive from Atlanta. Two days each week he spends with personal trainer Joel Seedman. More often, he hits against higher-grade pitchers who are part of the Full Count Baseball development laboratory in Hoschton, Georgia.
He also joins his dad, Kenny, for tuneups (hitting, fielding, running) when the two of them head for Meadows’ old prep field at nearby Grayson High, where coach Jed Hixon has awarded a baseball-famous family keys to the complex.
This is what passes for minor-league ball in a year KO’d by the coronavirus. This is how an outfielder with a big body (6-foot-5, 209 pounds) and supposedly bigger potential tries to make up for a 2019 full-season debut that didn’t go as he or the Tigers hoped.
Meadows played 126 games at West Michigan and batted .221, with a .297 on-base average and a chillingly low .607 OPS. He struck out 113 times. A swing that was considered long, even during his prep days at Grayson, was kinked last season by a hitch that Meadows has been trying to flatten since he showed up at Lakeland, Florida, for a spring camp crimped by COVID-19.
“I had made some adjustments at the plate, had a really good spring training and was ready to go,” Meadows said last week during a phone conversation.
“Just small adjustments. Just raising my left elbow a little, trying to get rid of that hitch, trying to not have that as a big part of my swing. I wouldn’t say I want to get rid of it, totally, because it’s natural. But just calm it down a little.
“And I could feel the difference. Then I’d see the difference on video. It just made me more confident.”
'Heck of a player'
Meadows is a left-handed hitter with stunning speed for a man so hefty. He has run 60 yards in as low as 6.4 seconds and has been graded by most scouts as owning 70-grade wheels on their hallowed 80-point scale. He also has a plus arm.
Throw in power that scouts saw Meadows steadily adding, and this is how a Georgia prep star becomes the first pick of the 2018 draft’s second round. It helps when you have lineage: Parker’s older brother, Austin, plays for the Tampa Bay Rays.
The tough part for Meadows is this: He turns 21 in November. It’s an age where you want more on your resume than last year’s essentially sorry numbers. Everyone, it seems, has paid a pandemic’s personal price. Meadows has all but lost a 2020 that would have been revealing, one way or another.
And yet there’s time. And, most of all, talent, which is why Parker was taken 44th overall.
“If he can get that bat going, get some consistency with his swing, we’re going to have a heck of a player,” said Dave Littlefield, who heads Tigers player development. “In general terms, no, he didn’t’ have as good a year last season as everyone was hoping.
“But this is a very good athlete, with a lot of physical talent. He’s a smart guy and the bloodlines give you a nice feeling. I’m confident it’s going to happen.”
Littlefield prefers not to talk in detail about Meadows’ swing issues. The Tigers are working with him, remotely, by way of video analysis and coaching that are ongoing even during the coronavirus shutdown.
The Tigers are in touch regularly with players, personal trainers, and any coaches who might have relationships with the players during 2020’s canceled minor-league season. It’s an attempt to keep as much coordination in place during a year when prospects are still developing, to some degree, with or without games.
“It’s unprecedented, but obviously there’s a lot of technology out there, we’ve got a lot of staff, and the players are into it,” Littlefield said. “Everyone on the development side has specific players they’re staying in contact with.
“Videos are sent to us, and then the analytics and technology minds can work with the coaching staffs to identify areas the player can work on.”
In the case of Meadows, primary goals are simply stated: fix that swing. Hit the hard stuff that’s a fixture in professional baseball.
“Obviously, that’s the challenge,” said Lance Parrish, now a special assistant to Tigers general manager Al Avila, and the man who managed Meadows a year ago at West Michigan.
“First and foremost, he has tremendous upside. I could probably state without too many people disagreeing that he is the fastest guy in our organization. If he can just learn to put the ball in play, he’s got a chance to get on base and hit for a high average.
“That’s his issue right now: making solid contact.”
'The rest of it will come'
So, why did the Tigers bite on a player whose swing-hitch was part of his scouting profile (Baseball America, for example) coming out of Grayson High? Scouts for the Perfect Game website described it as a “late hand-drop load.”
The Tigers weren’t bothered. In their view, Meadows was a good enough athlete to fix the hitch.
“He has a little loop in his swing, a little hitch, whatever you want to call it,” Parrish said. “He tends to get underneath pitches, and I think a lot of teams realized they could pitch him high in the zone and he’d have a tough time getting to that ball or laying off it.
“But I think once he understands that — and with the analytics in place, he’s better now at understanding his swing path — he’ll know exactly what his mechanics are and make his swing what it needs to be.”
Parrish agrees that Meadows’ power upside was one more reason the Tigers bit.
“He’s 6-5,” Parrish said. “I saw him hit balls a long, long way. Granted, it was few and far between, but the power potential is there.
“He just needs to keep his bat in the zone longer and flatten things out a little more. And make contact consistently. The rest of it will come.”
Meadows repeats that he felt the tweaking — and the improvement — kick in during that curtailed March camp at TigerTown. It would have been nice, he acknowledges, had he been able to take his smoother stroke into a regular-game schedule in 2020. But something called COVID-19 crashed this year’s baseball routine.
“Baseball (development) is pretty much about repetition and consistency,” Meadows said, adding that he uses as “motivation” all those dark scouting summaries. “The problem this year is that, for most guys, it’s hard to find good, live pitching. So, this year definitely has been tough, definitely has been a setback.
“Last year, I was changing my swing up a bunch, and I think the mental side got to me a little bit. But then I had that really good spring training. I was ready to go, and those adjustments at the plate helped.”
Had he not been drafted early in 2018, Meadows was on his way to Clemson. Those plans changed when the Tigers gave him $2.5 million, nearly $1 million above what commissioner Rob Manfred’s office had set as slot-budget for the second-round’s first pick.
Money talks, or in this case speaks directly to skills the Tigers considered exceptional. Big center-fielders, who run like cheetahs, who have left-handed power, and who have an arm, to boot? Not many of those in big-league baseball’s inventory.
Nor are the Tigers bothered at all that another prep hotshot since drafted, Riley Greene, also plays center. The Tigers plan to keep both there, at least for now, realizing Meadows’ big arm makes right field a handy option – if that hitting tool sharpens.
And there is the core topic during any discussion of Parker Meadows.
Will the swing and his bat find harmony? Against good pitching?
No one need tell the Tigers, or Meadows, that there is the divide between life in the big leagues and long summers that, unlike this one, at least offer a shot to compete. In games. Against pro pitching.
Ah, for the good old days.
Lynn Henning is a retired Detroit News sportswriter and freelance writer.