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Can Tigers' Nick Quintana justify his second-round status after enduring 'first-year jitters'?

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

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: Nick Quintana.

Even for a man all of 22, this was going to be a comeback season for Nick Quintana.

He would wipe away all of 2019’s mess, an ordeal that began about as quickly as he signed a Tigers contract, 14 months ago, for $1.58 million. It’s the brand of money you earn when grabbed in the second round with the MLB Draft’s 47th overall pick.

Nick Quintana takes grounders during Tigers spring training in February.

Quintana is a third baseman, right-handed hitter, and a man still bearing welts from last summer’s Tigers intro. He played in 41 games at Single A West Michigan and it wasn’t pretty: .158 batting average, .228 on-base percentage, .226 slugging, good – rather, bad – for an OPS of .454. He struck out 51 times.

The Tigers decided they had banked too much too soon on a University of Arizona star who had been strong enough out of high school that the Red Sox made him an 11th-round pick. His new bosses in Detroit shipped him last August to low-Single A Connecticut where life was better, although in 25 games nothing special: .256/.347/.372/.719, with 31 strikeouts.

This was not comforting. For the Tigers, or for Quintana, a Las Vegas native who is back home this summer, living in the house he bought after signing his deal with Detroit.

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More ominously for anyone nervous about last summer’s numbers is that they were mostly in line with Quintana’s work the previous two years at the Cape Cod League, where college baseball’s best players migrate.

Quintana played each summer for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox and these were the results: 2017, 34 games: .200/.267./410/.677, 50 whiffs. As a follow-up in 2018, in 35 games: .259/.351/.435/.786, with 44 strikeouts.

Tigers scouts weren’t overly bothered – not when Quintana arrived back at Arizona for his junior year and sold them on that second-round status. He clubbed 15 home runs in 56 games and hit: .342/.462/.626/1.088, with a more acceptable 54 punch-outs.

All that athleticism. All that power in a body 5-foot-10, 187 pounds. The plus-arm at third base. The ease in handling ground balls. Detroit decided Quintana was the draft’s 47th-best talent.

Not that those first two months showed it.

“I think, ultimately, it was first-year jitters,” Quintana said of his 2019 minor-league initiation, speaking last week from his Las Vegas home. “I guess, just trying to prove to your teammates and coaches and guys at the top why you were their pick, trying to perform, and all of that kind of adds up.

“And then it puts pressure on you and then, when you’re not performing, you start to press, to struggle, and to get in slumps. And then it’s: I’ve got to do something with my swing, and so on. I think it just boiled down to the fact I still was in the college mindset of trying to impress people in the stands.”

“I had to realize that, hey, man, I did that already. Now I’m at the place I wanted to get to. Now I realize I’ve got to let loose and have fun with the game I love.”

‘Different guy’

He might have hit on something there. Lance Parrish, his manager last season at West Michigan, lived through his Whitecaps ordeal, then got a peek at Quintana during the pandemic-pinched spring camp in which Tigers minor-leaguers played early in March.

“I watched him, during the short time we were there, and he looked like a different guy,” Parrish said. “His issues clearly had been addressed, and he made some adjustments. I think we’ll see good things from him.”

Nick Quintana

As for last summer’s crucible, Parrish had the same read as Quintana.

“As far as swinging the bat, I think he got into his own head,” said Parrish, who now works as a special assistant to Tigers general manager Al Avila. “I think he was trying to live up to his draft position, trying to be a power guy, and then he started chasing pitches out of the zone. He probably took himself out of his real strengths.”

Those pluses tend to be two-way. At least that’s how scouts saw it with Quintana, a shortstop in high school who moved to third base when he turned down the Red Sox and showed up at Arizona.

His 2019 scouting report from Baseball America spoke to the full range of high and low notes Quintana displayed during his Tigers initiation.

"Quintana was an elite prep prospect out of the Las Vegas area in 2016, noted for a smooth line-drive swing with gap power. The Red Sox drafted him in the 11th round, but he instead chose to attend Arizona, where he moved from shortstop to third base and has been a middle-of-the-order threat for three years. His above-average raw power is the best asset of his offensive game, and he’s been a solid hitter in the Pac-12.

"However, he has struggled with higher strikeout rates at Arizona—nearly 20 percent over three seasons—and his lackluster statistics from two summers in the Cape Cod League, where he hit .230/.312/.435 with a 38-percent strikeout rate in 69 games, leave questions about his hit tool. Defensively, Quintana has plus arm strength and a good feel for third base after developing at shortstop. He is a below-average runner, but that lack of speed doesn’t show up at the hot corner, where his impressive instincts allow him to be an above-average defender.” 

What should be of help, Parrish reasons, is what helped sell Tigers scouts on Quintana. It’s that vital component: makeup. Disposition, drive, knowing how to handle baseball’s cruelties – Quintana spews it.

“First and foremost with him is that I love Nick,” Parrish said. “I love the approach he takes to the game. He went through some very tough times when he was with us in West Michigan, but it didn’t rattle him. He wanted to play every day. And he was going through some serious struggles.”

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In those 16 games for the Whitecaps, Quintana had another issue: too many errors. He had 16 in 39 games, which isn’t going to keep you in the big leagues – not as a third baseman or at any other position.

Parrish waves off any deep concerns there.

“I like his athleticism at third base,” said Parrish, who as a prep played third base before moving to catcher. “Great arm, very athletic guy. He just needs to understand he needs to be more under control when playing that position. He doesn’t need to play that fast, which is why there were a lot of errors.

“But he’s as athletic as anyone I’ve seen at third base. Great range, great arm, comes in on the ball well. He just needs to slow things down, mentally and physically. But it’s there. He’s the real deal, I think. And can be very good.”

'Trying to keep my sanity'

Blood probably helps. Quintana’s older brother, Zach, was a third-round pick by the Brewers in 2012 and pitched five seasons on Milwaukee’s farm.

Zach had grown up with one fantasy at work: play in the big leagues. He ultimately changed his mind and got into computer coding. He now holds a heavy position at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore.

Zach’s younger brother wanted a life in baseball just as badly. Nick might have bit on that Red Sox offer as he departed Arbor View High. But he had a dollar figure in mind. The Red Sox didn’t meet it and Quintana was happily on his way to Arizona.

Nick Quintana is pictured in action for the West Michigan Whitecaps in 2019.

“There are players out there whose goal is to play Division I baseball, and there are players whose goal is to play professional baseball,” Quintana said. “Mine was both. I wanted to experience Division 1 collegiate baseball in a strong conference, and also to reach that goal of playing professionally.

“I just told the Red Sox that it’s got to be enough (signing bonus) to pass up college. I weighed the pros and cons, and ultimately it came down to me stepping onto campus. And, man, it was a blast.”

He didn’t realize until the 2019 draft’s second day that the Tigers were all that enthused. Mostly, it had been the team up the interstate, the Diamondbacks, that in his mind had paid closer attention and seemed more intrigued.

But he knew what was going on in Detroit. A team was re-crafting itself. That team needed bats to match its young pitching. He thought he would fit.

He still does. What bothers him, of course, is what has eaten at every minor-league in 2020: There are no games. In most cases, there are no arranged workouts, no teammates with whom you can banter and talk and laugh and grow in skills and baseball maturity.

Quintana lives in a red-zone coronavirus state, Nevada. He no longer can go to the gym to work out. He can’t hit against the machines, and occasional live pitching, at Road Dawgs Baseball Academy, in Las Vegas. It, too, has shut down because of COVID-19.

“When they first told us to go home during spring training, everything was kind of normal for two or three weeks,” Quintana said. “I was going to the local gym, hitting at the facility, and then it seemed out of nowhere everything was closed.

“I’ve got workout equipment here at home,” he said. “Hitting tees. A net I can hit into. I work out and hit, just trying to keep my sanity.”

He’s forging a new mindset for when he returns to team drills and to a Tigers uniform. Or, rather, he’s reacquainting himself with an old state of mind. It’s why he believes that bat of his will be back to bashing pitches and strikeouts will recede.

“One of the things we discussed while I was in Lakeland at mini-camp was my comfort level in the box,” Quintana said of his spring cameo with the Tigers. “Last year, when I was really trying to perform, my comfort level just wasn’t there. It caused me to chase pitches and to not be ready for the pitch I could drive. I would instead mis-hit it.

“We could talk about all the drills, the little tweaks here and there that we did in Florida, but it always boiled down to how comfortable I was in the batter’s box. Whenever I stepped to the plate in high school or college, and even at times last summer, I was always confident. I had so much moxie, and it was that mentality where you’re not going to get me out. It was trusting in my ability, and that’s when I was doing my best.”

This spring? In Florida? Most of that old psyche was back, Quintana said.

“I went out there and was just at ease: If I failed, I failed and if I did fail, I’d get another chance on defense and another at-bat in a couple of innings. It felt good to finally show them (Tigers) who they pick. It was just happening. I felt really good. Unfortunately, a pandemic cut that in half.”

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He hopes COVID will have eased enough this fall to allow the extended Instructional League the Tigers have planned for their minor-leaguers. He also wants to get reacquainted with that old Arizona State rival he knew from up the road, Spencer Torkelson, who went to the Tigers with June’s first overall pick.

“Thought it was an excellent choice,” Quintana said of Torkelson. “Probably the best hitter I’ve seen throughout my years. When we would play them (Sun Devils), it was always: ‘What are we going to throw this guy today?’ It was always a struggle.

“We all thought even a year ago that Torkelson was going one-one.

“No doubt. He was a great pick.”

He hopes the Tigers can say that soon about a third baseman named Quintana: Great pick. But that hinges on so many things – a pandemic waning, games returning, and a 22-year-old man’s talents, especially at the plate, flowering.

Previous reports

►Hitting is Tigers prospect Bryant Packard’s ‘favorite thing to do,’ and it shows

►Tigers' Parker Meadows finding his swing, even with no minor-league season