Detroit Tigers bench coach Lloyd McClendon peered into a camera after fielding a question on a Zoom conference about outfielder Victor Reyes.
He paused, smiled and, finally, he chuckled.
That’s because he didn’t have a clue Reyes was going to be this good. McClendon worked with him for the entire 2018 season. Many times, Reyes left McClendon frustrated.
“Victor has come a long, long way,” McClendon said. “Trust me when I tell you that.”
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Reyes, 25, is nearly three years removed from being told he wasn’t wanted, but he is now thriving as the Tigers’ starting center fielder. He’s batting .315 through 42 games and hitting .400 with two homers in his last 14 contests, helping to pave the way as the organization seeks its first postseason appearance since 2014.
More importantly, the unlikely standout is setting up the Tigers for future success.
“I had an opportunity to learn and get used to this level,” Reyes said, “and it was pretty helpful to be here.”
He hails from the Rule 5 draft, a place for misfit players in the minor-league system. The process is simple: If you were signed at age 18 or younger and aren’t on your organization’s 40-man roster within five seasons, then you’re eligible for the draft and left unprotected.
The draft is for prospects teams don’t see panning out — with a twist: Rule 5 picks are assigned directly to the drafting team’s 25-man active roster and must stay there for the entire season. If removed, they must be placed on outright waivers. If they clear waivers, they’re given back to their previous team.
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Most players selected don’t last long in the majors and are returned.
“It’s hard to carry someone for a full season if they can’t contribute whatsoever,” Tigers pro scouting director Scott Bream told the Free Press on Wednesday. “Even though you might say, ‘Hey, this guy’s got long-term ability,’ it’s very difficult to carry a guy on a major-league roster when you’re trying to compete, trying to win ballgames if they can’t do something.”
Sometimes, however, it works out.
Take Reyes, for example, or former Tigers left-hander Daniel Stumpf, who was taken in 2016.
Reyes,who was with the Arizona Diamondbacks, was picked No. 1 overall by the Tigers in the 2017 Rule 5 draft because he could contribute by playing all three outfield spots, pinch-running and possessing decent bat-to-ball skills as a switch hitter.
“This is kind of what we envisioned when we did draft him,” Bream said. “We saw a player that had the physical tools, projectable body. As he matured as a player, we thought this is what he was going to be able to come.
“And, quite honestly, I still think there’s more to come. I don’t think this is the finished product.”
‘It takes time’
At 23 years old, Reyes was shoved onto the big-league roster.
He hadn’t played above Double-A for the Diamondbacks, but the Tigers had the eyes of many scouts on him. One of them was Mike Russell, a special assistant to general manager Al Avila. He came back to the organization in 2016 after leading Arizona’s pro scouting department for two years.
Russell recommended Reyes to Avila.
“We knew the player,” Bream said. “And from a makeup perspective, we knew what kind of person we were getting, we knew what kind of work ethic we were getting. So that makes you more comfortable when one of your own scouts has that kind of background, that kind of history with a player.”
Through 126 games for the Diamondbacks’ Double-A affiliate in 2017, Reyes had a .292 batting average, four homers, 51 RBIs and 18 stolen bases.
But he didn’t produce on offense upon arriving in Detroit the next year. He was 4-for-34 with 10 strikeouts and no walks in his first 25 games, making eight starts. In his last 13 games that season, he was 1-for-21 with five strikeouts and one walk.
“It takes time,” Bream said. “… It just doesn’t always happen overnight.”
Reyes hit .222 with one homer and 12 RBIs with 46 strikeouts to five walks across 100 games in 2018.
“You talk about hitters, you go from A to Z,” McClendon said. “We really had to start with A and work our way to B. There was no jumping in any type of progression there. But to his credit, he never said no and never backed down from the work. He’s the first one in the cage, the last one to leave. That hard work has paid off for him.”
‘A valuable piece’
Reyes made it through a difficult 2018 season, meaning the Tigers could move him freely within their farm system. He made six trips to and from Triple-A Toledo and the big-league club in 2019.
In 74 games with the Mud Hens, he slashed .304/.334/.481 with 19 doubles, one triple, 10 home runs and 58 RBIs.
For the Tigers in 69 games, he slashed .304/.336/.431 with 16 doubles, five triples, three home runs and 25 RBIs.
“You put him on the field with Miguel Cabrera and Victor (Martinez) that first year, and he learned a lot from them about a lot of things, just the game in general — not (to) get too high, don’t worry about playing time and all these people love you,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He went through it and he’s grown, gotten stronger, figured out what he needs to do to be successful as far as his body, the whole package.”
He began the 2020 season splitting time between right and left field while JaCoby Jones played center field. When Jones fractured his left hand Sept. 1, Reyes was entrusted to become the everyday center fielder.
Since then, prospects Derek Hill and Daz Cameron have joined him to roam the outfield, and 2019 No. 5 overall pick Riley Greene isn’t far behind them. The Tigers also continued the rebuild by calling up infielders Isaac Paredes and Sergio Alcantara, as well as starting pitchers Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal.
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Yet the most unexpected component of the process is Reyes, who has four homers and 13 RBIs in 42 games. He was left unprotected by the Diamondbacks, but the Tigers saw his potential.
“I think anytime you can acquire a player with very limited acquisition cost, and he can become a performer on your major-league roster, that’s valuable,” Bream said. “They’re hard to find, hard to acquire. And when you get a guy like this that can blossom into something, a valuable piece, those are hard to find.”
Credit needs to be given to the pro scouting department for uncovering a rare gem in that draft, but Reyes’ surge from unwanted to wanted was a byproduct of his work ethic.
He should be given credit for that, too.
“He’s made himself this,” Gardenhire said. “He’s created this. He’s figured out a lot of things on how to get the bat through the zone, how to fight off tough pitches. Those are all the progress that you see as a hitter gets better and better, and he’s there. He’s one of our best hitters, if not our best hitter on the field.
“And that’s saying a lot when you have Miguel Cabrera.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.