| The Detroit News
Detroit — Imagine telling a stable of 49 thoroughbreds, most of whom have been cooped up in a barn for six months, to take it slow out of the gate.
Welcome to David Littlefield’s current nightmare. Littlefield, the Tigers vice president of player development, is overseeing an unprecedented instructional league in Lakeland — one that comes after a summer of no minor-league baseball where only a handful of developmental players got any structured work.
“They are shaking the rust off, there’s no doubt about it,” Littlefield said Monday in a conference call. “Guys are in different levels of shape. It’s going to take a little time to get some of the timing back for the hitters, even the conditioning that’s necessary to play defense, or to be ready to throw off a mound.”
Players on the Tigers’ 40-man roster are ineligible to participate. And top prospects like Spencer Torkelson (No. 1), Riley Greene (No. 4) and Parker Meadows (No. 13) spent two months playing and scrimmaging at the Tigers’ alternate training site in Toledo.
But for the others, including 16 of the club’s top 30 prospects, this is their first supervised work since March.
“We’re now in the six-month range since they’ve done any of this,” Littlefield said. “So, we’re being really cautious.”
Players have come in various levels of conditioning, too. Not every player had access to a facility. Not every pitcher had a competent catcher to throw bullpens to, let alone hitters to throw to. Not every hitter had access to live pitching. So, understandably, Littlefield has instructed the training and coaching staff to hold tight on the reins for a bit.
“Our job is to make sure these guys aren’t trying to do too much too quick,” Littlefield said. “You don’t want to have a situation where you run into problems and guys have to miss two weeks and lose this opportunity.
“We want to use the whole period. We are planning to workout through Nov. 8. We don’t want anybody to lose time.”
That said, games begin on Wednesday. The Tigers will play against the Blue Jays on Wednesday and the Pirates on Friday, both games at Joker Marchant Stadium. They have two more games scheduled the following week.
For most, including four of the five players drafted this summer, it will be the first true game competition since the pandemic shut baseball down.
“We are definitely keeping an eye on this, for all the right reasons,” Littlefield said. “With young players, they are anxious, they’re aggressive and they want to show what they can do. We’re all for it, they just have to do it at the right time.”
This is the club’s first hands-on look at the other draft picks — outfielder Daniel Cabrera (competitive balance pick, round 2), shortstop Trei Cruz (round 3) and infielders Gage Workman (round 4) and Colt Keith (round 5).
“This is the fun part for me, getting to finally see these guys in person and finding out what kind of people they are,” Littlefield said. “From what I can tell this early, it looks like a very good group.”
Catcher Dillon Dingler (round 2), who worked at the alternate site this summer, opted not to participate.
“He just decided not to come,” Littlefield said. “You encourage guys, but at the end of the day, it’s their call. There are other guys who didn’t come for a variety of reasons. It happens. He’s a hard-working guy and very committed to being a very good player. He’ll be ready for spring training.”
Presently, Littlefield said, Cruz has been taking most of his reps at shortstop. Torkelson and Keith have been working at third and Workman has been taking balls at shortstop and third.
“The hard part is going to be figuring out how to get them all playing time,” he said.
There are 14 infielders in camp. And while the Tigers need to see the 2020 draft class, they also need to see players from other recent drafts and international prospects — players like Wenceel Perez (No. 16), Kody Clemens (No. 19), Adinso Reyes (No. 23), Nick Quintana (No. 24) and Andre Lipcius (No. 27), Ryan Kreidler and Alvaro Gonzalez.
It’s a little crowded in the outfield, too. Besides Cabrera (No. 11), who Littlefield singled out as making a fast impression, Greene and Meadows, the Tigers also need to see the impact of the layoff on Bryant Packard (No. 18), Jose De La Cruz (No. 25), Kerry Carpenter and Kingston Liniak.
There are 23 pitchers in camp, as well, not counting top prospects Matt Manning and Alex Faedo, who are there completing their rehab and strength and conditioning programs after missing most of the summer with forearm strains.
Of the others, only right handers Jason Foley and Alex Lange had supervised work this summer.
“It’s really difficult to assess short- and long-term goals just because this has been such an odd year,” Littlefield said. “We had to focus in on just a handful of players (who got work at Toledo). There were a lot of guys just sitting at home.
“So, it’s been very unconventional. But everybody else is in the same scenario. We’re just really fortunate to have the support of Christopher Ilitch and Al Avila to have this instructional league program. We have 49 guys out here and it’s been tremendous so far.”