Detroit Tigers prospect Bryant Packard moving to first base, knows bat must carry him

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Detroit Tigers prospect Bryant Packard knows most first basemen aren’t athletic. He knows the position is best fit for a 25-plus home run type of guy. They’re supposed to inflict fear as the third or fourth hitter in the lineup.

And Packard needs to become that player.

He was an outfielder for three years at East Carolina. Selected in the fifth round (No. 137 overall) in the 2019 draft by the Tigers, he manned left field in Low-A Connecticut, Single-A West Michigan and High-A Lakeland. Sure, there were signs he might move to first base. But the transition wasn’t put into practice until this month.

For subscribers: Where the Tigers’ top prospects stand entering instructional league: ‘As advertised’

Now it’s official: Packard, 23, is getting everyday reps at first base, meaning there’s one thing that will truly take him to the major leagues — his bat. And if his bat fails him, he will be stuck in the minor leagues, perhaps maxing out in Triple-A but unable advance past the final barrier.

“I’m not worried about having first base next to my name because I know I can always play the outfield,” Packard told the Free Press on Tuesday, noting the organization’s need for first base depth with 2020 No. 1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson shifting to third base. “(But) I’m very confident in my swing. I know that’s going to take care of itself down the road, even if I’m struggling. No worries there.”

For subscribers: Why Tigers fans should take this crop of prospects seriously

For the first time since high school, Packard played first base in instructional league games in Lakeland, Florida. The No. 18 prospect in the organization, according to MLBPipeline, was drafted, in part, because of his success at the plate as an amateur. 

At East Carolina as a sophomore in 2018, he hit .406 with 14 homers and 50 RBIs in 55 games. He hit .305 with four homers and 10 RBIs in 18 games that offseason in the Cape Cod League.

And his next year in college? A .358 average with 19 doubles in 58 games as a junior before Detroit drafted him last year.

[ Tigers draftees Ryan Kreidler, Bryant Packard have been teammates before ]

Packard showed signs of his offensive prowess in 39 games in his first season as a professional. He recorded a .351 batting average in 11 games in Low-A, hit .309 with three homers and 12 RBIs in Single-A and then struggled in five High-A games with a .118 average.

Like many, Packard didn’t have a chance to climb the ladder in 2020. The minor leagues were nixed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think I would’ve started in High-A,” Packard said. “My plan was to rake there, go to Double-A as soon as possible and open some eyes, and then start this year at the big-league spring training, open some more eyes and eventually be in Detroit.”

The virus set his timetable back an entire year. Many of his teammates were impacted in the same way. He didn’t get an invite to summer camp in July and never made it to the alternate training site in Toledo in August and September.

Packard — not typically mentioned in the crop of rising stars — is operating under the radar.

“Like Randy Arozarena is for the (Tampa Bay) Rays right now,” Packard said. (Arozarena has 22 hits this postseason, tying Derek Jeter’s record for a rookie.) “What a story that guy is. Not saying I’m as good as that guy, but that’s the kind of story I want to build.”

[ Riley Greene grew up watching Tampa Bay Rays. Why he won’t in World Series ]

Preparing for 2021

During what should’ve been Packard’s second pro season, he worked out at Next Level Training Center in North Carolina with longtime hitting coach Lance Martin, who has aided his development since age 11. He took plenty of batting practice in the cages but didn’t face live pitching.

He didn’t make groundbreaking adjustments from his 2019 season, either. Instead, he continued to build where he left off by getting his hands in sync with his body and simplifying his rhythm to ensure prolonged consistency in a full season.

[ What Kody Clemens learned in a Texas independent league ]

Packard wants to drive more doubles into the right- and left-field gaps; he had eight in 2019. Too often, he sold out his approach to pick up a single. He craves power and figures it will be unlocked at some point in his career — sooner rather than later if he can master the art of staying steady with his swing path.

“We want to try to allow that to show,” Martin told the Free Press on Wednesday. “He’s got plenty of easy leverage and easy power, so when he gets the pitches, we want it show up. We want it to be there.”

Packard and Martin speak in terms of letter grades: “A” swing, “B” swing and “C” swing. His “A” swing warrants power; his “C” swing forces him to grind through at-bats to produce.

To assert himself with Torkelson and Greene as the needed offensive prospects of the future, Packard must find his “A” swing more often.

[ What Spencer Torkelson showed in Tigers instructional league game ]

“This is a huge year for everybody,” Martin said. “Everyone’s trying to come out and make an impact right away. Everyone’s been gone for a year, so the expectations are super high. He’s ready to get out there and do what he loves. I think he’s prepared. He’s constantly evolving, constantly growing.”

This can be considered a make-or-break year for Packard’s development. If he wants to move up the ranks, he needs to showcase sustainable power. And the Tigers might not have time to wait until the 2022 season for him to do so.

“This year is probably going to be one of the biggest years of my career,” Packard said. “I don’t put any unwanted pressure on myself because I know it’s just going to hurt my game.

“Just keep moving forward and doing what I’m doing.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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