Chris McCosky | The Detroit News
Lakeland, Fla. — Robbie Grossman took a minute to look around the TigerTown complex Monday before his first official workout with his new team. It took him back.
“With all these young kids running around, I was in their shoes at one point,” he said. “Now I know what it’s like to be on the other side.”
Well, Grossman has never, even figuratively, been in Spencer Torkelson’s shoes or Riley Greene’s shoes. He’s never been a bonus baby or ranked exceptionally high on anyone’s prospect list. Shoot, it took him five years in the big league to earn Torkelson’s $8.4 million signing bonus out of college.
“I just looked at those guys and I was like, ‘You have the whole world ahead of you,’” he said. “Make good decisions and your future is bright.”
Grossman’s path to where he is today — with a two-year, $10 million deal in his pocket and an everyday playing gig in the Tigers’ outfield — was littered with a trade, a couple of DFA rejections and a lot grinding and growing.
But he comes to Tigers at age 30, seemingly in the prime of his career, with the immediate status of being a vital piece to whatever success lies ahead in 2021.
“It’s an honor,” he said. “I feel blessed that I am here and I have things expected of me. That’s a privilege to have things expected of you. You spend all winter waiting for the first day of camp and it was today. I can’t be more excited.”
Something clicked for Grossman last season. Putting in offseason work with his former teammate in Oakland Jed Lowrie, a fellow switch-hitter, and then continuing with A’s hitting coach Darren Bush, Grossman transformed himself from a slap hitter to one who can turn on balls and drive them with authority.
He raised his slugging percentage 134 points and had a career-best hard-hit rate of 37.5 percent. And he still maintained the strength of his offensive game — high on-base (.350 career OBA) and low strikeout (20.9) rate.
“The numbers don’t lie,” said manager AJ Hinch, who managed (and released) Grossman in 2015. “I don’t mean just the doubles and the home runs. It’s the approach totals. He pulled the baseball more. He had like the second-biggest leap in pulled balls in baseball. That indicates a change in approach, a change in contact point in front of the plate where he was very consciously trying to get pitches he could pull and pull for power.”
Grossman was the Tigers’ first target and first get this offseason. He got the first multi-year deal the club had doled out to a free agent since the winter of 2015 and part of the allure was his professional approach at the plate, his high-walk, low-strikeout, high damage-to-contact.
“I don’t think anybody had to sell Robbie Grossman to anyone who saw what he’s done over the last few years and over his career and how he puts up quality at-bats,” Hinch said. “Pretty impressive…It was an easy sell internally and externally.”
Those types of quality at-bats have been woefully rare around this baseball team the last few seasons, so the hope is Grossman can be a catalyst in that regard.
“You aren’t going to hear him a ton outwardly,” Hinch said. “You aren’t going to hear him say a lot of things. He’s going to do a lot of things. He’s a leader by example.”
That’s exactly how Grossman described himself, though he is willing to mentor anyone who wants it.
“I mean, I want to help,” he said. “I want to be there for the young players. I was in their shoes and I was always asking questions. I wanted to be where I am at today. I know for some of these guys it might be their first big-league spring and I know what that feels like.”
Greene, Torkelson get early work
The media vantage point for most of the workouts, thanks to COVID-19 distancing, is distant. But you didn’t need a zoom lens to see the wreckage Torkelson wrought in batting practice. Sailing balls well beyond the left-field fence, one hitting off the new fire station in front of Lake Parker.
Hinch said Monday that Torkelson, the first overall pick in the draft last year likely to start the season at High-A West Michigan, will play third base exclusively this spring, barring a serious rash of injuries. And, Hinch said, he could get quite a bit of playing time early in camp. Same for outfielder Riley Greene, the Tigers first-round pitch in 2019, who could start at Double-A Erie.
“Those two players, in particular, are beneficiaries of all the guys who are delayed getting to camp,” Hinch said. “They should get a lot of at-bats early.”
Jonathan Schoop, Renato Nunez, Nomar Mazara, Victor Reyes and Isaac Paredes are among those dealing with travel and COVID testing issues.
Hinch said he didn’t necessarily feel any pressure to play those top prospects, even though he knows that Greene was called over from minor-league camp for five straight games last year when Tigers CEO Christopher Ilitch was in town.
“I’m trying to get a team ready to play,” Hinch said. “But there is short-term vision stuff and long-term goals. Our priority is to get the major league team ready. The luxury part is getting a look at some of those young guys.”
Around the horn
Rookie pitcher Franklin Perez, whose start to camp was delayed by snags in getting test results back, threw his first bullpen Monday. “Just getting him on the mound is key,” Hinch said. “The stuff is real when he’s healthy…You can talk all you want, but you have to get on the field and learn how to compete.” Asked if he viewed Perez as a starter or reliever, Hinch said, “Honestly, I just want him to get in a game right now.”