For Tigers’ Riley Greene, big-league camp is like hands-on graduate study program

Detroit News

Chris McCosky | The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — If you ever questioned the wisdom of bringing players who are still in the lower rungs of the minor-league system to big-league training camp, we draw your attention to the scene on the backfields of Joker Marchant Stadium Wednesday.

Twenty-year-old Riley Greene, the Tigers’ No. 4-ranked prospect, was in the same hitting group as veteran Robbie Grossman. Both faced lefty Matthew Boyd in live batting practice. Standing together behind the cage, class was in session.

“He said, ‘Look at the pitcher, look at what he’s doing,’” Greene said, retelling the story. “’He’s tipping his pitches. All pitchers are going to do something. Some are perfect, but most are not.’ I hadn’t thought about stuff like that.

“The things (Grossman) was telling me, the advice he’s giving me, it’s really helped me.”

Or, how about learning a new set of outfield drills from a coach like George Lombard, who four months ago celebrated a World Series championship with the Dodgers.

“Awesome guy,” Greene said. “He’s shown me a lot of different drills, which I love. Just the energy and the vibe he puts out is awesome. It’s like, I just know we’re going to have a good day with him. I know it’s going to be a good day.”

Or how about a veteran pitcher like Boyd, coming up to you and asking for your feedback on his pitches?

“I’m just picking people’s brains and listening to all the conversations,” Greene said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that.’ I’ve been learning a lot. It’s pretty cool being around the older guys.”

You can’t put a price on this kind of education for a young ballplayer. Nor can you put a price on the value of having a manager in AJ Hinch who has been down this road before, grooming ultra-talented prospects into productive big-league players.

“I think I was asked about Riley Greene about 24 hours after I got this job,” Hinch said. “I know he’s important to our future. He’s a really talented player. But as far as where he’s at, we’ve got to let him develop. We’ve got to put him in a position to develop.

“Listen, it doesn’t matter where he starts, it matters where he finishes in terms of this season and in terms of the future.”

Hinch has walked this line in Houston with Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa. The line between wanting the talent on the big-league club as quickly as possible and needing the player to be fully ready to optimize that talent.

“We’ve got to stop as an industry being in such a rush to judge guys,” Hinch said. “Give them adequate time to make the adjustments at this level and see what we have.”

Hinch was asked on Wednesday if he thought Greene profiled more as a corner outfielder or center fielder.

“It needs to happen over time,” he said. “I will always be the one who tempers that race to make a judgment on a player. You just don’t know what you have until you continue to give him challenges.”

Well, mission accomplished there.

Challenge: Drafted fifth overall in 2019, Greene was called over from minor league camp last spring and played in seven Grapefruit League games. He hit .417 with a .917 OPS, including a pair of home runs. Challenge met.

Challenge: After the pandemic shut spring training down, the Tigers invited Greene to participate at the alternate site in Toledo. Try telling him it was a wasted year of development.

“I learned a lot,” Greene said. “I grew as a player, physically and mentally. I’m happy with that. …There was no sense of me losing anything. I’m going to be antsy to get back on the field always. But the stuff I learned, I thought it was a win for me in my development.”

The next challenge will be whatever happens after the Tigers break camp next month. Greene is expected to start the season in Double-A Erie. Spring training for all levels lower than Triple A will start in April, after the big-league and Triple-A teams go north.

So, either Greene is going get a break next month to recharge for the second spring training, or he’s going to have two rather grueling spring trainings.

Challenge accepted.

“I’m going to come out here and do what I do,” Greene said. “I’m going to work hard and do what they tell me to do. I’m not really worried about the season right now. I am going to focus on spring training here, then I will focus on the other spring training next month.

“Just take it day by day.”

The light side

Greene, Spencer Torkelson (No. 1 overall pick last year) and Jake Rogers are sharing a house in Lakeland. Which, of course, make the soon-to-be 26-year-old Rogers the dad of the house.

“It’s like a running joke,” Greene said, laughing. “We have a lake in the back yard. Me and Tork were out there fishing. Rogers come out there, pulls up a chair, sits and kind of watches us. He says, ‘I’m just watching my kids.’”

Greene said they caught the only two fish left in the lake that day — “I guess that’s a win for us,” he said. But he’s done a lot better on his own boat, which is the one luxury he allowed himself after collecting his $6.8 million signing bonus from the Tigers.

“I use that boat a lot this offseason — a lot,” he said. “I always joke with my buddies. If they want to do some fishing, I got Riley Greene’s Fishing Charter going out. I put my cousin’s boyfriend onto a 50-inch red fish, weighed about 60 pounds.”

The only other leisure activity he picked up is golf. He’s much better at fishing. Of course it’s not easy for a natural lefty to play golf with a set of right-handed clubs.

“Part of it is, my father is a little crazy when it comes to my (baseball) swing,” Greene said of dad, Alan, who was his first coach and was the original architect of Riley’s picturesque swing. “My grandmother bought me a set of clubs, but she forgot I was left-handed. She told my dad and he said, ‘That’s perfect. He doesn’t need to be swinging a golf club left-handed.’

“So I tried it right-handed and it works. I am not any good whatsoever, but I go out and I have fun.”

Back to business

For the most part, though, Greene has been working — on his game and on his body.

“Nothing has been surprising just because of how hard I’ve been working,” he said of his offseason program. “I wake up and go straight to the gym and work out for like two hours. Then I come home, eat and then I go to a different gym and work with my personal trainer.

“I took the offseason very seriously because I learned from the strength guys here what I needed to work on and what I needed to get better at. It’s really helped me.”

He was 220 pounds when he reported to summer camp last June. Right now he weighs 205 pounds, which he said is the right weight for him.

“I felt a little heavy at 220,” he said. “When I got home I started working out and eating healthy. At 205 now, that’s a good weight for me. I feel fast. I feel athletic.”

He’s already got the same talk from Hinch that pitching prospects Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal got last week. The prospect ratings and the draft status are all impressive, all good and fine. But what matters more is production on the field. Don’t try to live up to expectations or reputations that are put on you by outside sources. Just go play the game and compete.

That’s all Greene wants to do. Especially after a year of practicing and playing intrasquad games.

“I really don’t care about all that stuff (hype, expectations),” he said. “Just go out and play as hard as I can, the rest will take care of itself. If you let yourself get wrapped up in all that stuff, it would be like, ‘I need to do that because I need to please this guy or I need to please that guy.’

“I just take it day by day and play my hardest. That’s what I live by. I am not going to look forward to the future. Just focus on the day and try to get better that day.”

Twitter: @cmccosky

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