Rule 5 pick Akil Baddoo presents Tigers with an intriguing roster decision

Detroit News

Chris McCosky
| The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — What to do about Baddoo?

That’s more than just cheesy wordplay. It’s actually one of the serious questions facing the Tigers this spring. What exactly are they going to do with Rule 5 draftee Akil Baddoo?

“He’s a real good-looking prospect,” general manager Al Avila said. “We got good reports on him and we talked to some of his former managers. He’s a true center fielder. We hope what we see in spring training is enough so we can do like we did with Victor Reyes (another Rule 5 pick) — where you know he can play defense, run the bases well and give you a competitive at-bat.”

That’s the front office side of the coin. Baddoo, at 6-1, 215 pounds, has plus speed and projects to hit with power. He’s 22 and it wouldn’t be the end of the world to stash him on the big-league bench for a year. It worked well with Reyes back in 2018.

But the perspective is a little different from the manager’s side. AJ Hinch’s mission is to win — now. His job is to take the best 26 players into the regular season. As athletic as Baddoo is, his skill set is raw. He hasn’t played above Low A.

And besides, the roster breakdown is problematic for keeping him. The Tigers have four set outfielders: Robbie Grossman, JaCoby Jones, Nomar Mazara and Reyes. They also have two utility players who can play in the outfield — Niko Goodrum and Harold Castro.

It’s inconceivable to expect a manager to carry five players who only play the outfield, especially if the Tigers use a six-man rotation and carry 14 pitchers — as is expected to be the case, if not right at the start of the season, certainly by the end of April.

“I wake up some days anticipating 14 and 12 (pitchers and position players) and other days 13 and 13,” Hinch said. “Personnel will dictate that more than any over-arching philosophy. How many starters do we carry to start the season? Is it five, is it six? What position players make it on the corner infield positions will help dictate that.

“Guys that can play multiple positions, again, one of the reasons I’ve harped on that, in the event we carry 12 position players — I’d like to have guys be able to move around the field a little bit.”

As it is right now, Harold Castro, Christin Stewart, Derek Hill and prospect Daz Cameron are all on the outside of the roster battle. It would be a tough sell on the rest of the squad for Hinch keep those players in Triple A just to stash Baddoo for a full season.

Baddoo, of course, would do well to keep all that clutter out of his head.

“If I think about all that stuff, I’ll be all over the place,” he said Monday morning. “I just control what I can control and go from there. That’s my mindset. Just go into each day and do whatever you can to prepare yourself, each and every day.”

Baddoo, a former second-round pick of the Twins, grew up in the same area of Georgia as Stewart and Goodrum. So there were plenty of familiar faces to help him learn the ropes at TigerTown. Also, one of his former the managers Avila talked to was Toby Gardenhire, son of former Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire.

“I feel like I am at home,” said Baddoo, who singled, walked and drove in two runs Sunday in the Tigers Grapefruit League opener.

It was the first baseball game he’s played since 2019.

“I was looking forward to getting out there,” he said. “I finally played and got that out of the way. So I’m ready to go. My body feels great, that’s the most important part. I’m just being a sponge and learning from everyone.”

There’s been a ton thrown at him, from Hinch’s complex and detailed defensive system to outfield coach George Lombard’s thick drill book.

“We have a 10-page book about outfield drills and positioning,” Baddoo said with a laugh. “It’s all new to me, but it’s something that’s going to help my career, help me become a better outfielder.… AJ has a (World Series) ring and George has a ring. Just having that, the whole atmosphere is different.

“We’re all about winning.”

From picking Grossman’s brain about outfield defense and base running to watching in awe of Miguel Cabrera’s legendary batting practice routine, it’s been quite an education.

“It’s just knowing I belong here and trying to show my athleticism,” he said. “That’s the most important thing — being able to learn from the veteran players. That’s my main goal and then just let everything else take care of itself.”

He’s made a favorable early impression on Hinch.

“Yeah, just maturity, being able to handle being a Rule 5 pick in a big-league camp, coming off a pandemic year where he didn’t play a ton,” Hinch said. “He’s very balanced and mature as a human, as a person. When you get a kid out of A-ball and put him in a big-league environment and put a little pressure on him by talking about him potentially making the team, it’s always interesting to see how they respond.

“He’s been comfortable in his own skin and he made a nice little first impression yesterday.”

The plan is to play Baddoo a lot early in camp to, as Hinch said, “see how seriously we can consider him.”

“But his skill set shows right away,” Hinch said. “And the maturity, to me, has been a nice pleasant surprise.”

With Rule 5 players, if the Tigers don’t carry him on the active roster all season, they have to offer him back to the Twins (whom they drafted him from) and then place him on waivers.

The Tigers could, if he cleared waivers, trade with the Twins for his rights. That way he could spend the season in Double A and Triple A, where he probably belongs, developmentally.

Twitter: @cmccosky

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