TAMPA, Fla. — Riley Greene swung through Gerrit Cole’s first-pitch 98 mph fastball so hard that his helmet fell off. It wasn’t a surprise for a 20-year-old top prospect facing a perennial Cy Young Award contender.
What followed also wasn’t a surprise for Greene, who has consistently played with a maturity beyond his age since making highlights in Spring Training and Summer Camp last year. The 2019 first-round Draft pick fell into a 1-2 hole against the Yankees’ ace, declined to chase a slider and a curveball in the dirt, then took a full-count 99 mph fastball just off the inside corner for a two-out walk.
It was a footnote in the Tigers’ 5-4 loss to the Yankees on Monday afternoon, as was Greene’s one-out single a couple of innings later to move Niko Goodrum from first base to third. But the two-hit performance, while not as highlight-worthy as a home run or a catch over the fence, was this year’s first sign that Greene remains ahead of the learning curve.
He’s making a solid early impression on his new manager, too.
“Well, he’s talented,” A.J. Hinch said of MLB Pipeline’s No. 21 overall prospect after the game. “He got a couple at-bats [Sunday] and then a couple today, and I thought both of his at-bats today were really impressive. These guys are trying to get their rhythm, their timing to try to see pitches. He controlled any nerves that he would have had facing one of the best pitchers in baseball, albeit in his first Spring Training outing.
“I think these new experiences, specifically for a guy like Riley, are building blocks for him to get a little bit more comfortable in this environment.”
Greene’s third-inning single rewarded Goodrum for his aggressive baserunning. Goodrum took off for second on a Jhoulys Chacin fastball that Greene lined just over a leaping shortstop and into center field.
With runners at the corners and one out, Greene stole second base, putting another runner in scoring position. Though Chacin struck out Jake Rogers and induced a Daniel Pinero groundout to end the threat, Hinch — who has preached aggressive situational baserunning in camp — took note.
“It was a perfect time to go if [Chacin] was going to be slow [to the plate] and got us in scoring position, and then would have scored [a run] if they’d misplayed any part of that last play,” Hinch said. “He hustled around third, even on the ground ball, so [he] played the game the right way.”
For all that Greene accomplished in Spring Training last year — going 5-for-12 with two homers, six walks and just two strikeouts — it’s easy to forget that the then-teenager technically wasn’t a part of Major League camp. He kept getting calls over from the Minor League side by popular demand, especially while Tigers owner Christopher Ilitch was in Lakeland, Fla., to watch the club.
Even with interaction limited due to social distancing, Greene is benefitting from being on the big league side of camp full-time. He picked up tips on tracking pitchers from veteran outfielder Robbie Grossman last week. More importantly, he has worked drills under new bench coach George Lombard, himself a former high-rated prospect and ex-Tigers player who knows baserunning well from five years on the Dodgers’ coaching staff.
“He’s an awesome guy,” Greene said last week. “He’s already shown me a lot. We’ve been doing some different drills which I love. And just the energy and the vibes he puts out, it’s just awesome, like we know we’re going to have a good day with him.”
Greene also looks more like a Major Leaguer physically. He lost 15 pounds since last year, but has added strength from his offseason work with a personal trainer.
At some point, Greene’s days in big league camp will be limited. The Tigers have to sort out their Major League roster, especially their outfield, and Greene won’t be a part of it yet despite his ability. But with Minor League camp for Double-A and Class A players not starting until the Major Leaguers head north to Detroit, Greene still has at least a few more weeks to soak up experience and advice.
“I’m going to come out here and I’m going to do what I do,” Greene said. “I’m going to work hard. I’m going to do what they tell me to do. I’m not really worried about the season right now. I’m just going to focus on Spring Training … and just take it day by day.”