Tigers face tricky decision regarding fast-maturing prospect Kody Clemens

Detroit News

Chris McCosky
| The Detroit News

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Lakeland, Fla. — So Tigers’ infield prospect Kody Clemens and his buddy George Pappas booked a tee-time for 8 a.m. at their favorite golf course in Woodlands, Texas. This is early in November, just a week or so after he’d learned that the Tigers had hired a new manager and coaching staff.

They go into the bar at the pro shop to get some coffee before they head out to the course. Well, shoot, let Clemens tell the story.

“No one was in there and this guy walks in wearing a mask and he was carrying a booklet or something. He honestly looked like he worked at the golf course. So I’m standing there, not thinking anything of it. He walks by and takes his mask off — and it’s AJ Hinch.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, there’s my boss.’”

Clemens took off his mask, approached Hinch and introduced himself. Hinch was just as surprised as Clemens was. They ended up talking a little baseball and a little golf and Hinch told him he’ll see him in camp in a couple of months.

“Such a weird coincidence,” Clemens said. “Just out of nowhere we’d run into each other. I mean, as soon as he took his mask off my heart dropped. Like, ‘There’s my manager.’”

Hinch had another little surprise for Clemens on Friday. When he looked at the schedule for the morning defensive drills, Clemens, a second baseman since the Tigers drafted him with the first pick of the third round in 2018, was working at first base.

“This is the first time they talked about other positions for me and I’m all open for that,” said Clemens, who played third base at the University of Texas. “Whatever they want me to do, I will do.”

Would’ve been good to get a heads-up though. He didn’t have a first baseman’s glove. He had to borrow one from Dave Owen, one of the Tigers’ roving minor-league instructors.

“When I was taking ground balls with that glove, I was like, ‘Man, I’ve got four or five more inches of range,’” Clemens said. “It was pretty funny. But it’s nice to have other positions. I just want to be in that lineup. So wherever they want to play me, I’ll play.”

He did have to make a quick call home, though. He told his dad — Roger Clemens, you may have heard of him — to have his brother Kacy, a first baseman in the Blue Jays organization, send him one of his gloves.

“One of his good first baseman’s gloves,” he said, laughing. “It’s en route.”

Double-A or Triple-A?

Clemens’ best path to the big leagues is still as a second baseman, especially as his offensive game continues to mature. But position versatility is a staple of Hinch’s system. 

“We have to get comfortable with guys playing a secondary position,” Hinch said. “I would hate for Kody not to get a call-up or not get a promotion because he’s second base-only and we have somebody in front of him. That’s not player development to me.

“If there’s a way for somebody to contribute at a higher level, be it Double-A to Triple-A or Triple-A to the big leagues, we’re going to keep trying ideas and see what it looks like. You might find something. If it helps one player, if it helps one aspect of our season, because a player got a little experience elsewhere on the diamond, then that’s a good job by the Tigers.”

Clemens is in a gray area in terms of where he’s at on the organization’s ladder. He’s going to be 25 in May, so he’s not a young kid. His maturity is advanced, too. Not only because of his upbringing, being around big-league clubhouses all his life, but also playing three full seasons of high-level Division I college ball.

But he’s only played one full season of professional baseball — 2019 when he climbed from High-A to Double-A. He spent last summer, with no minor league season, playing 28 games in the Constellation Energy Independent League, a team managed by his father and brother.

So, does he start at Double-A again? Or, is he a guy the Tigers can take to the alternate site in Toledo where he could be in a position to be called up to the big leagues at some point? If the Tigers decide to start him Double-A, he would go through a second spring training in April.

“Obviously we have to evaluate what’s best for him and what would get him the most ready for the season, and also whether he could contribute with us at some point,” Hinch said. “All that factors in. Unfortunately, with these guys who haven’t gotten to play, there’s been no real clear picture as to what we can do with them.”

Clemens isn’t trying to look that far ahead. This is his first official big-league camp, though former manager Ron Gardenhire brought him over from minicamp so often last year, he was given a big league jersey and a locker.

“I’m just excited to be here and excited to show exactly what I have to offer to AJ and the coaches,” Clemens said. “Whether they start me off at Triple-A right out of the gate or I go back to Erie (Double-A), who knows? I’m just going to keep my head down, keep my eyes forward and keep working hard and showing them what I have to offer.”

He’s already shown a lot. There is a power-speed component to his game that’s intriguing to the Tigers. He hit 24 home runs his last year at Texas. He’s hit 17 home runs in essentially one and a half minor-league seasons, with 15 stolen bases in 19 attempts. He hit four home runs (and six doubles and a triple) in 103 plate appearances in the Constellation league last summer, facing older pitchers like Bud Norris and Scott Kazmir.

“This is only my second full season upcoming, but I’ve learned that half of my hits will be extra-base hits, whether it’s a homer or not,” Clemens said. “If I connect, I have some power. I’m not just going to be a singles guy. I’m trying to drive the ball all the time.”

Hinch has noticed. He’s 2-for-5 with a walk this spring and he was on the travel squad that played the Orioles in Sarasota Saturday night.

“He hits the ball hard,” Hinch said. “He almost hit a couple of our pitchers in live BP with line drives up the middle. Pop can come in a lot of different ways. The fact that he hits the ball hard and has pretty good (strike) zone control…If he can control the zone and hit the ball hard, he can be a big-leaguer.”

No more dead-pull only

Clemens is a left-handed hitter. And until last summer, he was a left-handed pull hitter. That all changed when he got to Erie and started seeing over-shifted defenses every at-bat. That, as much as anything, explains why his average plummeted to .170 in Double-A.

He set out to alter his approach during instructional league last fall.

“I have a drill that I use that keeps my hands inside and helps me drive the ball to left-center,” he said. “I love that drill.”

He starts his day with it, every morning at 8 a.m. He sticks a ball between his elbow and ribs and takes his swings, either off a tee or flips or even in the cage. To keep from dropping the ball, he has to keep his elbow tucked and his hands inside as he swings the bat through the zone.

It’s paid off. 

“I know I have the pull-side power and the tools to do that,” he said. “When I’m at the plate, if they throw me an inside pitch, I just react to it. I look middle, away (and try to hit it up the middle and to the gaps). But if it’s inside, I’m going to pull it.”  

Just as he is forcing opposing teams to adjust their scouting reports on him, he’s hoping he can similarly force the Tigers to accelerate their timetable for his arrival in the big leagues.

“The exposure and the reps he’s getting in big league camp are really good for him,” Hinch said. “He’s been around the game his whole life and we’ve seen some things we really like. I’m glad he’s here. But we’re going to have to make a tricky end-of-the-month decision about him.”


Twitter: @cmccosky

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