LAKELAND, Fla. — Kody Clemens didn’t have to wait until Spring Training to make a first impression on his new manager. He did that last fall.
Clemens and a friend had an early tee time one morning near their home in Houston, early enough that they were grabbing coffee before teeing off. With everyone wearing masks, he didn’t recognize the man who walked in after them.
“This guy walks in carrying, like, a booklet or something. He honestly looked like he worked at the golf course,” Clemens said. “I was just standing there and I didn’t anything of it, and then he walks by and he takes his mask off. And it was A.J. …
“And I was like, ‘Oh my god, there’s my boss.’ So I stopped and took my mask off and shook his hand. I said, ‘Hey, I’m Kody Clemens.’”
In his defense, A.J. Hinch didn’t recognize Clemens until then, either, despite knowing his dad Roger. He has had a much better chance to make an impression in Tigertown.
Though Clemens, the Tigers’ No. 18 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, was a regular in Spring Training last year, this is technically his first year in Major League camp. He repeatedly came over from Minor League camp while Jonathan Schoop got up to speed and then-manager Ron Gardenhire played Clemens late in games.
The experience was supposed to give him a boost heading into Double-A Erie. Then the pandemic scuttled the Minor League schedule, leaving Clemens at home with a potentially lost season at age 24. An independent setup in Texas called the Constellation Energy League provided him an opportunity playing for his dad Roger and brother Koby.
While veterans used the league to stay active as they searched for Major League jobs, prospects like Kody Clemens and fellow Tigers draft pick Trei Cruz had a chance to face experienced pitching. Clemens’ .233 average didn’t stand out, but it was 10 points better than the team. His four homers led the club, and his 12 RBIs and .747 OPS weren’t far off. He was named to the league’s all-star team.
The experience is paying off this spring. Clemens has seen a good mix of breaking pitches early in Grapefruit League play and has handled then well, looking to hit balls up the middle.
“There was probably a majority of left-handed pitchers, which is awesome for me as a left-handed hitter,” Clemens said. “I worked on a lot of left-handed pitching for sure, and that was really good.”
The impact has been noticed.
“He’s hit a couple pitchers with line drives back up the middle,” Hinch said. “Pop can come in a lot of different ways. I think the fact that he hits the ball hard and has a pretty good idea on control, he’s mature because he’s been a major college [player] and he’s played a few Minor Leagues.”
“It doesn’t surprise me that it’s one of the things that he can do well. If he can control the [strike] zone and hit the ball hard, then he can be a big leaguer.”
The more immediate question is where Clemens will be out of this camp. There’s some thought to promoting Clemens to Triple-A despite just 13 games at Erie in 2019, thanks in part to his work last summer. But the delay for the Toledo Mud Hens and the return of the alternate training site complicates that debate. Depending on the Tigers’ infield options at camp’s end, including non-roster invite Greg Garcia and Zack Short on the 40-man roster, Clemens could put himself in position this spring as a potential in-season callup.
Clemens could stay back at Double-A, but he’d then go through a second Spring Training in Minor League camp, which begins after the big leaguers head north.
Clemens has already shown enough for Hinch to make sure he has a secondary position beyond second base. He played some college ball at third base at the University of Texas, but he received the go-ahead to begin working out at first base on Friday.
Problem is, Clemens didn’t have a glove for that. He has borrowed one from field coordinator Dave Owen, but he’s about to get a hand-me-down from the family.
“I actually got my dad to get with my brother Kacy, who was a first baseman with the Blue Jays,” Clemens said. “I said, ‘Hey, I might be switching positions and trying to get in the lineup in different positions, so I need you to send me one of your good first-base mitts down here.’ So that’s en route.”