As Akil Baddoo prepared for the test of his first big league Spring Training and his first competitive baseball in two years, he motivated himself by watching videos of Major League players to study what made them successful.
“I was watching Ken Griffey Jr., Willie Mays and Barry Bonds — those three guys, my top three favorite players — and just watching their approach each and every day,” Baddoo said on a Monday morning video conference with reporters.
It’s a tad ambitious, but so is he. And as Tigers camp heads into its second half, Baddoo has turned the narrative on the typical Rule 5 Draft pick Spring Training saga. Instead of trying to show enough potential for Detroit to justify carrying him on its 26-man roster for the season, he’s having the kind of camp that suggests he can make an impact now — if not for the Tigers, then for somebody else.
“He wants to be a big leaguer, and I think he wants to be a big leaguer now,” manager A.J. Hinch said Sunday after Baddoo’s second homer in as many games.
When the Tigers had to decide three years ago whether to carry outfielder Victor Reyes as a Rule 5 Draft pick, they had to project his potential off a less-impressive camp. Reyes, then a wiry 23-year-old, played in an astounding 27 games in Spring Training in 2018, but he hit .232 (13-for-56) with two doubles, no home runs, three walks and 11 strikeouts. In the field, he had a penchant for near-collisions with teammates. In short, Reyes looked like a raw prospect who hadn’t played above Double-A ball.
What Baddoo is doing this spring is more impressive, even in the early stages of Grapefruit League play before pitchers hone in their repertoires. His 3-for-5, two-homer weekend improved him to .400 (8-for-20) with six RBIs for the Grapefruit League.
If Baddoo is hitting the ball, he’s generally hitting it hard. Half of his hits this spring are for extra bases. Six of his 12 outs are by strikeouts. Add in seven walks, and Baddoo’s plate appearances look better than someone whose last game action was May 2019 in Class A Advanced ball in the Twins’ system.
The Tigers knew about the athleticism, including the power. As Hinch pointed out, there’s a reason why Detroit picked Baddoo, and a reason why Minnesota took him in the second round of the 2016 MLB Draft. The maturity in approach, from his pregame work to his at-bats, was a surprise.
“It’s the comfort in how he’s playing the game,” Hinch said. “He has a great calmness about him which doesn’t come often from guys that are coming out of A-ball into big league camp. This is a bigger leap than he’s making it look, but it’s nice for him to have success.”
Baddoo will get another test on Tuesday, when he leads off the Tigers’ lineup against Yankees ace Gerrit Cole.
Detroit didn’t have as tough of a roster decision with Reyes three years ago, because the club was just embarking on its rebuild and had little outfield depth. The decision with Baddoo comes at a time when the Tigers are trying to turn a corner and be more competitive this year.
Baddoo’s selection in the Rule 5 Draft came before Detroit signed Robbie Grossman and Nomar Mazara, crowding the outfield picture. One such signing was expected; finding Mazara still on the market as Spring Training began was a bonus that changed the look of the roster.
Baddoo’s performance so far has changed that look yet again, and it has complicated the Tigers’ decision. Baddoo’s play rules out any idea of working out a trade to keep him. And even if Detroit is lukewarm on carrying him, the Tigers have to consider the risk of sending him back to the Twins. If Detroit can’t shoehorn Baddoo onto its roster, it could have to see him in Minnesota’s outfield in the not-too-distant future and know that the Tigers played a role in preparing him for the big leagues.
The Tigers might have to carry five outfielders and one utility infielder to make it work. If not, they might have to send down Reyes at a time when he’s arguably entering his prime years. But with what Baddoo has shown, the idea of sending him back — which seemed the likely scenario when Spring Training began — now seems crazier.
But the way Detroit’s outfield picture has looked the past few years, having more talent than expected isn’t a bad thing.
“It’s a welcome problem,” Hinch said.