If Akil Baddoo keeps raking, Detroit Tigers’ AJ Hinch won’t rule out five outfielders

Detroit Free Press

Evan Petzold
| Detroit Free Press

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LAKELAND, Fla. — Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch is ready to give outfielder Akil Baddoo another test.

The 22-year-old will hit leadoff Tuesday against New York Yankees right-hander Gerrit Cole, a three-time All-Star. In 2019, Cole recorded an AL-best 2.50 ERA for Hinch’s Houston Astros.

“That may go well, that may not go well,” Hinch said Monday. “But that’s not really the reason I’m doing it. It’s just continuing to put challenges in front of him. March is a terrible time to evaluate, but it’s our only time to get a look specifically at him. His skill set is real.”

WHAT TO EXPECT: MLB scouts project future for Rule 5 draft pick Akil Baddoo

The Tigers don’t have much time remaining to decide what they’re going to do with Baddoo, who was picked in December’s Rule 5 draft from the Minnesota Twins. He either needs to stay on the active roster for the entire 2021 season or get offered back to his old team.

But Hinch probably doesn’t want to see Baddoo in center field for the Twins down the road, fighting for an AL Central crown against his Tigers. This scenario makes the pressing question even more difficult to answer: Keep the Rule 5 pick — and likely manage five outfielders on the 26-man roster — or send him away?

“We have to consider all things when it comes to how the roster gets put together,” Hinch said. “So far, he’s passed every test. We have to consider, whether that’s five outfielders, or really anything in order to carry our best guys.”

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Carrying five outfielders — none of whom play the infield — is a difficult task. Don’t bet on the Tigers sending JaCoby Jones or Victor Reyes the minor leagues, and signing Robbie Grossman (two years, $10 million) and Nomar Mazara (one year, $1.75 million) this offseason locks them in.

“He’s really a guy that I admire,” Baddoo said Monday about Grossman. “I’ve tried to learn as much as I can. He’s a veteran and knows the game of baseball better than anyone on the field.”

[ How Rule 5 draft pick Victor Reyes went from castoff to ‘valuable’ in Tigers’ rebuild ]

Still, those signings — especially Mazara — make it tough for the Tigers to guarantee a spot for Baddoo, ranked by MLB Pipeline as the organization’s No. 25 prospect. Entering Monday, the left-handed hitter is 8-for-20 (.400) with two doubles, two home runs and six RBIs, with seven walks compared to six strikeouts this spring.

Baddoo crushed a 3-2 fastball for a two-run homer to right field Saturday against the Phillies. The next day, he went opposite field for another homer on a 1-2 curveball from Orioles right-hander Travis Lakins, who logged a 2.81 ERA across 22 games in the majors last season.

[ How Tigers’ Akil Baddoo, a Rule 5 draft pick, is approaching crowded outfield battle ]

Not too shabby, considering Baddoo hasn’t played above High-A ball and is coming back from Tommy John surgery. This spring is the first time he has seen live pitching since May 11, 2019.

“Really just watching videos of guys that played in the past,” Baddoo said, adding he studied Ken Griffey Jr., Willie Mays and Barry Bonds. “Picking their brains, honing in and trying to figure out what made them so successful. I took that and really worked on my mindset. Your mindset is really key to having success.”

In 2019, Baddoo hit .214 with four homers and nine RBIs, with 12 walks to 39 strikeouts, in 29 games for High-A Fort Myers. The year before, he registered a .243 batting average, 11 homers and 40 RBIs in 113 games for Low-A Cedar Rapids.

[ Why Tigers’ 2020 Rule 5 draft pick Akil Baddoo thinks he can stick with team ]

The Tigers’ verdict on Baddoo will impact others: How much would he play compared to Jones and Reyes? Will the Tigers carry an extra infielder — likely candidates include Renato Nunez, Harold Castro and Greg Garcia — on the bench? And are they going to have 13 or 14 pitchers on the roster?

If Baddoo makes the team, here’s what could happen: Jones and Reyes won’t get as much in-game action, the Tigers won’t be able to add an additional infielder and only 13 pitchers will make the team.

[ To make Tigers’ roster, slugger Renato Nunez must show durable defense ]

“I don’t want to say it’s a surprise, because we took him in the Rule 5 (draft) for a reason,” Hinch said. “But it’s a welcomed problem.”

Hinch later explained: “His calmness about how he plays is something that I’ve been most impressed by. He had no season last year. I feel like he’s grown up as a man and grown up as a player without playing, and that’s very unique.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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