Should you drop by the TigerTown expanse at Lakeland, Florida, this week — and that’s discouraged, because during COVID times you’re not allowed anywhere near the place — you will see what looks like baseball’s version of a Boy Scout Jamboree.
There are kids everywhere. Young baseball players swarm the five outlying fields. Older, bluer-chip talents dot the diamond at Joker Marchant Stadium (Publix Field, as the sponsors know it).
A couple dozen troops are boarding buses for Dunedin and Clearwater while buses carrying prospects from the Blue Jays and Phillies camps arrive at Lakeland for inter-league games somewhere on the hundred-acre terrain.
It’s overwhelming. It’s unprecedented. It’s minor-league camp, in April, during a pandemic.
Regular-season games, the first in the minors since 2019, begin May 4. Until then, the whole 140-some stable of Tigers are being drilled in boot-camp fashion. No one’s complaining.
“They’re living the lives they couldn’t live a year ago,” said Dave Littlefield, who oversees player development for the Tigers.
Only when games begin next month, and only as a minor-league season evolves that this year ends a month later (September) than customary, will the Tigers get a bead on kids who will determine, to the deepest extent, if this current purported rebuild clicks.
Here is what has been gleaned from conversations with Littlefield, with scouts, and with those who have been taking notes on some key Tigers kids throughout March and April:
► Riley Greene, outfield: Minor-league destinations haven’t been announced, formally, but it’s expected Greene will either begin the year at Double-A Erie or be moved quickly to Erie in the event his bosses opt for what probably would be a short-term tuneup at West Michigan.
If he continues on the trajectory already in place, Greene could be in Detroit at some point this season. He is that talented. And the Tigers, as fans might have detected, are a team in deep need of offense.
Greene has been maturing at a pace in proportion to his skills. He can read pitches. He has a lightning bat. He has a chance to be dynamic. Spring camp has confirmed all of the above to those whose duties include making this 20-year-old an exceptional big-leaguer.
If one particular skill has gotten sharper since the Tigers drafted him two years ago, it has been in Greene’s ability to see and judge pitches. Growth there has helped make him the most talented prospect in Detroit’s system.
► Spencer Torkelson, third base: Baseball psychics expect Torkelson to settle next month at West Michigan and begin lashing high Class A pitching. They see a young man and superb prospect, still 21, who last year was thrown cruelly to wolves — as in seasoned professional pitchers who weren’t going to take it easy on a kid.
Torkelson was not allowed a full junior baseball season at Arizona State. After being drafted No. 1 overall last June, he was denied a first summer in the minors. He instead was told to work against big-leaguers and experienced minor-leaguers and to adapt along with everyone else to disruptions COVID-19 imposed on the Tigers and on their taxi squad at Toledo.
Torkelson survived, even as he was learning a new position: third base, having shifted from his regular college post at first base.
He brought all of his past year’s disjointed series of events to Lakeland during spring camp and was, maybe predictably, out of whack all of March. He struck out plenty and got all of one hit. Anyone would have been forgiven for wondering if Torkelson in April might need a therapist’s couch rather than minor-league camp.
It is no surprise that he since has been fine. He is relaxed and swinging fluidly. Most impressive to those who have studied him, he has been playing a solid third base: strong arm, good hands, decent mobility.
It might take him a week or two to settle in at West Michigan, which is now the Tigers’ high-A stop. But he will be dueling against pitchers more in synch with his own age and development. Be prepared for some big games and rousing updates.
► Dillon Dingler, catcher: Some of us who have been following, closely, the 2021 MLB draft crop have wondered: Would the Tigers draft Henry Davis, a most talented catcher from the University of Louisville, with the third-overall pick in July?
It has been decided, in something of a consensus, the Tigers will pick Davis only if Dingler doesn’t show during spring camp and 2021’s early schedule skills that he, in fact, isn’t the Tigers’ long-haul everyday catcher.
As much as has been on display this spring at Lakeland, the Tigers won’t be taking Davis. They like Dingler — a lot.
He parked a homer last week beyond the right-center-field fence at Publix Field in a game against the Orioles kids. All the athleticism — the bat, an exceptional arm, blocking skills, good baserunner for a catcher — that coaxed the Tigers to make him their second pick last June have been boldfaced during his first two months in Lakeland.
► Trei Cruz, infielder: Here is another tribute to the Tigers’ 2020 picks, say those who have been impressed most by the six players Detroit grabbed in last June’s shortened draft.
Cruz can play any infield position, with authority. He is the brand of player managers such as AJ Hinch — any manager who these days puts a premium on versatility — loves watching migrate to a big-league field.
That, of course, in Cruz’s case will depend as much on his bat. The Tigers are convinced Cruz will hit. He is older (23 in July) than most of last year’s draft crop. He has all that baseball DNA (father and grandfather played in the big leagues). And what he has unveiled during a couple of months at TigerTown has been in step with forecasts that the Tigers added a potential roster handyman.
► Parker Meadows, outfielder: He is another second-round Tigers pick (2018) who, as opposed to too many other past Tigers second-rounders, might make it.
What those who have been eyeing Meadows in Lakeland have noticed this spring are changes to his swing engineered by Jeff Branson, the Tigers’ roving minor-league hitting coach. Meadows has raised his back (left) elbow. His path to the ball is smoother, not as launch-angled as it was two years ago.
He is hitting the ball harder, to more fields. He is making better contact, which is meaningful when Meadows likely is the fastest player anywhere on the Tigers farmlands
The big-league club desperately needs Meadows, as well as last year’s third-round pick, Daniel Cabrera, to be in Detroit — soon — and pump some mettle into a roster that simply cannot contend until it has a thorough outfield makeover. The current crop is a grand-jury indictment of too many past draft mistakes.
Other players have been filling notebooks, mental and written, as these frenzied days move closer to April 30 and to discharge from Lakeland as they head for their farm assignments.
Matt Manning, the best of the top-shelf pitching prospects, will be in Detroit sometime in 2021. He’s still smoothing wrinkles that will follow him to Detroit, as is the case with all rookies. But he’s closing in on Comerica Park.
Gage Workman, who worked across the diamond at third base when he and Torkelson played at ASU, and who now has shifted to shortstop, looks as if he could stick at short at 6-foot-3 and possibly turn that switch-hitter’s bat of his into a weapon.
Ryan Kreidler, another big (6-4) shortstop, and a fourth-rounder from UCLA, might be as much of a surprise as any kid in camp. It’s all in how a player, even without minor-league ball a year ago, has developed into a surer-skilled prospect who has a legitimate shot.
Those are the early revelations, anyway, that have been flowing from Lakeland during a spring that, in a strict baseball context, has been borderline bizarre. Everyone, it seems, is catching up as 2021’s baseball year moves closer to its old rhythms and ways.
We’ll know more — good, bad, and otherwise — as vaccinations presumably give flight to a global scourge, and as minor-league games begin, at long last, next month.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.