With Double-A assignment, Riley Greene is on the fast track to joining Detroit Tigers

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers outfielder Riley Greene claims he didn’t know until he was certain.

General manager Al Avila hinted in the winter that Double-A Erie would be Greene’s destination for the 2021 season. But it wasn’t until last week, at the conclusion of minor-league spring training in Lakeland, Florida, that everything became official.

Indeed, Greene’s name was on the roster for the Erie SeaWolves. His Double-A career begins Tuesday, when the SeaWolves open the season on the road in Reading, Pennsylvania. The No. 5 overall pick in the 2019 draft is the Tigers’ No. 2 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline.

“In baseball, nothing is ever set until it actually happens,” Greene, 20, said Saturday. “I wasn’t really thinking about it until the day that we all saw the rosters on the board.”

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There aren’t many concerns about Greene’s talent or his MLB potential, but it was fascinating that the organization allowed him to skip the High-A level. By placing Greene in Double-A, the Tigers believe he isn’t far from big-league ready.

Still, Greene probably won’t reach the majors until next year.

“It’s going to be fun to watch him develop,” Erie manage Arnie Beyeler said Saturday. “I’m really excited to see him on a daily basis. He’s played a lot of baseball, so we’re trying to get him a lot of at-bats and just let him develop. It should be exciting for everybody to watch.”

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In 2019, Greene played for West Michigan — as well as two other lower-level teams — but the Whitecaps were the Tigers’ Low-A affiliate at that time. (This December, West Michigan and Lakeland flipped classifications, making West Michigan the High-A affiliate and Lakeland the Low-A affiliate.)

Of Greene’s 57 games across the 2019 campaign, 24 were for then-Low-A West Michigan. He hit .219 with two home runs, 13 RBIs, six walks and 26 strikeouts. But Greene has matured quite a bit, even as the COVID-19 pandemic canceled last year’s minor-league season, which gives the organization confidence.

The Tigers brought him to summer camp in July, where he faced big-league pitchers. Then, he went to the alternate training site in Toledo, where he faced talent equivalent to Triple-A and above. He showed up for the team’s instructional league in Lakeland in October — after two months at the alternate site — and appeared ahead of schedule.

Tigers vice president of player development Dave Littlefield said in October, leading up to the instructional league, that it wouldn’t shock him if Greene “moves fast with the way he’s swinging the bat and the overall package.”

“Being at the alt site definitely helped my game and my mental approach as a player,” Greene said. “I learned a lot there. My swing definitely got better. Mentally, I got better at baseball. I felt like that had a lot to do with me being able to be here (in Erie).”

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Finally, Greene participated in spring training under the close watch of new manager AJ Hinch and bench coach George Lombard, who doubles as the outfield instructor. Greene played 22 games and didn’t seem overmatched. The left-handed hitter went 6-for-26 (.231) with two RBIs, seven walks and 11 strikeouts. He had a .412 on-base percentage.

Greene logged a 115.8 mph exit velocity for a double off the wall in right-center field March 22 against the Toronto Blue Jays. It was the hardest-hit ball from a Tiger in the Statcast era (beginning in 2015), besting Miguel Cabrera’s 115.6 mph single in May 2015.

“I learned that the makeup is real and the talent is real,” manager AJ Hinch said in late March about Greene and 2020 No. 1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson, who is starting in West Michigan. “The timeline for when they can advance is going to be based on how they perform.”

“I definitely feel comfortable,” Greene said.

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As the Double-A season unfolds, expect Greene to play all three outfield positions. Preparing him to be a center fielder is the top priority, but with Hinch’s love for versatility, the Tigers want to develop their prospects at multiple positions.

It’s possible Greene evolves into a future corner outfielder. During spring training, he played 18 games (five starts) in right field and four games in left field.

“Most guys that can play center can play all three,” Beyeler said. “It’ll just be what (the Tigers) want me to do with him, and we’ll follow a plan. To start, they did mention bouncing him around a little bit from time to time. … The big thing is that he gets some at-bats and gets reps on the field.”

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The Tigers are counting on Greene’s production offensively. They’ll move him up and stick him in the lineup — regardless of his best outfield position — if he makes hard contact, showcases plate discipline and steps into the batter’s box with confidence.

As for reaching the majors, Greene believes that day will eventually arrive.

Likely one year away from his MLB debut, the up-and-comer with a smooth left-handed swing is simply focused on winning. Because if the SeaWolves win, there’s a good chance Greene’s presence is one of the main reasons why.

“Just trying to control what I can control, and everything else will take care of itself,” Greene said. “I’m just going to focus on playing games here and trying to help this team win.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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