There was risk involved, sure, in deciding Riley Greene — 20 years old, with not even one full season of minor-league grooming behind him — would begin his 2021 Tigers apprenticeship at Double-A Erie.
The pitching at Double A is quality-controlled. It’s a level where guys with arms very close to the big leagues, or pitchers who already have graduated to MLB and perhaps are back for a tuneup or maybe a rehab assignment, often are stationed.
It’s no place for tenderfoots.
The Tigers knew this and decided Greene could handle the equivalent of being moved ahead a grade in elementary school.
Greene is hanging in — for now.
Thursday night, he blasted a pair of homers at Erie’s PNC Park in an 11-1 drubbing of Binghamton. Saturday, he hit another, also against Binghamton.
That made it four home runs for Greene in 17 games and 70 at-bats since Erie kicked off its season May 4. His left-handed power spices some overall upbeat numbers, through Sunday’s game, a 5-4 victory for Erie: .274 batting average, .365 on-base percentage, .479 slugging average, .844 OPS, all while batting leadoff.
That he’s playing center field, one of those up-the-middle outposts by which roster strength is always measured, pleases his bosses in Detroit who view Greene as being rather essential to the next decade-plus of baseball in Detroit.
It should also be noted kids will be kids. And that, too, has been part of Greene’s Erie profile: Sometimes overmatched at the plate, sometimes chases, has been beaten by the old down-and-in slider, all while figuring out center field’s nuances.
In other words … He’s learning.
“He’s handled everything really well,” said Erie’s first-season manager, Arnie Beyeler, who talked about Greene during a phone conversation ahead of Sunday’s game against Binghamton. “He’s an even-keel kid — a good kid, and that’s square one, the makeup he brings to the table.
“But he’s going to go through some growing pains, trying to do too much. And, from a human-nature standpoint, that’s expected because he wants to improve. But he’s definitely a kid with a lot of talent.”
Those skills are, and were, no mystery to the Tigers or to MLB scouts who had checked in on Greene ahead of the 2019 draft. Detroit had the fifth overall pick and had been leaning for some time toward a then-senior at Hagerty High in Oviedo, Florida, outside of Orlando.
He was 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, with a bullet-quick, left-handed bat. Now, he’s 6-3, a bit more than 200 pounds, and moving toward a day when he’s playing in Detroit, although “caution” for now is the word. He’ll need all of 2021 at Erie, and very possibly more farm time in 2022, before Greene sees Detroit.
Or, maybe not. Putting long-term, or short-term, ETAs on players as talented as Greene also can be risky.
“He uses the whole field, which tells you how much he wants to be a good hitter,” said Beyeler, a one-time Tigers farmhand who was Orioles first-base coach in 2019, and Red Sox hitting coach in 2013 when the Tigers lost to Boston in a crushing ALCS defeat that helped the Red Sox to a world championship.
“He’s not caught up with pulling everything. He even works on his bunting skills on a daily basis. He hasn’t bunted yet, but it’s another example that this is an all-around player.
“He can hit the ball from foul line to foul line, and he’ll probably learn to pull the ball more as he gets older. The swing gets a little big at times, a little long, and he probably strikes out more than you’d care to see (23 against nine walks). But that swing’s going to get a little tighter, a little better, a little smarter.”
Defensively, there is much to appreciate, which is why the Tigers are comfortable with thoughts Greene could play center at Comerica Park, or move to a corner spot as he gets older and perhaps bigger and loses a step.
He has a good, not exceptional arm, and good, not exceptional speed. Blend it with his bat and he has a chance to be as foundational as Curtis Granderson was to the Tigers’ playoff revival 15 years ago.
“He’s played good defense, done a nice job in center, and his arm plays there,” Beyeler said of Greene, who was on his way to the University of Florida until the Tigers pounced and signed him to a $6.18 million deal. “He’s just got to learn situations, the speed of the game, the scoreboard situation — things you expect from a kid who just needs to play.
“We get a lot of guys rushed into those (big-league) situations. And it’s not that he couldn’t do it, but he just needs the reps — seeing guys go from first to third, knowing which runners can be expected to go from first to third, who he can throw out, who and when he can’t. It’s learning the game — and the speed of the game.”
“Some days it’s fun to watch, and other times it’s different,” he said. “But that’s the reason we (manager and coaches) talk to all these guys, all the time. We want them to get down the consistency so that they won’t be here that much longer.”
Beyeler spoke of a moment from a game during the past week. Greene had fielded a ball and thrown to the wrong base. A certain center fielder knew it instantly. He simply hadn’t reacted instantly, or properly.
Greene trotted to the dugout at the inning’s end and approached Beyeler.
“I don’t know why I did that,” Greene said to Beyeler, contritely. “I just don’t know.”
Beyeler, of course, knew.
It’s because a player is 20 years old. These are the first games of what is expected to be for Greene his first full minor-league season, all because of COVID-19’s wrath and its cancellation of the 2021 farm schedule.
“It’s just how it all kind of works,” Beyeler said. “The only way to get better is to get his reps. But he’s done a nice job. He checks all the boxes for me. He’s the first guy in (Erie’s clubhouse), he says hi and goodbye, and there’s a smile on his face.
“You can mess with him, make a little fun of him, and his demeanor’s just off the charts. He doesn’t get too down on himself, or too high.
“He puts on those sunglasses — and he’s ready to play baseball.”
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.