Around the Tigers’ farm: Riley Greene shows signs he’s ready for call to Toledo

Detroit News

That was some Saturday Night Special the Tigers’ top farm talent, Riley Greene, put together at UPMC Park, home address of the Erie SeaWolves.

Greene had five at-bats Saturday against Altoona, one of Erie’s Double-A combatants. Three of those trips to the plate were worth a home run, a triple, and a double, which is an interesting way to pursue that rarest of hitting birds, hitting for the cycle.

His other two turns produced walks. Yes, a 20-year-old center fielder is proving to be adept at ignoring bad pitches, which is one path to that .392 on-base percentage Greene brought into Sunday’s Altoona rematch.

Add it to the .286 batting average Greene was featuring early Sunday, along with the .503 slugging percentage (eight home runs included) and you had, through 39 games, an .895 OPS.

This is serious stuff. Serious, as in: When do the Tigers decide Greene has had enough fun against Double-A pitching and must graduate to that brown-belt level, Triple A, before he sees the big leagues?

Probably soon. And then will come chatter about how quickly the Tigers might decide Greene’s gifts are ready for Detroit, which should please fans as much as it’s bound to delight Tigers manager AJ Hinch.

“Without a doubt,” said Tigers minor-league hitting tutor Jeff Branson, speaking of Greene’s rapid ease with Double-A pitching through the season’s first six weeks. “He’s such a mature kid. He’s beyond his years when you look at his age and realize he does some stuff that only a lot of older kids, who’ve been around for a while, might show.”

Greene’s eight home runs in those 39 games are a heavy stat. Do the old 162-game projection once he hits Detroit and it’s apparent why 30-homer estimates have been part of Greene’s early profile.

He has two triples and four doubles to go with 47 strikeouts and 24 walks. He’s also making a mess of match-ups, hitting much better against lefties (1.049 OPS) than righties (.830). This means, of course, that Greene has no issue spanking pitches to all areas of those Eastern League ballparks.

“Not just one side of the field,” Branson said. “And, obviously, that’s the sign of a really, really good hitter. It’s hard for defenses to position him.”

The Tigers won’t be overly rushed in moving Greene up the food chain. Toledo will be his home soon enough, perhaps by mid-year if his recent antics keep up, as seems likely.

Detroit? Wait on those conversations, probably until next March and spring camp. The Tigers roster is likely to be infused by Opening Day, 2022, with major, multiple doses of vitamin B in the persons of Spencer Torkelson, Dillon Dingler — and Greene, who is showing steadily that the Tigers selected wisely with that fifth-overall draft pick two years ago.

Dinger’s development, continued

The file on Dillon Dingler, since the day the Tigers drafted him last June (38th overall), has been consistent:

Marvelous all-around athlete. Big (6-foot-3, 220 pounds). Strong right-handed bat with heavy power potential.

Hmmmm … Seems the scouts were on to something.

The Tigers grabbed Dingler out of Ohio State and paid him $1.9 million to wear a Tigers jersey. They then placed him on last summer’s taxi squad, the reserve unit that provided reinforcements for Detroit’s big-league team as it waded through a 60-game, pandemic-pruned schedule.

He learned a lot, even if a diploma from The School of Hard Knocks was probably worth conferring last September. There were days and at-bats when big-league players left him reeling.

Dingler got busy this spring, in Lakeland, Florida, showing the scouts and Tigers overseers that he was indeed on his way. He then traipsed his way to Single-A West Michigan, where he outkicked the coverage and got a promotion a week ago to Erie.

He has been doing just fine in his first week against Double-A pitching. It’s the old small-sampling statistical slice that critics and cynics use to degrade anything done early. But a .286 batting average and .353 on-base mark through four games entering Sunday at least implied a batter wasn’t being overwhelmed by Double-A arms.

“You’re talking about an athletic, really big-bodied guy,” Branson said. “He was at the alternate site (Toledo, taxi squad) last summer and he would go to center field and take balls off the bat.

“This guy can absolutely move. He’s amazing. This guy’s 220 (pounds), looks like a fricking tight end or linebacker, and he would run down balls in the gap.”

Oh, yes. It should be mentioned Dingler is a catcher. With a big, right-handed bat.

“He has the ability to use both sides of the field — to drive a ball off the wall in left-center or right-center,” said Branson, a former Pirates hitting coach who played nine seasons in the big leagues. “That’s our biggest thing: working gap-to-gap, with a mindset and approach. He has the ability to hit for average, and for power.

“And the dude can run. He’s a fun dude to watch. The scouting department did a heck of a job. I’m impressed.”

Room for Kody Clemens?

The answer is:

Well, yes. Second base. First base. Left field. The Tigers await Clemens, their third-round grab from 2018, mandating that they view him as a possible answer at second base, or as a legitimate option at first base, or even as a part-time outfielder.

This is why Toledo manager Tom Prince has been working Clemens at various stations, which will include left field.

“AJ (Hinch, Tigers manager) likes to have guys who have maneuverability in the lineup,” Price said. “I’m going to be bouncing him around. In fact, we had started that process before got hurt (shoulder, in Toledo’s opening game).”

All of this would-be Ben Zobrist stuff comes with one essential quality thus far missing from Clemens’ resume: a batting average and OPS that will force the Tigers to take him seriously as a big-league roster piece.

Clemens arrived for Sunday’s game against Columbus carrying a .259 average and .755 OPS in 14 games at Triple-A Toledo.

That’s in step with his three-season output after the Tigers signed him: .248 and .735.

But there is room, the Tigers say, for Clemens to push himself back into a longer-term picture, even if he turned 25 last month.

“He opened my eyes last year at spring training,” Price said. “I said: ‘Who is this guy?’ I mean, I know he’s Roger’s son, but this kid’s ready to hit when he walks into the box.

“Then, we get COVID (2020 pandemic’s arrival), and this spring he kind of picked up where he left off. There was a little injury (shoulder), he went to Florida, got the healing process going, got some at-bats (Single A Lakeland), and now he’s here.

“The guys who were out last year are just now catching up.”

Branson’s take:

“The reason he’s at Triple A right now is because of what he showed at spring training,” Branson said. “For me, he has matured more as a hitter— there’s more consistency with his approach, more consistency with a thought process when he gets into the box.

“Whatever the game is asking him to do he’s ready to do. When he was in (low A) in Lakeland, he was predominantly a pull-side of the infield hitter. He has a better approach now that he’s really taken to: I know what we need to do now and I’m committed to the plan and to the approach.”

Which is fine, philosophically. Clemens knows what the Tigers know: It’s still about putting the bat’s barrel on a pitch.

The invitation, and the opportunity, remain extended to a player the Tigers could use, and in a hurry.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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