DETROIT – Derek Hill’s latest stint with the Tigers was always going to be a short one. By rule, the team had to send him down after he served as an extra player for Wednesday’s doubleheader sweep in Cleveland, no matter how well he did. Because he’d been optioned to Triple-A Toledo earlier in the week when the Tigers activated him from the injured list, he can’t be on the regular roster until spending 10 days in the Minor Leagues.
That said, his play at Progressive Field didn’t hurt his case for a longer stint once he can return.
“This is a roster that’s becoming more and more competitive to be on,” manager A.J. Hinch said Friday, “and more and more competitive to stay on.”
The Tigers are looking at their outfielders and which mix works best. When Hill started Wednesday’s nightcap, he had Robbie Grossman in left and Daz Cameron in right, an arrangement that had a hiccup when Cameron cut in front of Hill on a Harold Ramirez fly ball to right-center. On Friday, the Tigers moved Grossman to right field at Comerica Park, put Akil Baddoo in left and started Cameron in center, with Nomar Mazara on the bench.
“We’re trying to find out what the best combo is when every particular combination plays,” Hinch said before Friday’s game. “We want to take a look at Baddoo in left. This left field is obviously very big. Having him and Daz patrol that area is something that we think will be an advantage.
“We’re sort of trying to figure it all out. I actually like the way Robbie plays both corners, and so that’s an advantage. There’s not a firm answer as to what we’re going to do moving forward, but we’ll take a look at every option.”
At some point, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Tigers try a defensively rangy outfield with Baddoo, Cameron and Hill at least once, especially in spacious Comerica Park. That, of course, would require another roster move, possibly a difficult one. Mazara is trying to dig out from a miserable May; he hit .281 (9-for-32) over the second half of June to raise his season average to .208, but he has one home run since April 13.
Hill, not surprisingly, is staying out of the decision process. When he was optioned to Toledo on Monday, he was already there on a rehab assignment. So he missed out on the short drive north to Detroit, only to make the similarly short drive east to Cleveland once the Tigers were rained out on Tuesday and needed an extra player for the doubleheader.
“I didn’t have any expectations going into it,” Hill said Wednesday. “I’ve learned to just keep an open mind and whatever happens, happens. Whatever team I’m on, I’m going to try my best to help that team win, and that’s all I can do.”
Hill, coincidentally, started in left field for the Mud Hens on Friday rather than center, where Jake Robson started instead.
While Hill’s defense is clearly his strength, and what will land him back in the big leagues, sometimes his play in the field leaves him vulnerable to injuries, especially colliding with walls.
He thanked the Tigers training staffs in Lakeland, Fla., and Toledo for getting him back to work so quickly after jamming his shoulder into the center-field wall at Comerica Park for a highlight catch last month.
“I’ve had some pretty good crashes throughout the year,” said Hill, who ran into walls in three different areas making catches during a six-game series in May for Toledo at Indianapolis. “I just kind of got unlucky with this one, kind of went in at a weird angle. It’s unfortunate, but we’re back now.”
Injuries have played a big role in the Tigers’ outfield picture. It was Victor Reyes’ left intercostal strain that created an opportunity for Hill to join the Tigers outfield. A week later, Hill’s injury created a chance for Cameron, who had opened the season on the injured list with a fractured right wrist.
Reyes is the only Tigers outfielder still on the injured list. Now that they’re nearing a full, healthy roster of outfielders, the Tigers have some decisions to make with experience, athleticism, and offense against defense. Those decisions could peak around the All-Star break with a few days to assess how they want to line up in the second half.