Around the Tigers’ farm: Bat still holds key to versatile Kody Clemens’ future in Detroit

Detroit News

What, exactly, to do with Kody Clemens? The Tigers seem to be asking the same question. They seem just as intent to wait and see if, in fact, they have a helpful lineup piece percolating, especially when Clemens has been handling second base, first base, and the outfield during these 2021 months at Triple A Toledo.

Clemens is a case-study in assets and deficits.

He has that versatility, as well as a left-handed bat, which packs power: 12 home runs in 68 games, .264 batting average .328 on-base, .496 slugging, .824 OPS.

He is fine, defensively, no matter where Toledo manager Tom Prince deploys him.

“I don’t think he’s made an error,” said Prince, who was bang-on in sizing up a player who has worked mostly at second base (48 games) and right field (19).

Then comes the numbers breakdown that gets to Clemens’ basic issue: Can he hit enough to become a helpful handyman — or even an answer at second base — for manager AJ Hinch’s team in Detroit?

Although his batting average is passing-grade, and his slugging percentage is solid, his on-base average is a Bud Light-like .328. A basic problem there is that Clemens has only 26 walks (9%) versus a nearly 24% strikeout rate. Those can be tough numbers to justify in a big-league lineup.

“He’s going to figure out yet what he can and can’t hit,” Prince said. “But what he has done is hit the ball to left-center field, and if he’s able to hit the ball to left-center field, he can cover off-speed stuff and the fastball.

“When you get pull-oriented, it’s difficult to hit that off-speed stuff. The 26 walks is an issue, I agree 100%. But those are things I look at down the road and say, ‘He’s still maturing as a hitter.’ He’s working on it — and he’s done a nice job. He’s got 12 homers, and he hit a ball off the wall on a 3-0 count last night (Thursday, which became the game-winning run).”

Clemens was the first pick of the 2018 MLB Draft’s third round when the Tigers snagged him from the University of Texas. They can’t yet be sure what they have, apart from a left-handed swing-man, now 25, who has the flexibility to help in Detroit — if he can buff up that offense.

Not Vest’s best, but better

Will Vest was postmarked Return To Sender when the Mariners decided in July they no longer had room for a reliever who was Tigers property before Seattle snatched him in last December’s Rule 5 Draft.

The Tigers were all but waiting at the airport once they got word from Seattle, pleased that a right-hander with a heavy-duty arm was rejoining their farm after seven months with the Mariners, the last three on Seattle’s big-league staff.

More: Tigers’ Vest looks to work his way back to majors after Rule 5 stint with Mariners

Vest’s numbers have been getting stronger in the weeks since he hooked on with Triple-A Toledo: His work in August: eight games, 8.2 innings, seven hits, three walks, nine strikeouts, 2.08 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, .226 opposing batting average.

“He’s been the same guy I actually saw in spring training (during Prince’s time with the Pirates) before all that,” Prince said of Vest, who was a 12th-round draft pick out of Stephen F. Austin University in Nacagdoches, Texas, in 2017. “His velocity has been picking up, around 94. When I looked up at the board the other night (Tuesday), he was at 94, and I’m sure he’s touched a couple above that. But he’ll pitch 91 to 93.

“His breaking stuff has been good: slider, change-up that he’ll mix in at any point. The breaking pitches are good. The Mariners do a good job on that.”

In fact, it was Vest’s change-up as much as his fastball that spurred the Mariners to steal Vest last December. But the fastball then was a story: 96, 97, even 98 during what amounted to a breakthrough stretch at last October’s Instructional League session with the Tigers at Lakeland, Florida.

The fastball’s lower-mph bothered Vest as much as it might have bothered the Mariners during his bid to stick with Seattle’s big-league staff, which of course was a season-long mandate in 2021 if the Mariners wanted a payoff from their Rule 5 gamble.

Since reuniting with the Tigers, he has been working, steadily, to find that 2021 heater.  Spending overtime in the video room and in huddles with the coaching staff, Vest would appreciate reacquainting himself with his four-seamer and resume an old plan to pitch for the Tigers. A taste of big-league life in Seattle only sharpened urges there.

Triple-A tests continue

It has been two weeks since the Tigers sent four prospects motoring up the Ohio Turnpike, from Double-A Erie to Triple-A Toledo.

Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Ryan Kreidler, and Brady Policelli have been absorbing basic and nuanced differences in life at the farm’s highest rung.

Prince was asked what the new crew had learned in the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in pitching at Triple-A. All are position players.

“You’re going to see a pitch at any time in any count,” he said. “That’s the difference. You’ll get a 3-and-0 slider or a 2-and-0 change-up.”

And how are the lads adjusting?

“Fine,” Prince said. “I try not to tell these guys anything they must experience themselves. When you put expectations on players, to me, ‘Shame on you.’

“You let ’em come up here, experience and learn, that this is how guys up here do it (pitch).”

More: Tigers prospects Greene, Torkelson keep focus on game while on fast track

More: Ryan Kreidler embraces being ‘team guy,’ but shows he can shine, too

Short hops

Nice start for Austin Murr, the Tigers’ sixth-round grab in July from North Carolina State. He lasted only a couple of weeks at Single-A Lakeland (.825 OPS) before he was ticketed for West Michigan, where, through 11 games, Murr was batting .341/.378/.439 for an .817 OPS. Murr bats left-handed and is 6-foot-2, 218 pounds.

… Another freshly signed outfielder is hanging in at low-A Lakeland: Ben Malgeri, an 18th-round pick in July from Northeastern. Malgeri, who is 21, hits right-handed and is batting .326 with splits of .415/.446/.861. He is 6-1, 215.

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

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