Next frontier for Tigers’ Akil Baddoo: Prove he’s more than just a fourth outfielder

Detroit News

Detroit — Tigers outfielder Akil Baddoo has exceeded all expectations this season. That’s not even debatable.

A Rule-5 project who hadn’t played in two years, coming off elbow surgery, having never played above High-A ball — that he has been a productive presence in the Tigers’ lineup all season is remarkable. That he’s slashed .259/.325/.452, with an American League-best seven triples, 13 home runs, 55 runs scored, 52 RBIs and 14 stolen bases — well, that’s beyond what general manager Al Avila or manager AJ Hinch could have even dreamed.

“He’s a really good player,” Hinch said earlier this month. “He’s mature, he’s got a lot of people in his corner and he continues to produce and impress. The bottom line is, he’s trying to produce to win. He’s not trying to produce to impress anybody or make the team.

“He’s trying to help his team, and that’s a big maturity step in his first year.”

The next maturity step, though, will be solidifying himself as an everyday outfielder. The jury is still out on that.

One thing he needs to do to sway the jury is to improve defensively. His elite athleticism and speed have bailed him out of a lot of misreads and shaky routes. He’s a minus-7 in defensive runs saved and his throwing arm is still very much a work in progress.

But much of that can be pinned on his lack of experience. He’s learning on the fly and the big leagues can be a merciless teacher.

The other thing he can do to force himself into the lineup every day is show he can hit left-handed pitching.

“That’s going to be important for him,” Hinch said.

And on that front, the left-handed swinging Baddoo has taken a huge step forward. Witness the Tigers’ 5-3 win over the White Sox on Tuesday when he slapped a pair of two-out, two-strike singles off lefty Dallas Keuchel.

Earlier in the season, Hinch wouldn’t have played Baddoo against any left-handed pitcher. Baddoo hadn’t faced many in his brief professional career, and certainly none as good as he’s going to face in the big leagues. So Hinch was going to let Baddoo learn to float before teaching him to swim.

“He’ll fight with you, he’ll battle and go after it,” Hinch said. “And the more he does that, the more comfortable he’s going to get.”

Baddoo in July was 9 for 52 against lefties, with 19 strikeouts. But the more he faced them, the better his at-bats became. And Hinch kept challenging him. He gave him a couple of starts against lefty J.A. Happ, then with the Twins, and against the Royals’ Daniel Lynch and Eduardo Rodriguez of the Red Sox. Baddoo even got two hits off the Rays’ nasty lefty Ryan Yarbrough last weekend.

“He can handle the pressure and responsibility of doing that,” Hinch said. “He’s better against righties, obviously, but we want to build an everyday player who can influence a lineup every day.”

Hinch still will protect Baddoo against certain lefties.

“I go back and forth with him a little bit,” Hinch said. “Some of it is because Victor Reyes is playing well, or Derek (Hill) before he got injured. It’s not just about Akil.”

After his two RBI hits off the former Cy Young Award winner Keuchel, Baddoo is hitting .230 against left-handed pitching in 95 plate appearances. It’s still a small sample size, but his growth is clear and it has to be encouraging for the Tigers as they look ahead to this offseason.

“Time will tell (if Baddoo will be able to handle left-handed pitching consistently enough),” Hinch said. “But from a competitive standpoint, Akil never backs down.”

Barring an unexpected trade this offseason, Robbie Grossman is the only everyday outfielder returning in 2022. Baddoo, like Hill, Reyes, Riley Greene and Daz Cameron, will be in a fight for the other three spots. And going into spring training, none of those five would be considered everyday players.

Things could get even more sticky if the Tigers decide to add a veteran outfielder in the offseason, which they certainly could.

But whatever odds Baddoo might be fighting next spring, they couldn’t be nearly as long as those he’s already overcome in his rookie season.

Twitter: @cmccosky

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