How a confident Victor Reyes is preparing for Detroit Tigers’ outfield competition

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers outfielder Victor Reyes is proud of his strong second half in the 2021 season, hitting .325 with four home runs in his final 49 games.

He also knows he performed miserably in the first part of the year, as his .143 batting average in early May forced a demotion to Triple-A Toledo. The 27-year-old hit .258 with five home runs, 22 RBIs, eight walks and 55 strikeouts in 76 games for the Tigers.

In late September, a right groin strain ended his season.

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“When I play every day, it’s different than when I play once or twice a week,” Reyes said Tuesday, though an interpreter, before his game at Estadio Alfonso Carrasquel in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela. “I never changed anything. Playing every day helped me to be better and better.”

Bouncing back in the second half solidified Reyes’ opportunity coming into this year’s spring training.

Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report midway through February, but a delay appears likely due to the MLB lockout. A new collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association will end the lockout. Whenever camp opens, Reyes is set to compete for an outfield role on the Opening Day roster.

“Right now, I feel like I can compete and win a spot on the roster as one of the three outfielders,” said Reyes, who recovered from his groin strain two weeks into October. “It’s been a good experience to play (in Venezuela). I needed to play here to be ready for spring training.”

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Reyes is spending his offseason with Caribes de Anzoategui in the Venezuelan Winter League. He is hitting .286 (30-for-105) with six home runs in 27 games, playing 12 in the regular season, 13 in the round-robin semifinals and two in the championship.

Caribes began a best-of-seven championship series against Navegantes del Magallanes on Tuesday and has a 2-0 lead. If seven games are needed to determine a winner, the series will end Jan. 25.

Reyes went 2-for-4 with one strikeout in Game 1. He singled twice off right-handed starter Junior Guerra, a seven-year MLB veteran who pitched 41 games for the Los Angeles Angels in 2021.

Caribes de Anzoategui won the opener, 6-5, thanks to Balbino Fuenmayor‘s RBI single in the eighth inning.

Willians Astudillo, with four years of MLB experience, finished 2-for-4 with three RBIs and a two-run home run in the sixth inning. The next batter, 15-year MLB veteran Asdrubal Cabrera, drilled a solo shot for a 4-3 lead and chased Guerra from his start.

“My performance in the round robin was very good for me to be ready for spring training,” Reyes said. “The players there have big-league experience, and that helped me. … This is important to me because part of my family can’t come to the States. To play in front of them, and now with the team in the finals, that makes me very happy.”

In Game 2, Reyes crushed a solo home run off right-handed reliever Wilking Rodriguez in the seventh inning. His blast served as the game-winning run in Wednesday’s 5-4 win for Caribes de Anzoategui.

Reyes finished 1-for-4 with one homer, one RBI, one walk and one strikeout. Cabrera drove in the first two runs with a two-run double in the third inning, then Astudillo drilled a two-run homer in the fifth.

In the Venezuelan Winter League regular season, Reyes hit .295 (13-for-44) with two doubles, one triple, four home runs, 18 RBIs, seven walks and six strikeouts in 12 games. He played 13 games in the round robin, hitting .264 (14-for-53) with five doubles, two triples, one home run, seven RBIs, five walks and nine strikeouts.

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Reyes hopes his championship run ends in a celebration for Caribes. If it does, he will consider staying active on the international circuit for the Caribbean Series. The tournament is designated for the champions from Colombia, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

The Caribbean Series is scheduled for Jan. 28 through Feb. 3 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

“I don’t know yet,” Reyes said. “First, we have to win, and then I’m going to think about it. Maybe (the MLB lockout) is part of my decision, but right now, I’m focused on this series. After that, I’m going to decide whether to play or not.”

Until the MLB lockout ends, Reyes and his teammates on the 40-man roster remain barred from the Tigers’ spring training facility in Lakeland, Florida. They also can’t communicate with their coaches.

Reyes missed two weeks of spring training last season due to work visa issues in Venezuela. This year, he is ready with his work visa and expects to be on time.

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The Tigers have one outfielder — right fielder Robbie Grossman — that’s certain to begin the season as an everyday starter. Grossman, a veteran coming off a career year, is finishing his two-year, $10 million contract.

The rest of the outfielders — Reyes, Akil Baddoo, Riley GreeneDerek Hill and Daz Cameron — will compete for three openings, assuming the Tigers plan to carry four true outfielders. (In 2021, the Tigers started the season with five true outfielders.)

“His swing has been better, and his contact has been better,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said Sept. 25, one day before Reyes landed on the injured list. “He’s hit the ball hard, and he’s getting hits. I looked up at the scoreboard yesterday, and you see the OPS creeping to .700. If I had told you that a couple months ago, you would have said it’d be quite a grind for him to get there. But he’s done it and earned a lot of respect. Everybody loves Victor.”

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What Baddoo accomplished in his rookie season should have him penciled in as the starting left fielder against right-handed pitchers. The 2020 Rule 5 draft pick hit .259 with 13 home runs and 18 stolen bases in 124 games.

Nearing his MLB debut, Greene reached Triple-A Toledo in 2021. The 21-year-old hit .308 with eight homers in 40 games for the Mud Hens and will get every chance to make the 26-man roster out of spring training. Even if he doesn’t earn a spot, it won’t be long before he joins the Tigers as a center fielder.

Catcher Eric Haase spent 22 of his 98 games in left field during the 2021 campaign. He seems on track to get plenty of outfield reps in 2022, as well as more looks at first base. Utility player Harold Castro is no stranger to the outfield, and infielder Willi Castro handled left field in 10 of his final 28 games last season.

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Reyes, a 2017 Rule 5 draft pick, has played four seasons for the Tigers. He owns a .268 batting average and a .296 on-base percentage in his 302-game career, to go with a 22.3% strikeout rate and a 3.8% walk rate.

In 2021, the switch-hitting Reyes hit .229 in 144 at-bats against right-handed pitchers and .323 in 65 at-bats against lefties. He can play all three outfield positions, but the Tigers primarily used him in right and center field last season.

Although the Tigers’ season ended in October, Reyes started playing again in December for Caribes de Anzoategui. He hopes his personal results as part of a winning team, putting him on the doorstep of a championship, translates to the Tigers in 2022.

“Playing against other big leaguers helps me to be a better player,” Reyes said. “I’m going to bring my performance to Lakeland.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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