Lakeland, Fla. — This game can flat-out crush your spirit.
One minute you are a hot-shot prospect, sharing the same outfield with the club’s shiny new first-round pick, and a couple years later you are still foundering in A-ball while that shiny new first-round pick is about to break into the big leagues.
This is just part of Parker Meadows’ reality. In 2019, Meadows, a second-round pick the year before, was roaming center field at West Michigan, then the Low-A affiliate, while Riley Greene was cutting his teeth in right. But while Meadows has stagnated since then, Greene has flourished — to the point where he could be the starting center fielder in Detroit this season.
“For me, it’s all a mental test and I feel like I’m doing pretty well at it,” Meadows said Thursday morning.
Better than most.
Baseball has knocked Meadows around a fair bit these past three years. He never could’ve imagined he’d hit just .210 and strike out 102 times in 420 plate appearances in his age-21 season at West Michigan (now High-A).
But crush his spirit? Not even close.
“Obviously I’ve learned there are ups and downs,” he said. “But the more you get down on yourself, the worse you are going to feel mentally. This game can be deteriorating. It really can. But I’ve learned that, for me, it’s just fun.
“All the ups and downs are fun. I look at it as good times. It’s all about bouncing back.”
Meadows is staying in a house this spring with Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Ryan Kreidler and Eric De La Rosa. It’s a four-bedroom Airbnb and Meadows was the last to check in, which means he had to share a room and sleep on a twin bed. Meadows is 6-5. His feet are dangling off the end of the bed. Surely this is annoying.
“My feet are hanging off, but I’m getting some good ankle mobility in my sleep,” he said.
Always sunny side up with this guy. He took round after round of live batting practice on a muggy Thursday morning with temperatures pushing toward 90. One of the hitting instructors told him they were going to cut it short and Meadows said, “I could stay here and do this all day. This is only going to help us.”
More: Detroit News 2022 Top 50 Detroit Tigers prospects
The positivity, which he oozes effortlessly, will likely be his salvation. He knows it was for his brother, Tampa Bay’s Austin Meadows. Parker watched him grind for five years in the minor leagues before breaking through in 2018.
“I’ve been blessed with a good mindset,” Parker said. “I know a lot of guys in this game have had mental issues. That’s no fun. I feel fortunate that I am able to keep a good mindset.”
Ditching the hitch
He’s also been blessed with self-belief, a tireless work ethic and a lanky 6-5 frame that he seems to just now, at age 22, be growing into. He’s getting his man muscles.
“I’m definitely the strongest I’ve been in my career,” he said. “I put on more muscle.”
Meadows finished last season at 208 pounds. He’s up to 220 now. For the first time ever he incorporated vitamins and supplements into his offseason training program.
“NSF certified,” he was quick to point out about adding Creatine to his regimen. “I just feel really good.”
His body, though, hasn’t been the obstacle. It’s been his bat. More precisely, his swing mechanics (though he may fight you on that). His batting average and on-base percentage have dropped alarmingly the last two seasons (2019, 2021), with slugging percentages in the low .300s.
More: Tigers top picks Madden, Jobe put on a show during first live BP
He spent part of the summer of 2020 at the Tigers’ alternate site camp in Toledo. He was asked if he thought that slowed his development, not playing competitive baseball for a year.
“I wouldn’t say it hurt it,” he said. “It was great for me just to see some big-league arms. It was fun being there. But I’m not type to sit here and make excuses about this past season. It’s a new year and I’m ready.”
He’s the type to roll up his sleeves in the offseason and correct the problems. What’s bedeviled him is a natural hitch in his swing. It has caused him to be late to or get under hittable pitches. Watching him hit Thursday, both in the cage and against live pitching, the hitch still shows up like bad habits tend to do, but it is much less pronounced.
“For me, the hitch was never really working for me,” Meadows said. “I kind of realize that now.”
More: Tigers RHP Rodriguez regains his way after hard season, dad’s COVID death
He spent the offseason with hitting instructor Shane Hopper, a former high-school All-American and Georgia Bulldog standout who coached Meadows in 16U travel ball (Team Elite in Georgia).
“He really knows his stuff,” Meadows said. “He’s a guru. We’ve really worked on direction, getting the bat path straight and easy to the ball.”
He uses a slight toe-tap now, no leg kick, and seems to generate his bat speed with his hips and hands. There’s very little movement in his legs. Still, with his length, getting all the body parts moving in-sync remains a work in progress.
“I’ve had problems flying open when I finish my swing,” he said. “So the main thing for me this year is just staying through the ball and getting my timing down. Besides my first year, my timing has been inconsistent. I’m really cracking down on timing.
“I don’t think it’s really anything with my swing. It’s timing.”
What it comes down to — and this is another lesson he learned from watching his brother — is simplifying the mechanics, trusting his talent and being more athletic in the box.
“I think I’m just being me,” he said. “This is something I’ve known watching my brother go through the minor leagues — your swing isn’t going to be the same all the time. Some guys can keep the same swing their whole career, but it’s all about adjustments for me.
“This year, I am feeling really confident.”
More: MLB season to be shortened if no deal by end of Monday
There is another aspect of his game that has perplexed the Tigers’ coaching and development staffs. Meadows is fast. He’s been clocked running 60 yards in 6.4 seconds. He’s fast enough to cover center field, even, the Tigers feel, at spacious Comerica Park. And yet, stealing bases has not been his thing.
In his three seasons, he’s stolen 26 bases and been caught 17 times. High-A catchers threw him out eight times in 17 attempts last season.
“One hundred-percent, I want that to be a part of my game,” Meadows said. “My first couple of steps have been slow, my reads off the pitcher have always been slow. I really worked on that this offseason, too. Just being more explosive.”
This is what’s both befuddling and encouraging about Meadows — all the materials are there. The makeup, the size, speed, athleticism, the pedigree, the want-to and work ethic, all big-league grade.
But to this point — again, he’s 22 and still rated the 17th best prospect in the Tigers’ system by MLB Pipeline — he’s not been able to make it all translate into consistent, on-field production. Tantalizingly close, though.
“I just want to perform,” Meadows said. “Wherever they put me, I’m going to try my best, try my hardest and I’m going to be successful at it. That’s the mindset. If they move me up (to Double-A), it’s a blessing. If they keep me there (High-A), then I will keep working.”
Once upon a time, Meadows and Greene covered two-thirds of the same outfield and took great pride in not letting batted baseballs hit the ground. “Nothing falls but raindrops,” as Derek Hill, another speedy center fielder, once said.
“That’s my goal.” Meadows said, laughing. “To catch Riley. I’ve got to be teammates with Riley again.”