LAKELAND, Fla. — The trash talk never stopped.
When Riley Greene would hit a ball to the warning track, Josh Lester would quip: You need some more juice.
Or when Spencer Torkelson was stuck on 29 home runs late in 2021, Lester would joke: Why does your home run total start with a two?
“It almost sounds like we’re brothers out there,” Lester said. “You know how when you have brothers, and you’re just trash talking the whole time, and there’s not a compliment said. But the trash talk is the compliment.”
Lester has the utmost respect for Greene: “Riley hits the ball as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen,” he said.
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And he has so much respect for all the Detroit Tigers‘ core prospects: “Oh, they’re all awesome, good guys,” he said. “It makes it easy to root for them. Those are guys that you know you’re gonna see on TV in a couple years for hopefully a long time. Knowing those guys personally, and knowing how good of people they are, makes it really easy to root for them, and we’re a pretty close knit group.”
But here’s something that might be surprising?
Do you know who led the Tigers’ minor league system in home runs in 2021?
It wasn’t Greene, the Tigers’ first pick (and No. 5 overall) in 2019, despite his total of 24.
It wasn’t Torkelson, the Tigers’ first pick (and No. 1 overall) in 2020. Torkelson’s 30th home run came in the last game of the season. “I always ragged him because he had 29 till the very last game,” Lester said. “I give him credit. That takes a lot to hit your 30th in the last game.”
It wasn’t even Aderlin Rodriguez, who hit 30 for Triple-A Toledo.
It was Lester, a 27-year-old infielder who has flown under the radar while climbing through the Tigers system, ending up in Triple-A Toledo for 25 games last year.
Lester hit 32 home runs in 2021 — seven with the Mud Hens and 25 more in Double-A over 84 games — for the Tigers’ minor-league homer crown.
He tied for fifth-best in all of minor league baseball.
Not too shabby, considering he was the 400th player drafted in 2015.
All four players in front of Lester on the home run list were high draft picks who had at least a $1 million signing bonus. That includes Bobby Witt Jr., who was the second player taken in 2019 and signed with the Kansas City Royals for a $7.7 million bonus. Witt hit 33 home runs in 2021 — one more than Lester.
“I’m not gonna lie,” said Lester, who went in the 13th round. “That was pretty cool to see that list.”
Lester’s .587 slugging percentage ranked No. 9 in the minors.
“I thought I had a good year,” he said. “I thought it was it was fun in my eyes to getting to play a bunch of different positions.”
Finding his power in the minors
Lester is built like a corner infielder, standing 6 feet 3 and weighing 225 pounds, but he actually played second base in high school.
“In my draft profile, I was 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds,” he said. “I was young. I graduated high school at 17.”
Cleveland drafted him in the 30th round in 2012.
But he went to Missouri, where he actually started out as a shortstop.
“My freshman year, I go the entire fall playing first, second and third,” he said. “First game of the season in the spring, our shortstop breaks his hand, and I played short for six weeks. I was hitting decently well, and when he came back, and he went back to short, and I kind of bounced around first, second, third.”
He had a massive growth spurt in college.
But he didn’t find his power until he was in the Tigers’ system.
He hit 13 home runs in 2017, 21 in 2018 and 19 in 2019.
“In 2016, I spent the whole offseason trying to hit balls in the air,” he said. “I’ve put a lot of work into the weight room and I’ve developed a lot more strength than I ever have. And so I think that those two together definitely have an impact on it.”
Versatility is the key
Lester is trying to show the Tigers he has power and versatility.
In his minor-league career, he has played third base (286 games), first base (217), right field (19), left field (7) and shortstop (1).
“I know (Tigers manager) A.J. Hinch likes utility guys and likes to be able to have some flexibility with his lineup,” Lester said. “It doesn’t bother me playing different places every day. I love it.”
Lester earned some time in the outfield last year because he proved he could catch balls during batting practice.
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“Just by shagging some BP and going after some balls,” Lester said. “Obviously, we had Tork at first-slash-third. We had Lip (Andre Lipcius) at third and second. (Ryan) Kreidler was playing shortstop. So anywhere else I could play to get in the lineup I was willing to do and, and I didn’t mess it up.”
“So what does it mean to you to be invited to the minicamp?” I asked him.
“It was big,” he said. “I thought in the past that I had a chance to get invited to it.”
But it’s hard not to invite somebody who is the organization’s home run king.
A guy who can play so many positions.
“I was extremely pumped and I’m still pumped,” he said.
He has forced the Tigers to take another look at him.
What a cool story.
You gotta root for a long shot, who has homered his way out of the shadows.
Contact Jeff Seidel: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.