Henning: Tigers’ Riley Greene is set for CF — but how long will he stick?

Detroit News
Lynn Henning |  Special to The Detroit News

Included in that re-design of the Tigers’ up-the-middle corps in 2022 is a 21-year-old center fielder who just about everyone expects will start on Opening Day.

Riley Greene.

What hasn’t yet been determined, and cannot be measured fully until he offers game-day evidence, is how a man 6-foot-3, and north of 200 pounds, will fare defending ground as deep and broad as exists at Comerica (National) Park.

The Tigers, at least for now, aren’t worried.

Their confidence rests in reality. Multiple realities.

First on the list is Greene himself. He is a sublime left-handed hitter and athlete whose brilliance made him the fifth-overall pick of the 2019 MLB Draft. Prep talent often scares away MLB teams, especially with those earliest of selections, when college talent tends to be less risky.

The Tigers never blinked. Nor have they had a moment’s regret since Greene began ripping up their farm system, strafing diamonds and outfield seats with bullets from his bat, all while playing a healthy center field.

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He is fleet enough to have batted leadoff, or no deeper than second, in last season’s lineups at Double A Erie and Triple A Toledo. A player who runs well enough to sit at the top of a batting order can often be trusted in center.

Helping matters there is that Greene has a smooth glove and an OK arm. Center field became the niche through his minor-league progression. And center field is where he will be auditioning for Tigers manager AJ Hinch, now that a new owners-players deal is sealed and spring camp is rolling at Lakeland, Florida.

Worth noting is that Greene made three errors in 86 games last season playing center at Erie and Toledo. He had the same number of assists. He played 21 games in right field, 18 in left, with one error.

What the superficial numbers suggest is he will be adequate, and maybe little more.

One factor in Greene’s favor: The Tigers are defensive beggars who aren’t overly choosy. They finished last among 30 teams in 2021 in center field’s key metric: defensive runs saved.

Even with a supposedly gifted gazelle in Derek Hill working part-time in center, the Tigers’ collective crew of Hill, JaCoby Jones (before he and the Tigers parted), Victor Reyes, and Akil Baddoo, were dead-last in MLB defense, as the analytics confirmed.

It’s a low bar Greene must clear in 2022.

But note the year: 2022.

More: Spring training primer: Tigers have four weeks to solve some tricky roster issues

It is understood, externally and internally as the Tigers make plans for future seasons, that Greene’s size almost surely demands an eventual move to a corner outfield spot. That transfer could happen as quickly as the Tigers perhaps say goodbye to Robbie Grossman, who is under contract only through this year.

“In the end, he’s a corner outfielder with a bat, ‘cause he’s going to grow into a physical man,” said Tom Prince, who last season managed Greene at Triple A Toledo. “But I think for the first couple of years, he’s a center fielder — and then a corner. He played all three (positions) for me.”

Prince was let go as Toledo manager at the end of 2021 but said Greene would be fine if the Tigers opted to make him their everyday man in center. And as early as Opening Day.

“I think he’s more than an adequate fielder right now,” Prince said. “Again, this is always trial-and-error at the major-league level, but George Lombard (Tigers bench coach and outfield tutor) is one of the best coaches there is, and Gene Roof (Tigers roving minor-league outfield instructor) did an outstanding job.

“They (Tigers outfield prospects) have the basics, the routes, the charging ability, the game presence, knowing when not to make mistakes – that was one thing they (development staff) did very well.

“But the other thing is, Riley Greene is a quality person who’s going to give himself every opportunity to succeed. He’s not going to do stupid stuff. I was really impressed with the character of the young men in that organization.”

Another minor-league manager who had seen Greene play multiple games in 2021 believes center field is a short-term option. The manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said center field would be treacherous because of Comerica Park’s size and Greene’s speed, which the skipper viewed as beneath big-league dictates.

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Greene, the manager said, showed he has a trusty glove and style. But range would betray him, particularly at Comerica Park. The manager said Greene would be serviceable as a center-fielder at a smaller ballpark like Camden Yards in Baltimore, at least before Camden’s fences were pushed back, as they have been ahead of the 2022 season.

It’s noteworthy that the two home parks Greene played in during the 2021 season were on the tight side: PNC Park at Erie, and Fifth Third Field at Toledo.

Comerica Park offers no such refuge, particularly for a man patrolling that vast acreage from left-center to right-center. The ballpark was designed in the late 1990s to be a punitive park for hitters, with outfield distances that would make home runs a true feat as they protected pitchers the Tigers hoped to guard – and sign on the free-agent stage.

But those far-away fences — they were modified, mostly along the left-field sector, at the end of the 2002 season — also created excess space vertically and horizontally that has always begged for outfielders with ample range.

The Tigers have been a mixed bag there, especially in center. Curtis Granderson at his peak played above-average defense during his 2006-2009 prime years. Austin Jackson later ranked as a steady sentry there, albeit with less analytics glitter than Granderson had gotten from the metrics crowd.

It is expected Grossman will be starting in right field in 2022 and Baddoo in left, probably in a platoon rotation that involves Eric Haase and Victor Reyes.

As for center, it could well be the season-long station for Greene.

That matter will be decided during the next four weeks at Lakeland.

If, in fact, it hasn’t already been sanctioned by a manager and a Tigers front office that believes Greene is ready for baseball’s big stage – as Detroit’s new center-field centerpiece.

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

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