Detroit Tigers’ Kody Clemens, sporting his dad’s number, had a crazy, curious offseason

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Now, this felt like old times.

Like everything was starting to return to normal.

The Detroit Tigers opened their clubhouse to the media on Monday for the first time in two years. The COVID-19 pandemic has kept us out.

But some things never change.

When a group of reporters walked into the clubhouse early Monday morning before the Tigers first official practice, Miguel Cabrera started screaming playfully: “Nooooo!”

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Cabrera, who was sitting in his normal spot by the door, broke into a smile. He’s in a great mood.

I looked around the clubhouse and it’s such an interesting mix of players. There were experienced veterans in their 30s like Cabrera, Robbie Grossman and Jonathan Schoop. There are guys in the mid-20s like Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize.

And then, there is a whole bunch of youngsters, many of whom have never been in an MLB clubhouse with the media before.

I was looking for one of those youngsters — Kody Clemens — because he is in such an interesting situation.

Here is a guy who was put on the 40-man roster; and about two weeks later, the MLB lockout began. What horrible timing. He would have benefited greatly from by minor league minicamp for the last month, getting more reps and live at bats.

But MLB rules prohibited him from being invited.

So we started chatting and I happened to ask him: “What positions do you play?”

“I mean, obviously, second base,” Clemens said. “I played right field last year. I don’t know, not many games, but it’s pretty simple out there; and then first base as well. So I mean, wherever they want me to play, I’ve got all the gloves now.”

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About an hour later, I went to a backfield and Clemens was working at third base.

Wait a second. What?

I leaned against a fence and watched Tigers manager AJ Hinch hit a grounder to Clemens, who scooped up the ball with easy.

“Very nice!” Hinch said. “That a boy.”

Hinch likes to work with players in small groups because it gives him a different view of them.

“You learn a lot about players when you can interact with them while they’re working,” Hinch said. “I like being in the trenches with them.”

Quick aside: I swear every time Hinch talks, you get a tiny glimpse into what makes him tick, and every layer is fascinating.

So what does Hinch see in Clemens?

A pure baseball player.

“Kody has worked his way onto the 40-man by being a good player,” Hinch said. “We’re gonna try to move him around a little bit and increase his versatility. It’s something I’ve said for a year straight on a lot of guys. His bat got him on the 40-man. He puts up a tough at bat. He’s a good baseball player. We’ll see how much defensive value we can create, and see when his time is to come.”

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Whatever it takes

After the practice, I returned to the clubhouse and found Clemens again.

“I must have screwed something up,” I said. “When you listed the positions, I didn’t hear third base.”

He broke into a smile.

He didn’t list third because, well, it didn’t cross his mind. In his minor-league career, he has played 195 games at second base, 24 in right, seven at first and just one at third.

In fact, the 25-year-old has only played five innings at third in his climb through the Tigers system since he was taken in the third round of the 2018 MLB draft.

“So were you surprised to be working there on the first day?” I asked.

“Yeah, I was a little surprised,” he said, smiling. “But it was all good. I mean, I felt comfortable. Just added to the arsenal.”

And that’s exactly what Hinch wants to see.

More versatility.

Especially for anybody who can bat. Clemens hit .247 at Triple-A Toledo in 2021, hitting 18 home runs, 15 doubles and six triples.

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Weird way to get your feet wet

Now, to Clemens’ curious, crazy offseason.

“What was the timing on how it all played out?” I asked him.

“I was so excited to get put on 40-man and the timing was so weird because obviously, you know, the CBA and the lockout and everything,” he said. “I was expecting to get a bunch of phone calls this offseason from the staff, asking me how I’m doing.”

But that didn’t happen. Coaches were not allowed to communicate with players on the 40-man roster during the lockout.

“He learned the business of baseball pretty quickly,” Hinch said.

He even saw it up close. In January, Clemens went to Dallas for MLB Players Association meetings.

“My agent told me that since I got put on 40-man that I should just go and say hello to everybody down there,” Clemens said. “So I went and it was fun. I mean, it was just wild because I have not stepped foot in the big leagues. But it was good experience to meet the people who represent us.”

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Clemens is the son of Roger Clemens, the longtime superstar pitcher. In fact, Kody is wearing No. 21, the number his father wore for the Boston Red Sox (1984-96) and in Toronto (1996-97).

“My dad told me all about the (1994-95) strike,” Kody said. “He always tells a story about how everybody was in the meeting room with the players when they all got together, and they were arguing about pay. He was sitting next to Cal Ripken Jr. and he always talks about how if anybody plays, Ripken loses his Ironman streak. That was like the biggest thing for them and then everybody got quiet after they started talking about his streak. So he always talks about that story.”

Will the hits keep on coming?

During the lockout, Clemens practiced at Rice University, taking live batting practice, trying to get ready for spring training.

“There’s a massive group of professional players down there,” Clemens said. “I had plenty of live at bats to prepare during the lockout.”

He worked out with Robbie Grossman, getting advice from him.

“Just talking to him, picking his brain,” Clemens said. “He’s been elite for a long time, and he knows how to hit. So I mean, I talked to him about certain things for my game, like hitting inside pitches. I’m trying to get those pitches in the air, so I don’t just roll over into the shift.”

Clemens hits left-handed, but he focuses on hitting everything into the left-center gap.

“That’s where I’m at my best,” he said. “I want stay left-center gap the whole time for the whole season. And then obviously, any off-speed, I need to pull it in the air. So that’s just my game. And if I stay true to both of those things, I should be really successful.”

This is Kody’s second big league camp and he feels comfortable.

“I know all the guys that were here last year,” he said. “It’s familiar faces all around.”

Clemens is turning into one of those familiar faces, too.

Even if you might find him at a new spot.

At third base.

Or, shoot, anywhere else they might want to try him.

He’s game for anything, anywhere.

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Contact Jeff Seidel: Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

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