TAMPA, Fla. — Austin Meadows smiled as he walked through the parking lot.
“Very excited,” he said.
He unexpectedly ended up at the Detroit Tigers‘ spring training complex Tuesday morning, not to visit his brother — outfield prospect Parker Meadows — but to slip into a fresh uniform and begin a new chapter in his young career.
Less than 12 hours earlier, Meadows and his wife, Alexis, were at their Apollo Beach home with their dogs. As if the NCAA men’s basketball championship, a showdown between Kansas and North Carolina, wasn’t enough drama, Meadows received a phone call.
“There’s a lot of thoughts that go through your head,” Meadows said. “I had to look up the roster, the coaching staff and just try to get everything I can, because Opening Day was right around the corner.”
The Tigers shipped 23-year-old infielder Isaac Paredes and the No. 71 overall pick (Competitive Balance B) in the 2022 draft to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for Meadows, under team control through 2024. He is owed $4 million this season.
Meadows’ first phone call went to his brother, who then passed along the news via FaceTime to Tigers first baseman Spencer Torkelson, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick who will make his MLB debut on Opening Day.
Not long after, the latest MLB trade became public.
“He’s a middle of the order bat, period,” catcher Tucker Barnhart said. “We’re continuing to maintain that winning viewpoint, just being consistent with what we’ve done all winter and all spring. I’m excited he’s on my team and I don’t have call pitches against him.”
From the left side of the plate, Meadows packs a punch with his imposing 6-foot-3, 225-pound build. He blasted 27 home runs, totaling 59 extra-base hits, with 106 RBIs, a .234 batting average and a .315 on-base percentage. He was worth 2.0 fWAR.
“He’s a legitimate major league player,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said.
Meadows profiles as the Tigers’ everyday left fielder, but he will get some at-bats as the designated hitter and sit the bench against certain lefty pitchers.
He is a career .271 hitter (with 54 homers) in 1,047 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers and a .237 hitter (with 16 homers) in 478 plate appearances against lefties.
Still, the slugger has a lifetime .295 on-base percentage vs. lefties.
In 2021, Meadows hit 24 of 27 homers vs. righties. The American League Central is overflowing with righty starters, so hammering division rivals won’t be a difficult task for Meadows.
Chicago White Sox: Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, Michael Kopech and Vince Velasquez. Minnesota Twins: Joe Ryan, Sonny Gray, Bailey Ober, Dylan Bundy and Chris Archer. Cleveland Guardians: Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, Cal Quantrill, Aaron Civale and Triston McKenzie. Kansas City Royals: Zack Greinke, Brad Keller, Carlos Hernandez and Brady Singer.
“The way he’s hit right-handed pitching, and the way we haven’t hit right-handed pitching, it balances out quite nicely,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “Our division is stacked with right-handed starters. We got a pretty good bat to combat that.”
Meadows made the All-Star Game in 2019, hitting .291 with 33 homers and 89 RBIs in 138 games. He has a whopping 25 games of postseason experience, contributing a .145 batting average and three home runs.
Hinch will write Meadows’ name in the top-half of the batting order.
“I’m excited to get out there and be an asset to this team,” Meadows said. “I bring some power. Being a three or four hole hitter last year, coming over here, I can provide that pop and provide those RBIs. For me, that’s the biggest thing.”
What happens when Riley Greene is healthy?
There’s one reason why Meadows is a Tiger: Riley Greene, the 21-year-old outfielder top prospect, fractured his foot in Friday’s spring training game, one day before he was supposed to make the Opening Day roster.
So, Avila adjusted.
“Being able to pull it off is very unique at this time of the spring,” Hinch said. “Obviously, a lot has to match up for a trade. I’m not surprised that Al was able to upgrade our roster because he’s been trying to do that since the beginning of the offseason.”
“I got to thank (Tigers owner) Chris Ilitch, obviously, because he allowed it to happen,” Avila said. “We added to the payroll. He had to sign off on it. He said, ‘If you and AJ think you need him, go get him.'”
Once Greene returns, he will be the Tigers’ starting center fielder. He should be joined by Meadows in left field and Robbie Grossman in right field, with Akil Baddoo operating as a fourth outfielder.
Hinch and Avila won’t commit to a plan for two months into the future, simply because anything can happen in the next six to eight weeks, which is when Greene projects to return. Derek Hill, too, will miss the start of the season with a hamstring strain.
“AJ and I will decide at that point what we’re going to do,” Avila said. “The only thing I can tell you is you cannot have too many good players. If you have all guys that are raking at that point, that’s going to be a good thing. Those tough decisions, that’s what we want.”
In June, the Tigers should have a surplus of outfield options on the 40-man roster: Meadows, Greene, Grossman, Baddoo, Hill, Victor Reyes, Daz Cameron, Eric Haase (catcher), Willi Castro (utility player), Harold Castro (utility player) and Kody Clemens (utility player).
“I don’t have to think about it now,” Hinch said. “We got a while to wait for any sort of playing time logjam. I think every manager in baseball would welcome the drama and dilemma that comes with having too many good players.”
Despite all those choices, a mix of Meadows, Greene, Grossman and Baddoo, with Haase getting reps in left field against lefties, is likely throughout the summer and into important games down the stretch, maybe even games into October.
‘We’re counting on … getting to the playoffs’
That’s another thing: The Tigers expect to make the 12-team postseason, backed up by the $235.5 million the organization committed to free agents this offseason, fourth-most in baseball. Trading for Meadows was a win-now move from Avila and his front office comrades.
The same win-now mentality was evident when Avila brought aboard his five other newcomers on MLB contracts: shortstop Javier Baez (six years, $140 million), left-handed starter Eduardo Rodriguez (five years, $77 million), left-handed reliever Andrew Chafin (two years, $13 million), righty starter Michael Pineda (one year, $5.5 million) and catcher Tucker Barnhart (trade with Cincinnati Reds).
“Well, it’s a lot different than what we were doing a few years ago, that’s for sure,” Avila said. “Anytime you start going through a rebuild, it’s going to be tough, you’re going to be criticized. … We’re counting on winning some games and getting to the playoffs.”
But there’s a question that must be answered in all of this Meadows madness. If the Tigers are shooting for the playoffs, and they wanted Meadows to help them get there, why didn’t the Rays want to keep him around?
After all, Tampa Bay plays in the brutally difficult American League East, Meadows is only making $4 million in 2022, and Paredes isn’t a win-now infielder, considering his power-hitting deficiency kept him out of the rebuilding Tigers’ lineup last season. Paredes, by the way, has been assigned to Triple-A Durham.
Let Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander explain.
“Isaac Paredes is a player that we’ve long been very high on, that we’ve pursued for some time,” Neander said. “Ultimately, this was the path that we felt gave us a chance to acquire him and also made the most sense. In terms of why it made the most sense, it’s part the valuation of Isaac and part the confidence in the group of outfielders that we have … in our major-league mix as well as some of the talent we have coming.
“In the immediate term here, Josh Lowe will be joining our major-league club and taking the spot that previously was occupied by Austin. Having some of the depth we have, the talent we have, and someone like Josh that we think is ready for the next opportunity makes it a little bit easier to give up someone like Austin for a player like Isaac that we value highly.”
The Tigers also gave up the No. 71 pick in this year’s draft, but they were enamored by having control over Meadows’ contract for the next three seasons. More importantly, though, this deal was about improving a roster for a franchise that hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2014.
Avila made a winning move.
“I think it’s trending upward,” Meadows said. “Last year, playing them was not fun. They were not fun to face. But I think, from the pitching side and the position-player standpoint, we’re definitely up there with some of the best teams. I’m excited to get going and see what the team is all about.”