Lakeland, Fla. — Austin Meadows and wife Alexis were sitting at home Monday night, in Apollo Beach, with their two dogs as the NCAA championship basketball game was revealing its drama.
Austin’s phone rang. It was life-changing, as telephone conversations go.
He was being traded to the Tigers.
“It can kind of shock you,” said Meadows, 26, an outfielder and left-handed batter — with significant power — as he checked into the Tigers clubhouse at TigerTown for his first day of work with a new MLB team.
“But I’m excited. Playing against the Tigers last year was not fun.”
A tribute there to how a longtime American League kicked-can began in 2021 to transform itself from last-place status to a tough, nearly break-even bunch that hopes to accomplish much more in 2022.
Meadows will be asked to help — immediately. The Tigers traded for him Monday evening as they worked to muscle-up an outfield that during the closing days of spring camp lost two key outfielders, including Riley Greene, the rookie center fielder who was looking like a whopping plus for manager AJ Hinch’s lineup as Opening Day arrives Friday against the White Sox at Comerica Park.
Also, the Tigers had shelved Derek Hill, another outfielder with skills and particular help on defense who is gone temporarily with hamstring ills.
Hinch and general manager Al Avila were in a bind. The options for outfield support were so thin it looked, at least until Monday night, as if Willi Castro — an infielder all the way and an outfielder only in desperation — might be all but forced upon Hinch as the team prepares to head for Detroit on Wednesday evening.
It all changed when the Tigers sent infielder Isaac Paredes and a 2022 competitive-balance draft pick (sandwiched between the second and third rounds) to the Rays as Avila scored on a potentially huge deal.
Meadows was an All-Star in 2019, ripping 33 homers for the Rays. He had an oblique injury that merged with a COVID-19 bout that ruined much of his 2020 season. But he revived in 2021 to hit 27 homers and drive in 106 runs. For his career, he has an .822 OPS (on-base plus slugging).
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“I think for us, just being an outfielder every day,” Meadows said of what he anticipated his role, and strengths, to be as he joins the Tigers. “Providing solid offense for the team.”
Meadows, who is 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, was a first-round pick (ninth overall) by the Pirates in 2013. He was dealt to the Rays in 2018, along with Tyler Glasnow and Shane Baz, in a headline deal that brought Chris Archer to the Pirates.
Meadows said he understood much about the Tigers: About their busy offseason that saw them add shortstop Javier Baez and catcher Tucker Barnhart; that two talented kid hitters, Greene and Spencer Torkelson, were now part of 2022’s re-shaped lineup; and that his new skipper, Hinch, was considered to be prime-time talent in a dugout.
“A little bit,” Meadows said of any personal familiarity with Hinch. “He and Kevin Cash (Rays manager) have a pretty good relationship.”
He also understands Detroit will differ from his address at Apollo Beach, about 45 minutes from Lakeland. And he understands Opening Day in Detroit has a reputation for being on the wild side.
“It’s gonna be crazy,” he said, adding in a nod to the north: “I’ve got to find some cold-weather gear.”
Meadows’ younger brother, Parker, also happens to be a Tigers employee. He’s an outfielder the Tigers grabbed in the second round of the 2018 MLB Draft.
“Obviously, I made a call to my brother first,” Meadows said. “He thought it was a joke at first.”
Lynn Henning is a former Detroit News sportswriter and a freelance writer.