Henning: Tigers ponder Riley Greene — what he might have meant

Detroit News

St. Petersburg, Fla. — For the past six weeks, as the Tigers dropped a steady stream of 3-2 and 2-1 games, it was natural to wonder about Riley Greene. How might he have changed that day’s scoreboard?

Greene had been a stud during Tigers spring camp: .429 batting average in 11 games, a couple of homers, two triples, three doubles, an outrageous slugging percentage of 1.048, and OPS of 1.548.

He was 21 years old. Even before he showed up at Lakeland, Florida, for this year’s crimped version of spring training, he was the best all-around hitter and position talent in the Tigers system. And almost a sure bet to play center field on Opening Day.

All of which he confirmed during his tune-up month in Florida.

Then, on April 1, a week before the Tigers opened in Detroit, Greene swung at a pitch from Gerrit Cole during a Grapefruit League game against the Yankees at Marchant Stadium. He fouled the ball off his right foot. Navicular bone — fractured. His debut in Detroit, with fans more revved for a rookie than they have been in years, was about to be delayed, probably until sometime in June.

The Tigers were quizzed Tuesday about Greene as they got ready for batting practice and for an evening game against Tampa Bay at Tropicana Field.

Al Avila, the Tigers general manager. AJ Hinch, manager. Spencer Torkelson, the Tigers first baseman who along with Greene arrived at camp as a rookie co-star on this 2022 team, and who unlike Greene, stayed healthy and debuted Opening Day.

All were asked how a man with Greene’s rich swath of skills, even as a rookie, might have spiced Detroit’s offense during the season’s early weeks.

“He really can change a game,” Torkelson said, taking a break after an early card game in the Tigers clubhouse.

Torkelson has had his moments, mostly tough, adjusting to big-league pitching. What had he learned through these early weeks that Greene could expect to deal with, to process, when he finally heals and Hinch can write him into the lineup?

“I think if he’s in the right headspace, it’s going to be a pretty seamless transition,” Torkelson said, explaining that Greene’s talent is rare indeed.

“No pitcher I’ve seen has beaten me,” said Torkelson, who had a single Tuesday and is batting .158, with a couple of home runs, and more walks (15) than any Tigers player but Robbie Grossman (19).

“I’ve beaten myself.”

Hinch, too, was asked Tuesday for even a guesstimate on what Greene might have brought. Hinch has been waiting since last season for Greene, understanding that by spring of this year he might be inheriting a brand of young hitter — and center fielder — who could rebrand the Tigers’ offense. Power. Bat-barreling ability. Speed on the bases. There were going to be strikeouts, Hinch realized, but Greene could, as Torkelson testified, change a game.

The skipper was careful.

“It’s hard to tell,” Hinch said, acknowledging Greene has “star” talent. He mentioned rookies galore, potential All-Stars, like Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez with the Mariners, and Joey Bart with the Giants.

All have reputations on a par with Greene. All have had tough springs.

“I have no idea what could have been, what might have been,” Hinch said, warning that “you can’t expect him to wear a Superman cape” the minute he suits up for big-league games.

Hinch mentioned that most young players need a “buffer period,” an interlude, before they settle in. It’s akin to what Torkelson might be dealing with now as he draws, ever so closely, to hammering pitches that now are defeating him — or, in his mind, that he’s allowing to beat him.

Avila was of the same mind as Hinch as the Tigers GM leaned against a rail on the Tigers dugout’s top step, watching the Rays finish their batting warm-ups.

“It’s a blow,” said Avila, who signed off on Greene being the Tigers’ first pick, fifth overall, in 2019’s MLB Draft.

Avila offered a counter-thought: If the Tigers had not lost Greene, he would not have moved three days later to trade for Austin Meadows, an outfielder and left-handed hitter who had given the Tigers a lift, all before vertigo put him on the injured list.

Understood. But what if Greene had distinguished himself during April and May as he had during last year’s ambitious promotion, at season’s start, to Double A, followed by more of the same fury at Triple-A Toledo?

There are rookies. And there is Greene. It hasn’t necessarily been clear that he is less than exceptional.

“I’m from the Jim Leyland School,” Avila said, offering a bow to the old Tigers manager who liked dealing with reality, not could-have-beens. “I don’t want to talk about players who are in Lakeland rehabbing.”

Avila laughed at his Leyland reference. But beneath the mirth, it’s possible a general manager, as well as a certain skipper, suspect Torkelson’s nutshell on Greene was bang-on.

Game-changer. See if his rookie sidekick wasn’t onto something once Greene, at last, arrives in Detroit.

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

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