The Detroit Tigers panicked Thursday night.
Top prospect Riley Greene, playing his 15th game for Triple-A Toledo this season, fouled a ball off the inside part of his right shin, not far from the spot where a foul ball fractured his right foot in spring training.
On Friday afternoon, Tigers manager A.J. Hinch called Toledo hitting coach Adam Melhuse — serving as the Mud Hens’ manager while Lloyd McClendon is sidelined due to COVID-19 — to check on Greene’s health. The conversation produced a story from Melhuse that reminded Hinch of Greene’s readiness for the big leagues.
“He had a patch on it,” Hinch said. “He said, ‘The only way I’m going to hit my shin again is a shitty swing.’ That approach is a good headstart to dealing with the competition at this level. Nothing is going to faze him.”
During the conversation, Hinch informed Melhuse that — because Austin Meadows tested positive for COVID-19, thus creating a roster spot — the Tigers were going to promote Greene for his MLB debut.
The 21-year-old takes over as the full-time center fielder and will start Saturday against the Texas Rangers at Comerica Park.
“It was kind of a matter of days until he was going to be called up, so it lines up,” Hinch said on Friday afternoon. “Unfortunately, we lose Austin in the process. But what a journey for Riley to get the call.”
That’s the thing about Greene and the 2022 season: It was always been a matter of when, not if, he would ascend to the majors. The Tigers planned to put him on the Opening Day roster, until his foot injury April 1.
Greene started his rehab assignment May 27 with Low-A Lakeland and transitioned May 30 to Triple-A Toledo. His foot was healthy, but he said needed to regain his “mental approach” at the plate. Still, Greene reached base safely in 15 of 17 games during his rehab assignment.
He finished 17-for-62 (.274) across 15 games for Toledo, recording four doubles, one home run, six RBIs, six walks and 14 strikeouts. He stole three bases in three attempts.
“We were being patient with him in giving him 50, 60, 70, 80 at-bats until we were going to make the call,” Hinch said. “We had considered this weekend. We talked about some time on this road trip. The conversations were ongoing.”
GETTING THE CALL: Tigers top prospect Riley Greene to be called up for his MLB debut
Keep in mind the mathematics of “Super Two” status, which may have factored into the timing of Greene’s promotion.
The top 22% of players between two and three years of MLB service time, by days, are eligible for salary arbitration after their second season, instead of their third. That’s a big deal from a financial standpoint, especially if Greene becomes an All-Star-caliber player.
Teams across baseball manipulate service time, though none will publicly admit to doing so. Last spring, Mariners CEO Kevin Mather hinted at it with top prospects Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert; he promptly resigned following a public apology.
The most recent “Super Two” cutoff was two years and 116 days of service time, making any player promoted on or before June 6, 2019, eligible for salary arbitration four times, beginning this past offseason.
The exact date each season is a moving target and impossible to predict, and while the cutoff won’t be finalized for a couple years, it has occurred between May 25 and June 10 in recent years.
Is Greene any more ready Saturday than he would’ve been Thursday, when the Tigers opened their four-game series against the Rangers at Comerica Park? The answer is obvious.
For a Comerica Park debut, the Tigers could have promoted Greene on June 10 against the Toronto Blue Jays, June 13 against the Chicago White Sox or Thursday.
But the Tigers didn’t do that.
The team has a 0.2% chance to make the postseason, according to FanGraphs.
With Meadows sidelined, the Tigers had no choice but to promote Greene.
The Mud Hens were playing in Worcester, Massachusetts, a one-hour drive from Boston. Had the team been in Toledo, Greene would’ve been in the Tigers’ starting lineup for Friday’s game. Instead, he boarded a 6:30 p.m. flight from Boston to Detroit.
Before Meadows’ COVID diagnosis, the Tigers contemplated several dates for Greene to debut. The organization didn’t want him to make his debut on the road, but an eight-game road trip is coming up against the Boston Red Sox (June 20-22), Arizona Diamondbacks (June 24-26) and San Francisco Giants (June 28-29).
The Tigers won’t return to Comerica Park until July 1.
Waiting until July, though, would be too long and unfair to Greene.
“Going on the road for 10 days was a conversation Al (Avila, general manager) and I had,” Hinch said. “If he wasn’t going to debut this weekend, he’s going to go on a 10-day road trip. We wanted to debut him on the West Coast.”
But the Tigers weren’t entirely sure.
They were waiting for something to happen.
“I don’t say fortunately, because we lost Austin, but the way it worked out, he’s going to be able to be in our ballpark,” Hinch said. “That’s a really cool moment for him, his family and for our fans.”