Examining Riley Greene’s rookie season, Super Two status and future with Detroit Tigers

Detroit Free Press

When Julio Rodríguez and the Seattle Mariners came to Comerica Park in August, the topic of long-term contract extensions came up in a pregame conversation with Detroit Tigers rookie outfielder Riley Greene. Rodríguez, also a rookie, signed a complex contract — one of the most unique in baseball history — earlier that month and is now tied to the Mariners through the 2034 season.

Rodríguez could earn a whopping $470 million through 2039.

Greene, meanwhile, has displayed signs of developing into the cornerstone of the Tigers’ future, which suggests a long-term deal is in his future, as well. The 22-year-old, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2019 draft, finished his rookie season batting .253 with five home runs and a 98 wRC+, just below league average.

“I just try to control the things I can control,” Greene said Aug. 30, four days after Rodriguez signed his contract. “I try to go out there and help this team win baseball games, whatever I can do. I’m not really focused on the other stuff. I feel like if you control that stuff the rest will take care of itself.”

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The likelihood of the Tigers approaching Greene’s camp with contract extension talks this offseason is extremely slim, though. Rodríguez hit 28 home runs (with another 28 doubles and triples) in 132 games this season and is expected to win the American League Rookie of the Year award, while Greene played just 93 games. Even if president of baseball operations Scott Harris wants to kick the tires, it would be one of the last things on his to-do list before Opening Day 2023.

Greene, until further notice, will be back with the Tigers next season making MLB’s minimum salary, $720,000. If he puts up Rodríguez-esque results, the Tigers would be enticed to consider a long-term, team-friendly deal. After all, Harris emphasizes acquiring, developing and retaining young players.

Who better fits that narrative than Greene?

“It’s not a unique strategy,” Harris said Sept. 20, the day of his introduction. “Most organizations in baseball are trying to do that. But it’s exceptionally important for us, and we need to absolutely lean into that over the next years.”

When Greene arrived June 18, his fresh face sparked the Tigers’ offense in a time of desperation. Three of his six multi-walk games occurred in June, an early testament to his mature approach at the plate. He carried the approach into July and crushed a walk-off home run to straightaway center field on the second day of the month.

Not long after, Greene lost his way.

“So I came up here, I hit pretty well, and then I wasn’t taking what I was getting,” Greene said Oct. 5, the final day of the regular season. “I was like, ‘All right, I want to hit more homers. I want more doubles. I just don’t want to hit singles all day long.’ And that was kind of selfish on my part. I dug myself into a hole pretty early, and it’s hard to get out of those holes, especially up here in the big leagues.”

From July 14-Aug. 17, a span of 30 games, Greene chased pitches outside the strike zone more (36.1%, compared to 26.1%), struck out more (38.5% vs. 21.1%) and walked less (2.2% vs. 13.8%). Strikeouts have been a part of his offensive profile since the Tigers drafted him, but not at that rate.

“It was more of like, is my swing messed up?” Greene said. “No, it’s not my swing. It was my mind. It’s all mental. It was one of those things where it’s an easy fix, and I got out of it. Thank God I did.”

Greene rediscovered himself in his final 39 games of 2022, hitting .290 with a 30.9% chase rate, 25.9% strikeout rate and 10.3% walk rate from Aug. 19 through Oct. 5. Finding a good pitch to hit became his focus, thanks to welcomed feedback from manager A.J. Hinch, and he thrived with a mature approach reborn.

Still, Greene lacked power.

“I think players having a combination of success and struggles is always good,” Hinch said Oct. 5. “Obviously, you prefer someone to break in and have massive numbers and be completely comfortable and dominating the strike zone and dominating performance. But I think the way he’s handled it has been equally as impressive as anything positive that he’s done.”

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Remember, Greene won’t become a free agent until after the 2028 season. He gained an estimated 113 days of service time in 2022; if he qualifies as a Super Two player — the cutoff date for the top 22% of players between two and three years varies on a year-to-year basis — he will be eligible for salary arbitration one year earlier, meaning he would negotiate his salary for four years (beginning after the 2024 season) instead of three years (beginning after the 2025 season).

Here are the Super Two cutoffs in years and days over the past 10 offseasons: 2 years, 140 days in 2012; 2.122 in 2013; 2.133 n 2014, 2.130 in 2015, 2.131 in 2016, 2.123 in 2017, 2.134 in 2018, 2.115 in 2019, 2.125 in 2020 and 2.116 in 2021.

The cutoff for 2022 should be revealed soon. Former top prospects Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal have 2.111 and 2.114 years of service, respectively, meaning both pitchers (who debuted in August 2020) will likely miss Super Two status by less than two weeks. (Kyle Funkhouser, at 2.133, and Rony García, at 2.138, will be Super Two players.)

Greene, currently at 0.113 years, would need 172 of 187 days on the big-league roster in 2023 and 2024 to reach 2.113, but that probably won’t be enough service time. He won’t know if he makes or misses his Super Two cutoff until November 2024.

Players can’t hit free agency without six years of service time.

Greene fractured his foot April 1 in spring training, spent 17 games rehabbing in the minor leagues and didn’t make his MLB debut until June 18. But he had a 1.548 OPS in 11 spring training games and was supposed to be the Opening Day center fielder; under the new collective bargaining agreement, teams promoting top prospects to Opening Day rosters were eligible to receive draft picks based on end-of-season awards voting. After the injury, Greene stayed in Lakeland, Florida, and began working his way to full health.

“They did a good job with me in Lakeland,” Greene said. “I felt like I was 100% prepared physically and mentally to start the season.”

Throughout the ups and downs, Greene took pride in his ability to simplify his day-to-day preparation. He watched film (but not too much) to get an idea for the pitches, pitch movements and fastball velocities he would face in games. When the lights came on, Greene relied on a combination of his athleticism and approach.

His approach wavered at times, though he found consistent success when he was dialed in. The progression of his development might not be linear, but if Greene takes another step forward next season, he will grow closer to becoming the face of the Tigers.

And that could get him paid.

“The silver lining is that these guys are being tested at an early age,” Hinch said, “and it’s going to put them on the right path of development at this level where they have to do some things. Adjustments are going to have to be made throughout your career, and I think getting tested early is probably a good thing.

“And again, the way he’s handled it is a great example for any young player that wants to be really good in this game.”

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