After ‘big surprise,’ Matt Vierling, Nick Maton embrace opportunity with Tigers

Detroit News

Detroit — One minute you are basking in the still-warm glow of a National League pennant, reliving the thrilling run to the World Series. The next minute, well, you’re traded to a team that’s lost 526 games over the last six years and hasn’t sniffed the postseason since 2014.

Shock is unavoidable.

“I would say it took me about half the day yesterday to come down from realizing what had happened,” said Matt Vierling, who along with Nick Maton and Donny Sands, was traded to the Tigers from the Phillies for reliever Gregory Soto and infielder Kody Clemens.

“It was a big surprise, actually,” Maton said. “I wasn’t thinking about anything like that at all. Then all of a sudden my phone just started blowing up and I figure out that I’m gone. It’s a mix of emotions.”

The Phillies drafted Maton in 2017 and Vierling in 2018. They both debuted in 2021 and carved out utility roles for themselves last season, Vierling winning a spot on the playoff roster for all rounds (playing in 12 games) and Maton being added for the World Series.

They had to feel like they were just coming into their own with the franchise. Then with one phone call on a Saturday afternoon, boom, new team, new league, new set of challenges.

But as the two players said in separate Zoom calls with Detroit media Sunday, baseball teaches you to turn the page quickly.

“Then I got a chance to talk to AJ Hinch,” Vierling said. “And I talked to Scott Harris. And I realized just how good an opportunity this was and now I’m just really excited to get started.”

The opportunity is real. With the Phillies, both Maton and Vierling — entering their age-26 seasons — were projected to play supporting roles again, especially after the team signed free-agent shortstop Trea Turner. With the Tigers, both will be given every chance to win everyday roles — even if they are at multiple positions.

“In my time with the Phillies, if someone got hurt I’d be able to come up here and, whether I succeeded or not, I might not be there in a month when they got back,” Maton said. “I’m pumped to hopefully get a shot to prove what I can do and stick somewhere.”

Said Vierling: “I’m good with wherever AJ wants to put me. I obviously want to be in there, be a starter at whatever position. But position-wise, it doesn’t matter to me all that much as long as we’re out there getting at-bats and playing as much as we can.”

Vierling, an elite athlete whose sprint speed ranked in the top three percentile in baseball, is a right-handed hitter who played primarily outfield coming up through the minors. One of Harris’ expressed targets this offseason was a right-handed hitting corner outfielder to balance out the four left-handed hitting outfielders on the roster (Riley Greene, Akil Baddoo, Austin Meadows and Kerry Carpenter).

Vierling fits that bill. He hit .295 against left-handed pitching last season.

But, when the Phillies needed to him to play in the infield, he did so without complaint or issue, filling in and second, third and first base.

“I feel like in Philly I needed to be that guy who could play multiple positions,” Vierling said. “I had to be good in left, center and right and then when it came to playing the infield, I had to be good enough there, too. I don’t know if I had the stability at just one position just to work on it all the time. I worked on everything all the time.

“I’m used to that. I just didn’t have the luxury to focus on one position.”

Neither did Maton. Though he played mostly shortstop coming through the system, he’s played second, third and corner outfield for the Phillies. But he fits the bill of another of Harris’ winter targets — a left-handed hitting infielder to balance out right-handed hitters Javier Báez, Jonathan Schoop, Spencer Torkelson and Ryan Kreidler.

In a perfect world, the Tigers could plug in a productive player at the same position every day. But they won’t live in that world in 2023. Instead, Harris is trying to assemble a group of talented and versatile players that will allow Hinch to mix-and-match them and exploit favorable matchups.

“One of the things Scott said at the Winter Meetings and I said it as well, we’re going to earmark a lot of at-bats for young players and we’re going to make sure they get opportunity,” Hinch said Sunday, speaking on MLB Radio’s The Front Office show. “We have some good ones with Greene, Torkelson, Baddoo, Kreidler and Carpenter. And these guys (Maton and Vierling) fit right in.

“Obviously they need to establish themselves as big-leaguers and we’re going to get them some competition. They have to earn it, as always. … But having options and having the ability to put people in positions to be successful against the right pitchers is something Scott and I have been studying the whole offseason.”

Case in point: The Tigers last season struggled mightily against fastballs, particularly fastballs up in the zone. Maton hit .406 against big-league heaters. His heat maps show expected weighted on-base averages of .734/.722/.283 across the top of the strike zone.

The Tigers ranked last in the American League in average (.219), slugging (.331) and OPS (.608) against right-handed pitching. Maton had an OPS of .877 and hit four of his five homers off right-handed pitching (two off National League Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara).

Vierling and Maton both have shown good plate discipline in their short time in the big leagues — another area of deep concern for the Tigers’ offense. Vierling had a low 19% whiff rate last season and had an average exit velocity on balls put in play of 91.5 mph — top 14 percentile in baseball.

“As a manager, one of the best things you love is a strong bullpen,” Hinch said, reacting to losing both Soto and Joe Jimenez (to Atlanta) this offseason. “But I think this deal was too good for us to pass up. We really strengthened our overall team by adding quite a bit of talent.”

They’ve added some character, too. Harris spent a lot of time vetting all three players and he came away with glowing reports.

“All three are going to be additive to our clubhouse,” he said. “I’ve talked about how clubhouse culture and grit is going to be very important to this group and I feel we are getting three guys who will add to that.”

Vierling and Maton, despite their young age, have what only Báez, Miguel Cabrera, Eduardo Rodriguez and Meadows on the current Tigers roster have — World Series experience.

“Just the vibe of the whole clubhouse,” Vierling said. “Everyone just jelled together. Everyone hung out. Everybody really seemed to like each other and enjoy each other — just joking around and giving each other crap all the time. Almost like a brotherhood, a little bit.

“It was really special and I think we know what that feeling is like on the field and off the field and I think we will bring some of that vibe to this clubhouse and maybe help the team in that way, too.”

It can’t hurt.

Twitter: @cmccosky

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