Henning: Can Tigers’ fix-it shop tweak some young swings?

Detroit News

Swings are the things — in baseball, and in golf.

Changes can be appealing. Sometimes, they can transform, as was the case when one-time Tigers slugger J.D. Martinez overhauled his path to big-league pitches a decade ago and became an MLB demolitions expert.

The Tigers, like all teams, will suggest alterations major or minor depending upon the player, his development level, his challenges, and his pluses.

It’s a delicate dance.

Dillon Dingler, the team’s billboard prospect at catcher, was going to be one such project during this offseason, after finishing his 2022 year at Double-A Erie with respectable numbers spanning 107 games: .238 batting average, 14 home runs, .752 OPS.

The problem was strikeouts: 143 whiffs in 448 at-bats, which is 32% — way more than most big-league clubs care to accept from a regular.

The offseason plan: The Tigers hinted at getting more of Dingler’s lower body involved, in a bid to offset some of those missed pitches. But, they aren’t saying what, exactly, might have been prescribed during late-autumn and winter weeks as Dingler, 24, gets ready for 2023.

Nor are they saying in detail what might be happening with another target, Roberto Campos, the gifted 19-year-old outfielder who, three years ago, pulled $2.8 million to sign with Detroit — the most money the Tigers at the time had ever offered an international teen.

Campos batted .258 in 107 games last year at Single-A Lakeland, with five home runs, a .385 slugging percentage, and .711 OPS. He is 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, and bats right-handed.

He also was a youngster known for slamming an abundance of 105-mph ground balls.

The Tigers believe a bit more elevation will come, perhaps with swing-tinkering their baseball scientists and instructors see as achievable. But again, Campos is 19.

“We’re taking it slow with him,” said Ryan Garko, the Tigers’ vice president of player development, explaining that swing adjustments are particularly sensitive with younger players.

“I love the process that Kenny Graham (Tigers director of player development) and his staff have with these guys.”

Part of the “process” was bringing in Tigers farm hitters for a December session on the TigerTown grounds at Lakeland, Fla., which, of course, is the team’s minor-league headquarters, as well as Detroit’s 89-year spring-training site.

There the evaluations, research, data, and counsel specific to each player were presented.

“The most important thing is the player buy-in and player feedback,” Garko said of these hitting dialogues. “All the parties need to understand the why behind everything. All the parties need to feel comfortable where things are headed.”

One player who seemed headed for swing-tinkering is one of the most talented athletes on the Tigers farm: Gage Workman, a shortstop and left-side infielder who was a fourth-round pick in 2020, a few notches beneath his Arizona State teammate, Spencer Torkelson.

Workman played last year at Erie and had a single knockout number: 206 strikeouts in 128 games. A full 43% of his official at-bats ended with a walk to the dugout. He still managed a .225 batting average, with 14 homers and a .691 OPS.

One potential path to improvement: perhaps bagging his switch-hitting bat. Workman last year had a .562 OPS batting right-handed against left-handers and struck out at a 62% clip.

“We’ve talked to Gage about it,” Garko said of a possible left-side-only plan, “but we’re into player comfort. There’s not a lot of data that says guys who have made that switch have had success.

“The tough part is, when he hits the ball right-handed, he hits it really hard. Sure, we’ve talked about it, but I don’t think we’re there yet. He’s committed to working this offseason on both swings.”

Mulling Malloy at third

It was the first major deal of Scott Harris’ tenure as Tigers front-office general: December’s trade that sent reliever Joe Jimenez to the Braves and brought to Detroit an outfield/infield prospect, Justyn-Henry Malloy, as well as left-handed reliever Jake Higginbotham.

It was the first major deal of Scott Harris’ tenure as Tigers front-office general: December’s trade that sent reliever Joe Jimenez to the Braves and brought to Detroit an outfield/infield prospect, Justyn-Henry Malloy, as well as left-handed reliever Jake Higginbotham.

Malloy was the primary piece, given a 22-year-old’s profile as a potential big-league regular.

A question raised by scouts and farm snoops is whether Malloy can set up at an infield spot supposedly ready and waiting for him: third base.

The tougher critics say Malloy will become more of an outfield option. Third base, they insist, will not jibe with Malloy’s version of defense.

The Tigers aren’t worried.

“I think we can get him back on the dirt (infield, spring camp) and have him play third base,” Garko said. “I’ve watched every ground ball he’s taken (video), and the plays he makes certainly convince me he can stay there.”

Malloy is a right-handed batter, 6-3, 212, and played at Georgia Tech, where the Braves grabbed him as a sixth-rounder in 2021.

Playing last year mostly at high-Single-A and Double-A in 2022 (eight games also at Triple-A), Malloy batted a combined .289, with a bodacious .408 on-base percentage, and .862 OPS.

He is viewed as a hitter who can slam a good pitch and lay off marginal stuff.

“Great kid,” Garko said. “Good communicator. He understands what kind of player he is. I’m kind of excited.”

Malloy has a distant chance at making the big-league team out of spring training, but most likely will begin 2023 at Toledo.

Staff stuff

In terms of managers and coaches, not a lot of dramatic farm-team moves have come the Tigers’ way in 2023.

In terms of managers and coaches, not a lot of dramatic farm-team moves have come the Tigers’ way in 2023.

Anthony Iapoce is the new boss at Triple-A Toledo, replacing former skipper Lloyd McClendon. Otherwise, managers remain in place: Gabe Alvarez at Double-A Erie, Brayan Pena at high-A West Michigan, and Andrew Graham at low-A Lakeland.

Coaching is a different matter. Lots of shuffling there.

Adam Melhuse, who was a hitting coach last season at Toledo, is now a roving Tigers hitting instructor working throughout the team’s farmlands. Mike Hessman is the Mud Hens’ main hitting tutor.

Dan Ricabal, who was pitching coach a year ago at Erie, moves to West Michigan, with Juan Pimentel — he was at Lakeland in 2022 — the new man at Erie.

Last year’s pitching and hitting coaches at West Michigan, Dean Stiles and C.J. Wamsley, have shifted to Lakeland, with Francisco Contreras — Lakeland’s hitting guru in 2022 — joining Pena with the Whitecaps.

Other moves: Matt Mallot, a developmental coach last season at Lakeland, is now Erie’s bench coach. Tim Garland is the new West Michigan bench coach after working in 2022 as Lakeland’s developmental coach.

“We don’t really view coaches like players,” Garko explained of the shuffling, meaning the usual promotions-demotions, ascents and descents, common to minor-league prospects, aren’t applied to coaching assignments. “We just want to build really strong staffs, top to bottom.

“We feel really fortunate. We’ve got a ton of staff back. We’re trying to get players to be the most well-rounded they can be.

“To grow and learn and be taught.”

Food for the farm

You are what you eat, as the old adage goes. And where there’s too much fast food and too many carbs, etc., there probably is a drop in performance, at least in the Tigers’ view.

Healthier diets are the goal in 2023. There will be a nutritionist at each of the Tigers’ farm affiliates, same as in big-league clubhouses. A food-service provider has been contracted for all farm teams.

Chris Ilitch (Tigers CEO) and Scott (Harris) are putting in the resources, and this is a hefty investment,” Garko said. “There’s no better dividend than feeding players better and getting really high-quality food at the ballpark.”

It long has been a minor-league indictment, how schedules and food options — and personal budgets — haven’t been a prospect’s best friend.

MLB finally acknowledged serious inequities at the end of 2021 in bumping pay and benefits ahead of 2022.

The Tigers are taking it up a notch.

“I think our players will feel the difference on the performance side,” Garko said. “We’re going to continue to beef up and offer more support. We want to get them strong and keep them strong.”

Short hops

▶ The Tigers’ new amateur-draft bosses, Rob Metzler and Mark Conner, will be in Lakeland this week, huddling with developmental staffers as they get ready for July’s MLB Draft

“It gives us a chance to sit down, to listen to Mark and Rob talk about their experiences in the scouting world,” Garko said. “Development and scouting need to have some synchronization.

“The track records they have, in terms of drafts (most recently, Rays and Padres), the processes, the ideas, the way they run the department — it just makes me really excited about this draft.”

▶ One player Garko believes will make a major move when he is cleared to pitch, perhaps yet this season: Tyler Koelhepp, a left-handed reliever, 6-4, 210, who two years ago was a fifth-round grab out of Notre Dame.

“Really excited about him,” Garko said of Koelhepp, who had his ligament surgery late last spring. “He could really move fast once he’s healthy.”

▶ Most pleasant surprise among the Tigers’ offseason exports during November and December was infielder Trei Cruz, who batted .271/.360/.346/.706 in 29 games for Ponce in the Puerto Rican Winter League.

“This was a big offseason for him,” Garko said of a third-round pick in 2020 from Rice, and a player who was envisioned as an all-around-the-infield option, with a switch-hitting bat that simply hasn’t come around in his three seasons on the farm.

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

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