Tigers’ man of intrigue, Diego Rincones, has legit talent — ‘and a hole in his swing’

Detroit News

At first blush, it was one of those typical, lower-profile MLB offseason moves any team makes.

But this hinted at something more intriguing, especially by a team hurting for firepower, when in December new Tigers boss Scott Harris signed a minor-league, free-agent outfielder named Diego Rincones.

Rincones, only 23, was a right-handed batter, 6-foot, 175 pounds, who recently wrapped up a 61-game stint with Bravos de Margarita in the Venezuelan Winter League.

Rincones batted .302, had a fat .391 on-base percentage, hit nine homers, and slugged .471 overall to finish with an .862 OPS. He had more walks (18) than strikeouts (17).

“He’s interesting — he’s interesting,” said his Margarita manager, Luis Dorante, Sr., who repeated the word “interesting” for a reason as he paused to size up a player who earlier worked in the San Francisco Giants’ system.

“Obviously, he’s an offensive guy. He’s got the bat, the juice (power).”

So, why weren’t the Giants scrambling to make 40-man roster room for Rincones, who had been signed by them in 2015 out of Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela?

Strategies, basically, and how Rincones did — and didn’t — factor.

The Giants this winter added Michael Conforto and Mitch Haniger to an outfield who already carried plenty of help, not to mention three serious prospects: Grant McCray, Luis Matos, and Vaun Brown, as well as a candidate who already has had a taste of MLB life, Heliot Ramos.

Another reason, clearly, was that the Giants didn’t see in Rincones anything special. At least yet.

Dorante got a bead on a MLB team’s doubts during those 61 games with Margarita.

“I think he’s got a hole in his swing,” Dorante said. “You pitch him inside and he opens up, and then you get him up and away. That’s the problem he had — pitches away. Trying to pull too much at times.

“If he can stay up the middle with all the pitches they throw him middle-away, I think he’s going to be more successful. He’s got the ability to impact the ball. He doesn’t strike out. He puts the ball in play.

“But he chased pitches out of the strike zone. I think that’s going to come with experience — improvement there, maybe with video where he can see the problem he goes through.”

More from the Rincones files:

He played six seasons of minor-league ball for the Giants, with the following numbers: .284 batting average, .349 on-base, .422 slugging, .771 OPS. He has 44 homers in 458 games.

Helping explain why Harris — who’s rather focused on the strike zone — had interest, Rincones carries a low, 15% strikeout rate.

He also plays adequately in the outfield, at least if you’re grading on a curve. And his arm more than holds up

“His arm is a little above average, and his speed is not bad,” Dorante said. “He can get to balls. It’s just a matter of ‘where am I going?’ For him it’s got to be something he does on a daily basis and not where he’s trying to be the highlight, because he can take some good routes, some good angles, whenever he wants to. He gets a good read on fly balls.

“So, you find yourself saying — hmmmm, this guy is interesting.”

In rough agreement was another skipper from Venezuela’s winter warfare, Jackson Melian, who managed Tigres de Aragua.

Rincones, Melian said, is one of those guys who because of his relative youth (24 on June 14) ranks as a potentially helpful low-cost investment.

“He’s a power hitter, and I think he can hit for average,” Melian said during a phone conversation. “And I think he can play left field. His arm’s a little better than average — maybe a 45 (scouting scales top out at 80).

“But he plays hard, at least against us. And, for me, that’s the most important thing with the tools he has. I think he can hit for average, and for power.”

Melian might have been a bit over-exuberant there, at least compared with scouting reports on Rincones, as well as with notes Dorante took while seeing Rincones more regularly.

“At the beginning, they (scouts and critics) told me he was kind of lazy,” Dorante said, “but I wanted to watch him on my own and make my own decisions.

“He did show some signs of that. But I wanted to work with him, put in some time and effort with him, because in my opinion he’s got some big-league talent.”

Now, it’s the Tigers’ turn to school and burnish a player who faces the usual odds against morphing into an MLB asset, especially when his former club saw nothing indispensable.

“When you see a guy like that, you think you can turn him around, and you sometimes can,” Dorante said. “A lot of it depends on whether he (Rincones) wants to do it or just be satisfied with being a big-leaguer for a year or two and then decide not to work and just go play in the Mexican summer league.

“I think it’s a motivational thing. Maybe who you’re around.”

Dorante says 61 games with Margarita were telling, even if pitching there isn’t what he would regularly see in MLB duels.

“He’s interesting,” Dorante said, repeating a manager’s operative word for Rincones. “When my son (Luis, Jr., a bilingual interpreter for the Marlins) told me he was going to be playing for us, I said, ‘Good,’ because this was a kid I was kind of praying would show the skills I knew he had.

“And, basically, he did. He got 42 RBIs for us. He was a RBI guy.”

Becoming a big-league weapon is the more critical question for a Tigers organization that needs all the bats it can corral.

The Tigers will offer him a shot. A good one. Rincones played last season at Double-A Richmond. He worked in 91 games and had so-so stats (.258 average, 10 home runs, .689 OPS), which suggests he probably will get a Double-A ticket from the Tigers and begin 2023 at Erie.

He will be studied during spring camp. The Tigers’ developmental team will apply its new and expanding tool kit to Rincones and see if, perhaps, there’s something that can yet turn a man so young into more serious stock.

Percentages in baseball are cruel. But the costs in Rincones’ case were negligible. The Tigers are searching for help. And, clearly, at least in the case of Harris, they join with Dorante in nodding at that one word a manager so often cites about Rincones:


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

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