With storms of 2022 behind him, Tigers’ Akil Baddoo believes his best is yet to come

Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — It turned out for the best. That is how Tigers outfielder Akil Baddoo is looking at it, anyway.

He thought he might be playing for Team Great Britain in the World Baseball Classic next month. His parents are from the nations of Ghana and Trinidad and Tobago, formerly under British rule. But it’s not happening.

“Yeah, just didn’t fall through with the citizenship,” he said Monday outside the clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium. “I guess I wasn’t eligible.”

He’s OK with that. There’s work to be done right here in Lakeland. Fact is, he could use a full, six-week camp. He’s never been through one.

“It just lets me spend more time here getting some work in,” he said. “I’ll be able to have a real spring training. It’s been a minute. This is the first official big-league spring training for me. Feels good coming here early.”

Baddoo missed most of 2019 with an injury and didn’t play in the pandemic year of 2020. He came to the Tigers as a Rule 5 draftee in 2021 when COVID protocols were still in place and then last year’s camp was delayed and squeezed by the lockout.

Some normalcy, especially after all he endured last season, might be the right tonic.

“I’m just going to have that mindset of having fun and using my ability and play the game I know how to play,” he said. “Everything will take care of itself.”

Baddoo is expected to at least be a platooned regular in left field this season. But after the way last year went, he’s not likely to take anything for granted. After bursting onto the big-league stage with 13 home runs and a 112 OPS-plus in 2021, Baddoo started in a hole last April and never quite dug all the way out, even spending a month in Triple-A Toledo.

“At this level, you are always fighting for a job, no matter if you have one or you don’t,” he said. “That’s mindset I had my first year, it’s the mindset I had my second year and it’s the same mindset I will have for my whole career.”

To his credit, after having his head scrambled for the better part of six months, Baddoo looked more like his rookie self by the end of the season. In his final 12 games, starting 11 of those, he slashed .250/.363/.387 with two doubles, two triples and one of the two home runs he hit in 225 plate appearances.

“I just started feeling comfortable,” he said. “It’s just the practice I was doing in the cage and the work I was putting in outside the game ended up playing out in my favor. I feel good. The confidence is there. Everything is there.”

Baddoo, more or less, lost his identity as a hitter last year. After hitting 13 home runs in 2021, he spent that offseason tweaking his swing, steepening his launch angle, looking to chase more power. He went 1 for 12 to start the season and didn’t sniff .200 until Sept. 27.

It was a tough, dispiriting slog. But he knows who he is now, as a hitter, as a ballplayer, as a person.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I will stick with what got me here and what I always was when I was a little kid. Just a gap-to-gap guy, hitting balls to left-center and right-center — that’s where my natural power is — and then use my legs, use my athleticism.”

Some changes have been made since last year — both in the game and at Comerica Park — that could play well with Baddoo’s athleticism.

The walls all around Comerica Park are now just 7 feet high and well-padded. The center-field wall has been moved in 10 feet.

“That was really nice,” Baddoo said. “There were times I hit balls 419 feet, 418 feet and they were either fly outs or triples. It’ll be good if a couple of those can be home runs. And having 7-foot fences and being able to rob more homers, that’s nice, too.”

On top of that, there are now limits to how many times pitchers can throw over to hold runners, and the distance between first and second and second and third is 4.5 inches shorter now with bigger, 18-inch bases.

“I’m not against that,” Baddoo said, smiling.

Baddoo, who is just learning the art of stealing bases, has swiped 27 bags in 37 attempts in two years. With pitchers limited to just two disengagements (step-offs or throw-overs), with the runner advancing on the third attempt if he’s not picked off, speedsters like Baddoo should have a distinct advantage.

“I experienced it a lot in Triple A, and I liked it,” he said. “I was able to use my legs a lot more. After the two throws, I’m on auto-light, I am ready to go. I still can’t cheat myself too much because they can still throw over, but I think you are going to see a lot of guys being more aggressive.”

The first full-squad workouts aren’t until Feb. 20, but Baddoo understands what he’s facing. There are a lot of options in play — including platooning with right-handed hitting Matt Vierling, who he hit with on the back fields Monday, or facing a roster battle with fellow lefty Kerry Carpenter.

He’ll be ready to hit the ground running.

“In my first year I had to make an adjustment to this level,” he said. “In my second year I had to do the same thing. It feels good coming in here, my third year, knowing how they’re going to attack me and knowing how I’m supposed to go about things this year.

“I can’t wait.”

Veteran reliever signed

The Tigers are bringing veteran right-handed reliever and former Tampa Bay Ray Matt Wisler to camp on a minor-league deal.

Wisler, 30, was designated for assignment by the Rays despite posting a 2.25 ERA in 44 innings last season. There were some disturbing trends, though. The velocity on his four-seam fastball, which sat at 93 mph in 2017, dropped from 91.5 mph in 2021 to 89.7 last season.

Also, his strikeout rate dropped from 32% to 20% while his walk rate rose from 5.65 to 8%.

He is a veteran of eight seasons, including a 21-game stint with the Giants in 2021 where Tigers president Scott Harris was an assistant general manager.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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