Lakeland, Fla. — The conversation before the game centered around the relative weight of spring training performance on roster evaluations and the balance between young players earning spots vs. keeping them on their development track.
“Are you talking about Parker?” Tigers’ manager AJ Hinch said with a knowing smile. “Sounds like that’s where you’re headed.”
Absolutely. Parker Meadows, 23, hasn’t played above Double-A, but he’s had a torrid spring. He came into the game hitting .346 and leading the Tigers with four homers. Infielder Andre Lipcius is another. Lipcius, who will be 25 in May and got to Triple-A last season, came in hitting .308 with three homers.
Neither is expected to come north with the team next month, but what does this level of performance mean for them in the big picture?
“There are going to be guys who open up eyes and change the trajectory of what they’re doing short-term and long-term,” Hinch said. “In sports we get fixated on ‘earning it’ meaning a statistical number or performance. But there is still a development path for guys.”
As if on cue, both players went hitless in the Tigers 8-7 spring win over the Twins at Joker Marchant Stadium Sunday.
“We always have to balance where the player is in his development and what he’s doing to open eyes and try to marry those things,” Hinch said. “Impressions matter more than a specified timeline of getting to Opening Day or getting to a particular point in the season.
“We will never turn our backs on guys doing positive stuff in games. But we’re going to keep it in perspective.”
It works the other way, too. Infielder Ryan Kreidler, who is very much still in the mix for a utility spot, came in hitting .190 this spring. He got a bloop double and a two-run single through the infield and raised his average to .250.
The numbers mean less than his process — which has been consistently excellent offensively and defensively this spring.
“I don’t look at the numbers in the spring all that much,” Hinch said. “They are used as a reference point. There’s so much that can mislead you in the spring. That’s not to negate poor performance or tamp down positive performance. It’s just reality.
“You can change those numbers so easily in the spring with a couple of bloops. One three-run homer can really hurt a pitcher.”
Reliever Alex Lange, whose spot on the Opening Day roster is secure, hadn’t allowed a run in four innings this spring. But Sunday he had command issues (21 pitches, seven strikes) and gave up a three-run home run to former Tiger Willi Castro.
His ERA now stands at 9.00 and he’s walked four in four innings. Which defines his spring, the three dominant outings or the one bad one?
“There’s so much more that goes into it than a statistical line in terms of what a guy is doing,” Hinch said. “We’re watching drills. We’re watching workouts, watching where his weight is, where is strength is, where his flexibility is, how diligent is he in the training room. How much is he understanding game plans? Is he covering every pitch or is he just ambushing a certain pitch? Is a pitcher throwing all fastballs or is he using all his pitches?
“I could go down so many different avenues. And that’s why I say it’s not all about specific outcomes. When we say ‘earned it,’ it’s a much deeper evaluation.”
Matthew Boyd is an example of a player whose process and performance are linking up quite nicely.
The veteran lefty was dominant for the second straight spring start, allowing only a checked-swing single with six strikeouts in four innings. He punched out the side in the first innings, getting ugly swing-and-miss third strikes on each one.
“The opportunity presented itself and we just threw it,” said Boyd, who got five whiffs on six swings with the slider with three called strikes. “Just kind of rolled with it.”
In all he got 12 whiffs on 24 swings and 10 called strikes.
And he wasn’t close to being satisfied.
“In the middle two innings I was coming out of my delivery ever so slightly,” he said. “Just my shapes and command were a little off because of that.”
He gave up the single and a walk in the second and third inning, the only time he had to work out of the stretch. He said his mechanics were just off enough to cause his fastball to run on his arm side and for his slider to get a little sweepy.
“But it was nice to fight through that, then come back out and make the adjustment in the fourth,” he said. “That part was encouraging. There’s always something to work on. And that situation was realistic, too. At times over 34-35 starts, something is going to be different.
“It becomes a matter of staying focused and knowing you’re always a pitch away. I try to put the results aside and just compete on every pitch while continuing to evolve.”
The hardest ball hit off him in the four innings was by his former catcher – Grayson Greiner, who sent a fastball 417 feet to the wall in center.
“I beat him with a fastball and tried to go back to it,” Boyd said. “And he squared it up. I didn’t think that was going to happen (smiles). Props to him.”
The ball, as 417 foot drives to dead center tend to do at Joker Marchant, where the wall is 420 feet away from home plate, landed in the center fielder’s glove.
“I knew what park I was playing in,” Greiner shrugged. “I’ve seen that before.”
It was a good revenge game for both Castro, who was non-tendered by the Tigers, and infielder Jermaine Palacios, who was designated for assignment by the Twins. Castro, after swinging and missing at two breaking balls, locked on to a 97-mph heater from Lange and sent it into the Tigers’ bullpen in right-center. Palacios, who is fighting for a utility spot with the Tigers, crushed a 78-mph slider off lefty Michael Boyle 437 feet to back end of the berm in left-center.
… Right-hander Garrett Hill pitched a scoreless fifth inning with two strikeouts. He threw 17 pitches, but it was the last two that raised eyebrows. He’d been effectively mixing his slider and knuckle-curve off his 93- and 94-mph four-seam fastballs. But on his last two pitches of his punch-out of Elliot Sosa, he threw a 97-mph four-seamer, followed by a 96-mph two-seamer. It was another example of how his stuff ticks up in shorter stints.
… Right-handers Jason Foley (seven pitch eighth) and Trey Wingenter (17 pitches in the ninth) preserved the skinny lead and locked down the win. It was Wingenter’s best performance to date, with his fastball sitting 96 and hitting 98 and his slider sitting 84 and hitting 85.