St. Petersburg, Fla. — From the very start, it was a Twilight Zone kind of spring camp for new Tigers utility man Zach McKinstry.
He was basically dead man walking from Day One. The Cubs, who had acquired him from the Dodgers the previous July, signed shortstop Dansby Swanson in the offseason. McKinstry wasn’t a math major at Central Michigan but he knew what that added up to.
“I was pretty much playing for all 30 teams at that point,” he said.
Even though he went 3-for-38 this spring with the Cubs, Tigers president Scott Harris had a lot of data on him, mostly from McKinstry’s productive years in the Dodgers’ minor-league system.
“Zach has dominated minor-league pitching since 2019,” Harris said, who sent minor-league pitcher Carlos Guzman to the Cubs to acquire McKinstry. “He has a strong track record of controlling the strike zone and he plays above average defense at multiple spots around the diamond.”
In three seasons in Triple-A, McKinstry slashed .323/.401/.550 with a .951 OPS, 18 homers and 72 RBI. He hasn’t produced anywhere near that level in his first 364 plate appearances in the big leagues (.208/.269/.384 with 12 homers and 43 RBI).
“The performance hasn’t translated to the big leagues yet,” Harris acknowledged. “However, if you look at his career, at every step in the minor leagues he’s been challenged to perform and he has responded at virtually every level.”
True story. McKinstry was held back at just about every level before breaking through. His first time through High-A and Double-A in 2017 he hit just .239 with just four homers. The next year, same levels, he hit .282 with an .861 OPS.
“We’re going to give him an opportunity at the big leagues,” Harris said. “We often underestimate how hard it is to hit big-league pitching. He’s not the first prospect that has raked through the minors and struggled to translate that performance in the first 300 plate appearances or so in the big leagues. He won’t be the last.
“We think we can build an environment that can maximize his chances of translating that performance to the big leagues here in Detroit.”
McKinstry said more regular at-bats would help, for sure. But also, against big league pitching, you learn that you cannot miss hittable pitches. You may only get one in an at-bat, if you’re lucky.
“It’s just trying to get comfortable in the box as much as possible,” he said. “You have good at-bats but sometimes guys have better wipe-out pitches here than the guys in Triple-A. You try to stay on top of that and try to get good pitches to hit early and take advantage of those.”
So on Monday the inevitable happens. Manager David Ross pulls McKinstry into his office and tells him he didn’t make the Cubs’ Opening Day roster. No shock. But then he tells McKinstry that they aren’t going to designate him for assignment, either. They’re working on a trade, so hang tight.
He was in limbo for about four hours.
“I went to a local Mexican restaurant in Phoenix,” McKinstry said. “My buddy works there. We hung out, had some good Mexican food. Might have had a margarita.”
Finally the Tigers called. He was coming back to Michigan, coming a lot closer to his family who live in both Toledo and Fort Wayne.
“Just super excited,” McKinstry said.
One of the first people he met before the Tigers’ workout Wednesday, naturally, was Miguel Cabrera.
“Everybody knows who he is,” McKinstry said. “That’s all the coaches ever talk about when you’re younger. ‘Hit like him! You’ve got to go oppo (opposite field). Hit homers to the opposite field like him. Hit homers to the pull side.’”
He was rolling his eyes as he said it. Just hit like Miguel Cabrera. Sure. Nothing to it.
“It was pretty cool to meet him today,” he said.
Pretty cool, too, to get out of organizational jail with the Cubs and get a fresh start and a real opportunity with the Tigers.