Keith, Maton attack Triple-A with same goal, different angles

Detroit Tigers

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click hereAnd subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

The Toledo Mud Hens added a pair of left-handed-hitting infielders in about a 24-hour span. One, Colt Keith, just became the Tigers’ top prospect and the No. 43 in baseball via 37-spot jump on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list and is on a trajectory for Detroit. The other, Nick Maton, just became Detroit’s latest young player — albeit not nearly as young as Keith — sent down to work out issues.

The Tigers weren’t planning on them becoming teammates, at least not at Triple-A. They planned to ride out Maton’s early-season struggles in Detroit and watch him become a better player for it. Just last Monday, president of baseball operations Scott Harris said the team was willing to “give him some runway” as long as Maton continued to work and make adjustments at the plate. But his recent defensive struggles, capped by a game-tying throwing error Sunday against the Twins, made it an untenable situation even for manager A.J. Hinch, who valued Maton’s left-handed bat enough to bat him in the middle of the order through it all. Harris and the Tigers have prided themselves on building an environment where young players can learn and develop on the job, but it just wasn’t working in this case.

By contrast, the Tigers seemed inclined to let Keith continue work on his defense at Double-A Erie before moving him up to Toledo. Some evaluators have suggested in the past that other young hitters in previous years didn’t get enough seasoning before arriving in Toledo and then Detroit. The All-Star break in a couple of weeks seemed like an ideal time to promote Keith, who will be coming off a Futures Game appearance, but his continued hitting forced the Tigers’ hand.

While the paths of Keith and Maton intersect in Toledo, the question now is how this all impacts Detroit with no clear answer at the hot corner, where the Tigers’ negative-10 defensive runs saved is worst in the Majors and by far Detroit’s worst at any defensive position. It’s not a defense-for-offense trade-off, because Tigers third basemen entered Monday having combined for an MLB-worst .189 average and .584 OPS.

To be clear, Maton was never a long-term answer at third. He’s a versatile infielder who started at third to get into the lineup but never quite fully adjusted to the position, a quicker-reaction spot with longer throws compared to middle infield. He’ll likely get some work at third and second in Toledo, allowing Keith and fellow Futures Game selection Justyn-Henry Malloy to get time at third, but Maton’s strength is his versatility.

While Maton struggled in Detroit, Keith focused a ton of effort on proving he can play third base in Erie, even sitting down with manager Gabe Alvarez — himself a former Tigers third baseman — and watching video of Hall of Famer Scott Rolen. But that doesn’t mean Keith will eventually settle in there; he played second base for stretches over the past few weeks before playing mostly DH last week following an injury-related absence.

Some evaluators believe Keith will eventually settle in at first base or in the outfield, but such talk only motivates Keith to keep working at third. Meanwhile, Malloy has played left field more often than third base since the end of May.

So, short and long term, the Tigers have questions at third. The short-term will be a mix-and-match among right-handed hitters. It’s not an ideal situation for Hinch, which is why Maton stayed up as long as he did.  The long term depends a lot on Keith, and maybe Izaac Pacheco and Jace Jung behind him.

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