Colt Keith is the linchpin to more Tigers 2024 muscle

Detroit News

One question, in particular, will follow the Tigers and front-office boss Scott Harris into the offseason.

What can the Tigers do about reshaping their infield in 2024?

They have pieces, no question. Good pieces, for the most part, in the form of big bats that gradually are maturing (Spencer Torkelson, principally) or hitters that are on the verge of boosting manager AJ Hinch’s lineup as soon as next spring.

It’s the latter group upon which much hinges this offseason and, certainly, in five months when spring training convenes.

Colt Keith is the biggest of the possible contributors and at the moment ranks as one of the bigger questions.

If he can play third base reliably in 2024, he could easily make the club out of Florida and be in Hinch’s Opening Day order.

Keith is the Tigers’ top prospect because of a left-handed bat that has torn through Double-A in 2023 (.325 batting average, .976 OPS) and is now doing the same at Triple-A (.304, .920). He has 24 home runs and is a power and extra-base threat during any at-bat against any pitcher. He could bring thunder to Detroit’s lineup from the get-go in 2024.

On defense, Keith splits time between third base, second base, and designated hitter.

And isn’t this peachy when the Tigers next season will have room for a big bat at all three lineup spots?

Here are the issues:

Keith is fine, defensively. He gets ground balls. He makes accurate throws.

If there is a hang-up it’s his arm, which descends from the right shoulder he hurt 15 months ago in a freakish swipe-tag mishap during a game at Single-A West Michigan.

The shoulder was separated and Keith did not play again until last autumn at the Arizona Fall League.

His arm since has not had the zest it once showed. It isn’t apparent in his fielding numbers, which are sterling. He has made a single error in 335 innings, combined, at third base and second base during his games at Toledo.

But the big-league game is faster and so are the runners. Keith’s arm will be tested. Whether he can handle grounders, make throws, and toss out runners that must be beaten on relays across the diamond will be the challenge on which much rests.

If there wasn’t competency here, if there weren’t any chance at getting better and stronger, the Tigers no doubt would have locked in Keith at second or moved him to the outfield or first base.

But, for now, they will keep him at third — and second — even as they face an organizational problem in September 2023. The Tigers have too many players who ideally should probably be playing first base.

That includes the mainstay there, Torkelson, who figures to be a fixture at first for years to come and who creates something of a happy roadblock.

Break down the rest of the cast and you see how the Tigers are semi-handcuffed:

Justyn-Henry Malloy, officially, can play third base, but lacks even Keith’s overall aplomb. Malloy also plays the outfield — technically, anyway. How the Tigers deploy in 2024 a fine right-handed hitter with limited defense is not fully clear, although having an open slot at designated hitter will obviously help as Malloy, like Keith, shows he’s all but ready to help Hinch’s offense.

Jace Jung is maturing splendidly as a hitter at Double-A Erie and is outstanding at second base in turning double plays. His lateral range, however, is limited. He, too, probably would be best used at first.

Justice Bigbie, who carries the biggest breakthrough bat anywhere on the Tigers farm, is an even more natural choice at first, his primary position. He has done nothing but rip pitchers at High-A and at Double-A and has done it so convincingly the Tigers will view him as prime-time help in Detroit as early as some point in 2024.

Bigbie, though, is blocked at first by Torkelson and this year was moved to the outfield. As an outfielder, he definitely is a first baseman. But there’s hope he can be shaped into survivable help at an outfield corner, mostly because for him there aren’t a lot of options other than DH.

Add to the mix Wenceel Perez, a good switch-hitter who has had throwing issues at second base and who now is learning, with promise, how to play a crowded outfield.

It invites a question that will follow Harris into autumn, into the Winter Meetings, and into the weeks prior to spring camp opening.

Is there a big deal in the offing that involves some of the first-base, right-side infield surplus and brings to the Tigers more of an ideal two-way player at third base — or elsewhere?

That seems plausible.

The Tigers have survived, barely in 2023, with their ever-rotating cast of Andy Ibanez, Zach McKinstry, Jonathan Schoop (before he was released), Nick Maton, Matt Vierling, Zack Short, Tyler Nevin, and newcomer Andre Lipcius, etc., all musical-chairing their way throughout various infield configurations, not counting Javier Báez’s work at shortstop.

Collectively, it’s an area that needs more muscle, much more, which Keith and Jung promise alongside Torkelson — if they can be plugged at least somewhat regularly into those slots at third and second.

As might be guesstimated today, Keith will be ready — offensively — as early as Opening Day. Jung has been playing professional baseball only for 14 months and will be given more time that could stretch into much or most of 2024 at Triple-A Toledo.

But he is getting closer to Detroit, as was expected when the Tigers drafted him 12th overall in July 2022.

How this all is sorted out in a month or so when the Tigers huddle and put into gear their 2024 visions and plans will make for one fascinating assessment.

It’s important to consider a motivator as the Tigers think about next spring and Opening Day and, particularly, how Keith might fit into an Opening Day slot.

It’s called the Prospect Promotion Incentive, which in 2022 became part of the new players-owners contract. It was devised to keep teams from stashing good players in the minors later into a year to avoid losing a year of service time that would push players more quickly to free agency.

A rookie who is on the Opening Day active roster and finishes first in MLB Rookie of the Year rankings (qualifiers must appear on two of three top-100 rookies lists from either, Baseball America, or ESPN) now earns his team an extra draft pick between the first and second round.

This is how the Mariners, after taking Julio Rodriguez north in 2022, won the 29th overall pick in July’s MLB Draft.

Players who finish second or third earn their team extra bonus money ($500,000) in the international signing market.

Keith is the kind of hitter who reasonably could contend in March 2024 for a job out of the gate. He has that brand of hitting potential.

The Tigers know this, of course.

They also know he has to hold up at a position.

A belief here is Keith will be given all the constant care, conditioning, and offseason attention that can be applied to strengthening that right arm and making him a safer bet at third base.

If the Tigers see it that way, they’re on course for adding a big bat as early as Opening Day and boosting an infield that can make them radically improved in 2024.

If they have reservations, about either Keith’s or Jung’s or Malloy’s or Bigbie’s ability to provide C-grade defense when they move within sight of Detroit, the equation changes.

Harris has his own thoughts here.

He and Hinch and the Tigers can either live with some defensive trade-offs as the hitters arrive, or — with free agents scarce this offseason — a whopper of a Tigers trade seemingly looms.

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

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