Around the Tigers’ farm: Justyn-Henry Malloy settling in at 3B, where Detroit needs lift

Detroit News

Impossible to miss for anyone eyeing Triple-A Toledo’s box scores the past few weeks has been the everyday choice at third base:

Justyn-Henry Malloy.

The Tigers want to know if he can be trusted at third as they get ready for 2024.

He could help, for sure. The Tigers need bats, particularly on the infield’s left side. And they would prefer someone who could hold up as more of a true third baseman than as a plugged-in daily match-up option, which has pretty much determined who has played third in Detroit in 2023.

“He’s been good,” Mud Hens manager Anthony Iapoce said of the 23-year-old Malloy, who bats right-handed and who until this month had been taking as many turns in the outfield. “The work behind the scenes — people haven’t gotten to see all of that.

“He’s gained confidence. He’s been making plays. He’s been good.”

Particularly, he’s been good as a hitter, which is why the Tigers are trying to figure out potential roles next season in Detroit.

Malloy is batting .281 with a week to go in Toledo’s season. He has 23 home runs. He also knows the strike zone: .421 on-base percentage, which leaves his three-year, minor league OBP at a stunning .412. His OPS for 2023 is a hefty .906.

This is why the Tigers are auditioning him so steadily at third base. If Malloy can hold up there, it gives them a reliable choice at the same time they’ll have an opening at designated hitter (Miguel Cabrera’s retirement) and, of course, as a likely occasional option in the outfield.

The flip side to Malloy’s third-base tryout: He has made 11 errors in 56 games there.

Iapoce says it’s better to focus on improvements.

“Everybody’s a work in progress,” he said. “Everybody, no matter if it was Adrian Beltre at age 38, or Malloy.

“I really think moving him around a little bit in the outfield (corner spots) has helped him believe he’s a pretty good athlete. Running, diving, showing off his arm.

“Going back to third base, he understood he could be more athletic.”

Whether again this is a position and a man the Tigers can entrust with any frequency will be a serious topic during postseason meetings and plans for 2024.

“The glove and footwork come with anticipating where the ball might be,” said Iapoce, who is wrapping up his first year as Mud Hens skipper. “The best guys are thinking about this before they even move.

“He’s still learning those things. But you can tell he’s a little more athletic and stronger confidence-wise than before.”

Kreidler’s comeback clicking

Only five months ago, he was popping up in Tigers manager AJ Hinch’s lineup as a guy who could help anywhere in the infield, or outfield.

And then, after being returned to Toledo for some brush-ups on his offense, one of those devilish core-muscle tears cropped up. Ryan Kreidler had surgery in April and was gone until rejoining Toledo earlier this month.

He’s back — and no one was happier than Iapoce.

“Wow,” the skipper said. “He’s a game-changer at shortstop. Incredible with the leadership out there.

“We have a first-and-third situation, they’re going for a double steal, and we just say: ‘Get it to Kreidler. He’ll make the right decision.’”

It’s different terrain for Iapoce, being able to plug in at shortstop either Kreidler, or that semi-sensation since he was grabbed from the Dodgers at the Aug. 1 trade deadline, Eddys Leonard.

Make that shortstop — and a host of other infield positions, as well as outfield where Iapoce has been playing either man, happily, often in center field.

Kreidler, is batting .252 in 43 games for Toledo, with 10 homers and an .846 OPS. Leonard, 22, in 35 games for the Mud Hens is .315/.397/.546/.944, with seven homers.

“You can play these guys anywhere,” Iapoce said. “But if you can play shortstop, you can play pretty much anywhere on the diamond.

“Both those guys are baseball players.”

Keith’s made an impression

Let’s see now:

Colt Keith tore it up at Double-A Erie (59 games, .325/.391/.585/.977). And now, after 61 games at Triple-A Toledo (.298/.378/.542/.920), he acts as if there’s really not that big of difference between elite minor-league levels — not when you hit the way Keith hits.

It should be noted Keith, who last month turned 22, also has bashed 27 home runs on the season.

“I’m trying to think back on when was the last time I’ve been around a high-school hitter like that,” said Iapoce, meaning that Keith was a prep draftee three years ago, rather than a refined college hitter, when the Tigers took him.

“I haven’t seen a high-school bat like that in a while.”

Keith’s left-handed hitting tends to be more of a fusillade to all fields, with power that in 2023 has also delivered 34 doubles and three triples. He is expected to hit spring camp in February with at least a shot at making Hinch’s big-league Opening Day roster.

Position has been the only question. But it seems Keith finally is settling in at second base after earlier shared time at third base

“He’s improving at second,” Iapoce said. “His detail, his maturing in his practice work — what you come to understand is it’s not about the rep, it’s about respecting the rep.”

That was a lesson Keith took in during a visit last month from Alan Trammell, the Hall of Fame shortstop who is a Tigers special assistant and who was checking in on various infielders, Keith included.

“In his work since then,” Iapoce said, speaking of Keith, “you can see a little different focus on the details. He realizes it’s more than just taking 100 ground balls.

“He’s maturing in his work. And it’s pretty cool to see.”

Instructs coming up

The Tigers are wrapping up their 2023 farm seasons, with West Michigan’s schedule complete and Lakeland finishing business Friday after a tough, 2-1, playoff defeat against Clearwater, which won two of three games.

Now, the youngest of the Tigers recruits will get busy with Instructional Camp that will run Sept. 22-Oct. 3 at TigerTown.

“No games,” said Ryan Garko, who heads Tigers player-development. “We’ll bring the (July) draft class in, and a couple of the other younger players from the lower levels, along with international players.

“It’ll be a lot of offseason educational preparations that will be made. We’ll look back on the summer, how they played, how their bodies functioned, their swings, their mechanics, and lay out a plan for moving forward.

“We’ll get them ready to go.”

As many as eight young Tigers players then will head west for the Arizona Fall League, which runs Oct. 2-Nov. 11. Rosters have not yet been finalized.

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

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