Keston Hiura signs minor league deal with Detroit

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On Friday evening, Jon Heyman of the New York Post reported that free agent infielder Keston Hiura had been signed by the Detroit Tigers. The details — a minor league contract that will convert to $2 million in guaranteed money and performance incentives if he makes the MLB team — were reported by Evan Petzold of the Detroit Free Press shortly afterward.

Hiura was the first round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2017, who selected him ninth overall. The Brewers promoted him aggressively and he raked at every level of the minors before reaching the big leagues in 2019 at just 22 years old. During that rise, he also quickly ascended to an elite status among prospects nationally. He was expected to stick at the second base and FanGraphs rated him as a top-20 prospect in the game, describing his combination of hit and power as best in the minor leagues at the time of his graduation to MLB.

A phenomenal 84-game rookie campaign saw Hiura hit .303/.368/.570 with 19 home runs. He was on pace for a nearly 5 fWAR season. It’s worth noting that the Tigers’ Director of Hitting in the player development system, Kenny Graham, was the minor league hitting coordinator for the Brewers during Hiura’s ascent, so the Tigers do have some inside knowledge of the player and hopefully, a plan to help him get back on track.

The rug was pulled out from under the Brewers’ prized infield prospect in 2020. During the pandemic-shortened season, he hit only .212/.297/.410 while his strikeout rate rose to 34.6 percent and BABIP cratered from an inflated .406 to an unlucky .273. In the major league exposure he’s had since, Hiura’s strikeouts only climbed skyward while walk rates remain in the single digits.

He swings at pitches outside of the zone around 30 percent of the time year after year, which is pretty much in the middle of the pack for players who get at least 200 plate appearances. Placed next to his towering strikeout rate, it would seem to indicate issues making contact inside the zone. That’s backed up by the data; his Z-Contact is just 70.4 percent, and reached an abyssal low of 61.2 percent in 2021. As a bit of perspective, Joey Gallo had the lowest Z-Contact rate among players with 200 appearances on 2023, clocking in at 70.9 percent. That’s more than a bit surprising for a player Scott Harris is willing to try out after gearing his team to “dominate the strike zone” throughout his first year in charge.

He’s never quite been able to recapture the magic of his first season. After mixed but generally positive results with the parent club 2022, Milwaukee let Hiura simmer in Triple-A for the entirety of 2023 before non-tendering him this offseason. Credit to the man, he did the best with the hand he was dealt and mopped the floor with high minors pitching. In 84 games, he hit for a 137 wRC+ while dropping his strikeout rate to a manageable 24.5 percent.

Additionally, the Statcast measurables indicate that Hiura has always been able to tap into significant power, even during the darkest moments of his career. He’s floated around a 15 percent barrel rate every year he’s been in the majors, which is an excellent mark. In every year except 2020, his average exit velocity has been over 90 mph. And in his most recent run in the MLB, he managed a 45 percent hard hit rate, which was around the 80th percentile.

It stands to reason that the Tigers are going to give Hiura every chance to earn a place with the team during spring training. The 40-man choices have gotten harder, but if Hiura looks the part of a useful bench bat, room can be made for him. He has extensive professional experience at first and second base and has dabbled a bit in left field as well. His poor arm strength and slow feet make him troublesome to fit in on defense, but a bit of offensive punch and a bit of positional versatility make for a decent depth player under AJ Hinch.

Additionally (and I hesitate to even write these words for fear of invoking the cruel gods of baseball) if Colt Keith gets hurt during spring training, Hiura could be a passable backup while Detroit’s expected second baseman sits on ice. It’s far from the idea outcome, but the infield depth looks a lot better with Hiura in the mix alongside Ryan Kreidler and Andre Lipcius to plug a hole.

Something to watch out for is a potential opt-out if Hiura doesn’t come north as part of the 26-man roster. To be clear, it wasn’t reported along with the initial contract details. However, it’s very common for deals struck in the 11th hour of the offseason to include opt outs that can be triggered if the player isn’t in the majors by on Opening Day or sometime around June 1st. Furthermore, such clauses often go unreported until they’ve been used. If he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster, no doubt the Tigers would love to stash him in Toledo in case of emergency, but odds are good he’ll have the option to look elsewhere for a major league gig.

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