Tigers claim OF T.J. Hopkins, DFA reliever Kolton Ingram

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Tuesday afternoon, the Tigers announced they had claimed outfielder T.J. Hopkins off waivers from the San Francisco Giants. In a corresponding move, left handed reliever Kolton Ingram has been placed on waivers to make room on the 40 man roster.

Hopkins was a 2019 ninth draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds and signed for just $17,500. After a good-not-great start to his career, he found his groove in 2023 and hit .308/.411/.514 with 16 homers in 94 Triple-A games. That roaring performance earned him a midsummer debut, after which he played a total of 25 big league games. Things went poorly for him in the majors; Hopkins hit .171 and failed to get even one extra base hit while pitchers rung him up almost constantly.

Ultimately, he was squeezed out of the youth movement in Cincinnati. It’s not entirely surprising that Reds pulled the plug on Hopkins — he’s entering his age-27 season and the work he put on tape last year doesn’t exactly engender confidence. Nonetheless, the Giants were intrigued. They skipped the line, and instead of letting Hopkins go to waivers, simply traded some cash to get their own in-house eyes on him. Just two months later, San Francisco has cut Hopkins in favor of utilityman Otto Lopez.

Maybe the Giants thought the outfielder would slip through the cracks at this late stage of roster construction, but the Scott Harris-led Tigers never sleep.

Peruse the Statcast measurables for Detroit’s new depth piece and what stands out immediately is how fast he is. Hopkins was measured with an 89th percentile sprint speed, which is one of the few metrics immune to small sample weirdness. His low stolen base numbers misrepresent the fact that this man has wheels. When advancing on the bases, he was far more aggressive than the average player, but that can be explained to a certain extent by how often he was used as a pinch runner.

Of course, there’s also the thunderous high-minors numbers to unravel. I’m not going to pretend that what Hopkins did last season was unimpressive. On the other hand, I’m not sure how ready I am to buy into his breakout. Like breakout Tigers prospect Justice Bigbie, he had his biggest offensive season on the back of a massive BABIP despite an elevated ground ball rate. Hopkins has a number of seasons with a high BABIP, as fast players often do, but .386 is completely unsustainable, especially when hitting 46.8 percent ground balls. My clamoring about Bigbie has fallen entirely on deaf ears, but I can’t help but see problems ahead for both of them.

Additionally, his 14 percent walk rate nearly doubled compared to career norms, but it was the first time he was giving pitchers a reason to fear his bat and pitch him with any caution. Credit is due for being willing to take what was give him, but the question lingers in my mind whether it was a feature or a bug of Hopkins’ increased offensive output. If he hasn’t been getting lucky on his batted ball results, would he have been afforded the opportunity to take so many free passes? Without literally reading his mind, it’s all but impossible to tell how much his approach has changed when there are other mitigating factors in play.

Obviously, no one is expecting that Hopkins will be a .300/.400/.500 hitter at the highest level and I’m not arguing against that point. I just can’t help but wonder whether there would be so much interest in him if he had not been the beneficiary of favorable batted ball results. Then again, I could just be overthinking it all. Guys with power and speed get lots of chances, and Hopkins has unmistakable upside due to his physicality.

Hopkins has seen innings at all three outfield positions in his professional career and split his major league time almost equally between left and right field. He’s a passable defender in either corner, with plenty or range when he gets underway but perhaps lacking the instincts that would earn him a plus grade with the glove. Unless the Tigers consider him a potential center fielder, unlikely at best, that makes Hopkins a long shot to find himself headed to Comerica with the 26 man roster.

What I’d like to know is exactly how the Tigers intend to fit him in. Riley Greene, Mark Canha, and Kerry Carpenter all require regular playing time in the strength of their offense. Parker Meadows is far and away the best center fielder on roster and he’s going to get ample opportunity to ear his keep at the plate. Akil Baddoo is brings MLB-seasoned depth and utilityman Zack McKinstry is listed as an outfielder on the team site. Justyn-Henry Malloy is now exclusively a left fielder and he’s kicking down the major league door on offense. Even under AJ Hinch, whose game planning more resembles an intricate mosaic than a rigid script, there’s not a rotation that finds at-bats for Hopkins.

So in the end, we’re looking at Hopkins as a low-cost insurance policy against injury. Greene, for instance, is returning from Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing arm. While he supposedly feels like his old self, he could hit a setback in his recovery. Really, should any of the outfielders hit the injured list to start the season, Detroit could feel more comfortable letting Baddoo and Hopkins battle for the fourth outfield job rather than cement McKinstry into a set role or promote Malloy just to bench him. Baddoo has also been the subject of trade speculation all winter. If there’s a minor trade brewing, Hopkins could just supplant Baddoo as the optionable next man up.

The most probable outcome is that Hopkins is just the latest subject of Scott Harris’ dedication to the philosophy of roster churn. Detroit has used the last spot on their 40 man roster to cycle moderately interesting players into the organization and then attempt to stash them in Toledo. That’s what happened to Devin Sweet when Kolton Ingram was claimed from LA, and that’s what happened to Ingram this time around. The Tigers hope to claim these guys, evaluate them, and hopefully retain as many at the Triple-A level as they can slip through waivers themselves.

As for the lefty, Tigers management is almost certainly hoping to push Ingram through waivers unclaimed. Like Hopkins, the team may like them but they’re really just looking for opportunities to evaluate players they find interesting and can hopefully get through waivers. The bullpen is a strength already, but this coaching staff can never have enough arms to play around with. Ingram throws a distinctive cutter — something Director of Pitching Gabe Ribas specializes in — and a quality changeup, but has just enough problems with the fastball that other teams may turn up their nose at him. It’s a low velocity pitch with uninteresting movement, which dooms it to be slapped around on nights when his command is subpar.

We more or less expected Ingram to be cleared off the roster, but if he stays with Detroit, he’ll be on the injury replacement shortlist when one of the more established pitchers inevitably gets dinged up.

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