2024 Player Preview: Parker Meadows looks ready to seize the leadoff spot

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It seems appropriate to dive into Tigers position player previews with the man who should be leading off the lineup most nights. Center fielder Parker Meadows may be dropped down the lineup against tough lefty starters, but AJ Hinch clearly likes him as a leadoff hitter. With only 37 games of MLB experience, the 24-year-old will need to prove he can handle the adjustments the league will be throwing at him in 2024, but he’s going to get plenty of chances.

The error bars in a player like Meadows remain a lot wider than most. His physical tools are pretty eye-popping. If he can foil their attempts to find and exploit weaknesses, Meadows has the power and speed to blossom into the first good everyday centerfielder since the days of Curtis Granderson and Austin Jackson in recent Tigers history. Even if that doesn’t quite happen, his game-changing defense and speed give him a solid enough floor to be a solid major league player for years to come. But he does have enough weaknesses as a hitter than it’s no certain thing that he can stick as an everyday player, particularly as a leadoff hitter getting the most plate appearances on the team.

Those defensive skills have never been in doubt, as he was projected to be a natural centerfielder back in his 2018 draft year. Meadows played about a quarter of the 2023 season in the majors and recorded four Outs Above Average (OAA) last year. That’s a small sample size, but 16 OAA over a full season would rank him at the top of the CF leaderboard with names like Kevin Kiermaier and Luis Roberts Jr.

Meadows runs like a gazelle and has always had outstanding closing speed in the outfield. He hasn’t always been that quick off the mark, but he’s worked on his jumps and quickness this offseason and its scary to think that his defense and baserunning may still be improving.

His speed should allow him to steal quite often, he stole 8 bases in his late-season callup, good for about 30 extrapolated over a full season. So far it all sounds pretty good, right? Elite defense, a 30 SB season, and natural power, why isn’t he a slam dunk leadoff hitter? ESPN’s Kyle McDaniels went so far as to put him at #45 on his top 100 prospects list for 2024. Well, it comes down to the almighty hit tool, which is still the biggest question mark for most projections and evaluators in his case.

Ever since he was drafted, the part of his game people didn’t love was his swing. His 6’5” frame and lanky build gave him plenty of power but those long levers combined with a hitch in his motion kept him from getting to his power. He struggled to handle better velocity and just didn’t have the batspeed to cover multiple pitches and still drive the ball with any regularity. He didn’t strikeout much, and has always had solid zone discipline, but he made a living in A-ball by spraying pretty soft contact around the diamond, an approach that rarely is translatable to major league pitching.

The raw power developing was never really in question, but for several seasons in A-ball Meadows struggled to do much damage and relied on his wheels for a lot of his offensive production. Considering the Tiger’s poor track record of developing hitters at the time and when he struggled in 2019, and 2021 after a lost COVID season, people were quickly starting to throw him in with Derek Hill as another toolsy center field prospect who never developed. Then the Tigers hired Kenny Graham and Ryan Garko to overhaul their player development system in 2021 and 2022 and finally Meadows’ career trajectory rapidly changed for the better.

The Tigers got him to shorten his swing and eliminate his hitch, and calmed down his leg kick to a toe tap. Meadows has also added to his overall strength and athleticism, finally filling out that 6’5” frame without losing any speed in the process. He was able to simplify and streamline his mechanics to drive more balls in the air without sacrificing his raw power. While still vulnerable to well located breaking balls and changeups, he became a much better fastball hitter and one could still crush his share of hangers. All these elements can together in a nice breakout year in 2022 at AA Erie when he hit 20 home runs in 127 games.

A promotion to Toledo in 2023 brought refinements more than another real breakout campaign, but while he never took the world by storm with the Mud Hens, by mid summer he was finally starting to get consideration as a top 100 prospect and one of the best defensive center fielders in the minor leagues anywhere. He ultimately got his call-up to the majors in late August. He handled it reasonably well at the plate, played excellent defense, added some speed on the bases, and now he’s having a very good spring and based on spring lineups he’s going to be their leadoff hitter most nights and will have the chance to earn Hinch’s trust in the role. Signs continue to be somewhat positive for Parker Meadows.

Still, while the Tigers helped him iron out some fatal flaws in his mechanics, it wasn’t a cure-all. He still has some weaknesses he’ll have to overcome before opposing pitchers exploit them to death. He shows impressive plate discipline out of the zone, and in particular he carries reverse splits for on-base and average, but he had almost no power against left-handed pitchers. That wasn’t really a big problem for him in the minor leagues, so we’ll have to see how the Tigers view it. He may be pinch-hit for against left-handed relievers, but the defensive ability makes it hard to take him out of the lineup. We’ll see by how often the Tigers start Meadows against a left-handed how much of an issue they actually think it is.

He has a good eye for the zone, as his whiff rate and swing rates outside of the zone are above average. He isn’t chasing pitcher’s pitches too much though he does sometimes work his way into bad counts. Meadows always posted good strikeout and walk rates in the minors as well. He just never did much damage until he made those 2021-2022 adjustments. But while he won’t chase wildly, he remains pretty vulnerable to well located breaking balls and changeups, and will get himself out on weak contact even when he’s not swinging and missing. With Meadows it’s always a question of whether he crushes enough fastballs and hangers to balance out the whiffs and soft contact.

When he reached Triple-A the Tigers encouraged him to become more aggressive earlier in counts and try to hunt fastballs, while going back to being hyper-disciplined later in counts. That’s a tricky balance to strike, particularly while adjusting to more experienced pitchers, and his strikeout rate jumped from 18% in AA to 25% in AAA. He still hit for average power, but his hard-hit rates showed he still has work to do to consistently square up heaters in the zone, which he admitted he is working to fix.

In Meadows’ favor is the fact that while his strikeout rates have climbed into the mid-20 percent range over the last year, he’s still showing some power. He also continues to walk a lot and is developing into a terror on the basepaths. With the pitch clock and throw over rules, bigger bases, and now the inability of fielders to block the base with their leg, Meadows has an opportunity to wreak havoc if he can just build on his .331 on-base percentage from his Tigers debut a little more.

On Friday, Meadows showed right out of the box why he’s such a problem. The bunt in the clip below is nice, but it’s the borderline elite speed even down the line that makes him such an intriguing player. Not too many have that speed combined with the defensive instincts, and then combine that with pretty good zone discipline and the potential for plus power. Meadows may already be what he is as a hitter, but like most larger framed players, it was always projected that he’d take time to grow into his full physical prime. Still only 24 years old, there’s still enormous upside for Parker Meadows, and a set of tools that give him a pretty rock solid floor as at least a solid everyday outfielder.

Most projection systems remain conservative, projecting him for a below-average year at the plate with most outlets projecting him at 82 to 92 wRC+. His defense largely carries his projected 1.5 to 1.7 fWAR value, which is still a pretty solid floor and feels quite safe in my opinion. Yet the lack of offense has him projected to steal about 20 bases at most and hit under 15 home runs while only getting on base at a .300 clip. That won’t quite cut it if he wants to be the unquestioned leadoff hitter the Tigers want him to be if the Tigers have their eyes set on winning the division this year.

Yet for all the lingering doubts about Meadows as a hitter, consider that in 2022 and 2023, he took about a month and a half to get settled into his new league and then he caught fire and didn’t look back. There was some prospect fatigue over the years with Meadows that has led some to underestimate his potential. He’s grown a lot as a hitter over the past two seasons, and still looks like he’s getting better.

Tiger fans have seen a similar situation play out from Spencer Torkelson, as it took him a while to adjust to MLB pitching and when he finally made the right adjustments everything started to click. Meadows was only in the majors last year for about the same amount of time it has taken to adjust to his previous levels, and he showed good improvement in his last 50 PAs.

Because of this, I‘m going to take an optimistic approach for Meadows this season. His floor is pretty safe so he should get plenty of opportunities to work on his skills against major league-caliber pitchers, even if he struggles for a bit and he has to move down further in the batting order. I think the projection systems are being a bit too down on him because they are projecting his BABIP to fall from .300 to about .287 while his strikeouts remain the same and his walks slightly dip.

But his overall line from last year in his small number of appearances seems pretty much in line with his numbers in Triple-A in terms of walks, strikeouts, and balls in play. He didn’t look overwhelmed either last year in his limited action, didn’t look to be getting extremely lucky on his hits, nor does he appear to have an obvious fatal flaw pitchers can exploit at this time. He also has the speed to beat out more hits than most and convert extra bases on what might be routine singles for slower players.

I’m willing to believe he can make the adjustments to get to a point where he’s getting better contact on fastballs in the zone and allowing his natural power to show up in games. Add to that his blistering speed can play up well if he simply can put a few more balls in play. As evidenced in the video above, he doesn’t need to make good contact to get a hit because that kind of speed can be so disruptive. And if his offseason work to get faster off the marks pays any dividends, he’s a threat to end up on second or beyond every time he puts the ball in play.

Overall I think Meadows is pretty good bet to steal 25 bases, hit 18 home runs, and post a wRC+ pretty close to 100. He’ll probably have his struggles, but he’s continued to show he can adapt from level to level, and his physical skills give him more to lean on than the average MLB hitter. A perfectly average year with the bat combined with his speed and defense should make him an above average player in his full rookie season. That’s enough of a spark to keep Parker Meadows in the leadoff spot for the long haul.

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