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Mikie Mahtook improves the Tigers’ center field depth

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The former first round pick never lived up to the hype, but he still has plenty to offer.

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Detroit Tigers acquired a new center fielder from the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday. While he won’t wow anyone, Mikie Mahtook is a nice addition to the roster. He gives the Tigers another plausible weak side of a center field platoon, and the slim possibility of more. The move doesn’t really get the Tigers close to being set in centerfield, but Mahtook is a quality pickup with versatility.

He also illustrates the possibilities that tend to arise as teams make their roster decisions before the regular season gets underway. For teams with one real weakness like the Tigers, options to shore up those positions will make themselves available to teams in no position to be too picky.

Who is he?

Mahtook was a star high school quarterback as well as a baseball player. The Louisiana native passed on the draft out of high school to attend LSU as an outfielder. He was an SEC standout for the Tigers, on a team that also featured current Tigers’ prospect JaCoby Jones. In 2011, Mahtook led the SEC in batting average and on-base percentage en route to being named a first team All-American by Baseball America. He was drafted by the Rays with the 31st overall pick of the 2011 MLB draft.

The right-hand hitting Mahtook was quickly installed as one of the Rays’ top prospects, checking in at No. 7 in 2012 according to Scout.com. At the time, MLB.com had Mahtook ranked the 96th prospect in the game overall. John Sickels of Minor League Ball was a fan, ranking him sixth in the Rays’ system, while expressing surprise that Mahtook had fallen so late in the first round.

Good career start in the Arizona Fall League but everyone hits there. Grade could go higher once he faces better pitching. Strong across-the-board tools and really blossomed as a hitter the last two seasons at LSU. Still can't believe he lasted to the end of the first round.

Baseball America was similarly high on Mahtook’s potential. However, they did express reservations about Mahtook’s speed as related to playing center field.

Mahtook plays baseball with a football mentality and possesses the power/speed combination to make an impact in the majors. Employing a deep crouch in his stance, he makes consistent hard contact and drives the ball well to all fields.

He's a slightly above-average runner who played center field in two of his three seasons at LSU, though he may be limited to left field if he loses a step once his body fully matures.

He moved steadily through the lower levels of the Rays’ system over the next few seasons until he reached Triple-A Durham in 2014. At that point, Mahtook still looked like a very good prospect making steady gains in his abilities. Across 550 plate appearances of International League play, he posted an .820 OPS with a solid walk rate, though with too much swing-and-miss in his game.

In 2015, Mahtook may have finally reached his endpoint as a prospect. He enjoyed several brief call-ups to the Rays during the season, but struggled in Triple-A, where he regressed to a .670 OPS while seeing his walk rate decline. Sickels noted that the proximity of the major leagues may have messed with Mahtook’s head to a degree.

International League observers noted that Mahtook looked like he was "playing tight," trying too hard to slug his way back into the majors. When he came back to Tampa in September and was given a chance to play regularly, he relaxed and hit the snot out of the ball for a month, batting .353/.397/.706 over 68 at-bats.

It bears noting that while those major league numbers were hugely inflated by good luck, Mahtook did post 1.8 fWAR across just 196 plate appearances in 2015. He also cracked nine home runs in that brief exposure to major league pitching. Both DRS and UZR have Mahtook as an average or slightly better center fielder, but we’re only talking about 242 measurable innings at the position. Any defensive numbers are full of noise in that small of a sample.

Mahtook’s numbers in 2016 were good at Triple-A, but terrible in his stint with the Rays. He was hit by a pitch in June, fracturing his left hand, and missed the better part of the summer. He returned and started for the Rays in August and September, getting reps in all three outfield positions. His numbers at the plate were terrible, but considering his injury, those should be taken with a serious grain of salt as well.

What should we expect?

Mahtook is another JaCoby Jones type with more polish and less raw power/speed potential. Mahtook strikes out too much for a guy with a below average ability to draw walks. He has handled center field capably for the Rays, but he is likely to be average at best going forward. In short, he’s the kind of in-betweener who typically ends up a utility outfielder or a lefty-mashing platoon player. He lacks the elite speed to be a plus centerfielder, and he doesn’t have the power, nor the splits, to survive as a full-time corner outfielder either.

The fact that the Rays were willing to let Mahtook go for such a light return shouldn’t be held against him. With the signing of Colby Rasmus and trade for Mallex Smith, the Rays were facing a bit of a roster crunch in the outfield. Mahtook does have an option remaining, which is good for the Tigers, but also indicates that the Rays basically gave up on him. Of course, they have Kevin Kiermaier and Mallex Smith. The Tigers’ needs are quite different.

It’s hard to take much from Mahtook’s injury-hampered 2016, so we’ll let FanGraphs’ Dan Farnsworth have the final word from his 2016 Rays preview.

He’s more likely to settle in as an average hit tool and below-average game-power hitter — though facing more left-handers or getting more pitches up in the zone will boost his numbers dramatically. He has a fairly level, direct swing, relying more on his raw strength than natural lift to drive the ball. He’s at least average defensively with above-average base-running potential, making him an excellent all-around player who could be valuable in a platoon role or even a low-end starter.

Where does this move leave the Tigers in regard to center field?

The trade doesn’t fundamentally alter the Tigers’ calculus in center field. Acquiring Mahtook insures that the Tigers can give Jones more development time. Mahtook can credibly play center field against left-handed pitching, and is capable of doing pretty well in the right circumstances. While he’s regarded as a bust based on his former first-round pick status, he should be a useful piece for Detroit. Maybe some of that potential is still there to be unlocked with a regular role.

He also represents the possibility that the Tigers may still find someone better than Tyler Collins to handle the strong side of the platoon. There are several teams out there with a plethora of outfielders to decide on. It’s more difficult to find a left-handed hitter of Mahtook’s ability. If the Tigers can manage it, they will be in solid, if uninspiring shape in center field.