Generally speaking, the best prep baseball players in the country are selected in the first and second rounds of the major league draft. Other top talents who haven’t quite earned that kind of investment from teams typically head to college in the hopes of improving their draft stock. So it was notable when the Detroit Tigers selected prep outfielder Kingston Liniak with the first pick in the fourth round of the 2018 amateur draft.
While Liniak was too raw for teams to risk a pick in the first few rounds, his blend of youth, athleticism, and power potential made him an attractive option the Tigers couldn’t pass up. All those attributes have been on display in his first year as a professional. We’re certainly interested, but in many ways, the past year has been more about catching him up on development time than expecting much in the way of breakout progress.
Liniak hails from San Marcos, California and played his high school ball at Mission Hills High School. He stands a rangy 6’2 and is listed at 170 pounds. His father and uncle both played in the minor leagues, with his uncle topping out with a cup of coffee with the Chicago Cubs, so there’s a bit of a baseball pedigree here.
Liniak missed his junior season with a broken hand and then returned with an impressive senior year that caught some attention. A lack of polish and concerns about his swing and overall feel for hitting kept him from going a round or two earlier. The Tigers went well over slot in their offer, and were able to convince him to forego a commitment to the University of San Diego.
Liniak’s strengths are pretty easily defined. He can run and he has the frame to eventually hit for at least average power. Liniak doesn’t have a great first step, but he tracks balls well and has plus speed once he’s underway. With reps and refinement, the potential for a solid defensive center fielder are all here, though he also possesses a strong throwing arm that will serve him well in a corner if added muscle leads to greater power at the plate but diminished speed. Liniak also has solid bat speed for his age and size, and has shown flashes of his power potential and solid plate discipline for his experience level.
Quite honestly, his best attribute right now is his youth and experience. He missed some development time with the lost junior season in high school, and is rightly regarded as a long-term project. The Tigers bet on the raw tools and the lack of experience as selling points, but a rapid progression was never thought to be a likely outcome.
There are certainly weaknesses in Liniak’s swing, but it’s also likely that things will smooth out as he improves his upper body strength. He’ll take some ugly swings, and his load phase is long and ungainly. Essentially, he cheats a bit to generate power in ways that would be easily exploited by better pitchers. With more muscle and experience, his bat speed and barrel control should improve. It’s just a long road ahead. Thus far he’s made some modest improvements and held his own out of the leadoff spot in over the past month for the Connecticut Tigers.
Liniak and the Tigers are also focusing on the mental side of his game. As Liniak told Craig Forde of MiLB.com, learning to maintain focus and discipline for nine innings, and working on driving the ball to all fields are his keys to a successful season.
“My main goal this year is to mentally be prepared all nine innings,” the 30th-ranked Detroit prospect explained. “On the physical side, my goal is to hit most of the balls hard the other way. I have kept a log in my phone about how many hard-hit balls I have the other way. I want it to be more than 60% of my balls in play -- I want them to be hard line drives the other way.”
So far, the Tigers have taken it slowly with Liniak, and rightly so. He stayed in extended spring training, working on his swing and getting reps in practice games until they gave him his first assignment in early June. That assignment, to Class-A West Michigan, was short-lived as Liniak scuffled with just one hit in six games but it should be regarded as little more than a warm-up before the New York-Penn League opened play.
His tools are a step down from the likes of Parker Meadows, for example, but there is enough there, combined with his inexperience, to bear with him until next year when we’ll hope to see some progress at the Class-A level.
Right now, Liniak should be pretty immune to expectations. We’d hesitate to say that the past year doesn’t matter at all, but really, it was mostly about sanding off some of the rough edges. Substantial progress shouldn’t really be hoped for until he gets another season’s work in the weight room under his belt. He may yet work his way back to West Michigan this season, but hold off on expecting any leaps in performance until next season when he should spend the year in Class A-ball, and the real work of becoming a professional hitter begins.