College position players are among the lowest-risk prospects a team can find on draft day. It’s why the very best college bats are taken off the board so early, and why the Detroit Tigers find themselves in an enviable place for June’s upcoming MLB draft. College hitters have had three (or more) years to develop against advanced competition, and those worth their salt usually progress quickly through the minor leagues.
That was the hope for Kody Clemens after the Tigers took him in the third round of the 2018 MLB draft. The 6’1 second baseman had enjoyed a breakout season with the Texas Longhorns, hitting 24 home runs, and Detroit was banking on that power surge sticking around as he progressed through the pro ranks. He hit well enough at Single-A West Michigan in his draft year — .302/.387/.477 with 16 extra-base hits in 41 games — for us to hope that big things were to come in his first full season of professional ball.
Unfortunately, that did not come to pass. Clemens got off to a slow start with High-A Lakeland last year, and stumbled again during the summer months. He was eventually promoted to Double-A Erie to close out the year, but hit below the Mendoza line in a handful of games for the SeaWolves.
The jump to playing full-time can be tough, though. We saw righthander Alex Faedo take a major step forward after a rough first season in the minors, and history is undoubtedly littered with others who made a similar jump in year two. Will we see Clemens added to those ranks? Or will his shortcomings prevent him from establishing himself as one of the better prospects in the Tigers system?
The son of seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens, Kody was originally drafted by the Houston Astros in 2015. He decided to go to college instead, and started for three years at the University of Texas. He did not hit well in his first two seasons, however, hitting .241 with little power as a freshman and sophomore. His game took a huge step forward in his junior season, though; Clemens hit a robust .351/.444/.726 with 24 home runs and 72 RBI, and was named the Big 12 Player of the Year, a Golden Spikes finalist, and a unanimous first-team All-American.
Clemens transitioned to pro ball after the Tigers made him the 79th overall pick in the 2018 draft, a bit higher than where many expected him to land (he was the No. 179 prospect on MLB Pipeline’s pre-draft rankings). However, he handled an aggressive placement well, hitting .302/.387.,477 with 10 doubles and four home runs in 41 games for the Single-A West Michigan Whitecaps. Clemens struggled in a late-season promotion to High-A Lakeland, and again at that same level in April 2019. He followed that sluggish start up with an .891 OPS in May, but hit .245/.316/.399 in 66 games for the Flying Tigers from June 1 onward before a mid-August promotion to Double-A Erie to close out the season.
Clemens’ carrying tool is — or should be, at least — his power from the left side of the plate. He didn’t flash much pop in his first two years at Texas, but a 24-homer season in his junior year coupled with some decent returns in his first action in pro ball suggests that there is enough in his 6’1 frame to produce average power at the big league level. While 15-20 home run pop* may not be terribly impressive for a first baseman or corner outfielder, it’s an above-average trait for a middle infielder, even if the actual grades don’t echo that. Both MLB Pipeline and FanGraphs gave him average (50) grades for his raw power last year, with Pipeline going into a bit more detail.
Clemens stands out for his left-handed power as well as the gritty makeup that enables him to get the most out of his otherwise average tools and skills. He worked to get stronger and to turn on and pull more pitches, increasing his game power without sacrificing his ability to control the strike zone and grind out quality at-bats. The power output is new, as Clemens totaled just 10 home runs in his first two years at Texas before erupting as a junior, though scouts do believe he could be a .260 hitter who hits 20 homers annually when all is said and done.
Clemens is also a capable fielder, though one limited to second base because of an average arm. His raw tools as a defender are widely considered fringe-average (or a hair worse), but he gets absolutely everything he can out of his skill set thanks to “tremendous instincts and smart positioning,” per MLB Pipeline. Baseball America added that Clemens “has a natural feel for the game,” which isn’t surprising, given his bloodlines. Those same traits make him a solid baserunner despite below-average speed.
Clemens has also displayed excellent plate discipline at every stop so far. He drew walks at a 13.9 percent clip in his final season at Texas, and then at a 9.6 percent clip at High-A Lakeland last year. Even in a poor end-of-season stop in Double-A, he drew six walks in 54 plate appearances. Baseball America graded Clemens’ hit tool as a plus offering in their 2019 evaluation, but others have labeled him fringe-average or below. While the latter appears to be closer to the truth, especially at present, Clemens helps himself by taking plenty of walks.
*Remember, that’s 15-20 home runs before we take a juiced baseball into account.
Clemens doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses, but his profile might ultimately end up as a lot of “not enough” across the board. His raw power is above-average for a middle infielder, but he has some swing and miss to his game. He struck out 101 times in 469 plate appearances at High-A Lakeland last year, a 21.5 percent rate that is a bit worrying considering the level. At 23, Clemens was a bit old for High-A, and faced similar (if not better) competition in college.
FanGraphs went a bit further in their 2019 evaluation of Clemens, and noted he has trouble with off-speed stuff.
He has a very pretty left-handed swing and can move the bat head around the zone, but Clemens doesn’t always track or diagnose pitches well. He may be a swing-and-miss risk against better pro pitching, but what he does may still be enough at second base, assuming Clemens can stay there.
Clemens may also find himself in a platoon role if he doesn’t shape up against left-handed pitching. The 23-year-old hit a paltry .179/.270/.308 with one home run in 89 plate appearances against left-handed pitching last season. Arguably more worrying than that line is that he wasn’t much better the summer before, with a .573 OPS against lefthanders in Single-A ball.
Projected team: Double-A Erie SeaWolves
Clemens didn’t fare too well in his short stint at Erie last August, hitting .170/.278/.277 in 13 games. Granted, he likely would have landed with the SeaWolves again this spring even if he had torn the cover off the ball, but that sluggish finish all but cemented that he will get another crack at the Double-A level to start 2020.
Should Clemens turn things around at the plate, we could see him earn a midseason promotion to Triple-A Toledo. The Tigers don’t have many infield prospects in Clemens’ way at this point, especially at second base, and the 23-year-old has the raw instincts and intangibles to weather any challenges the organization throws at him. It would take a truly superlative season for him to see any substantial playing time at the major league level in 2020, but a strong year could put him in line for some run with the big club in 2021.