The Detroit Tigers worst fears were quickly confirmed after Tuesday night’s emphatic victory over the Milwaukee Brewers. JaCoby Jones will miss the rest of the regular season with a fractured bone in his left hand after being hit by a pitch in the eighth inning. In his place, the club will call up centerfielder extraordinaire, Derek Hill, from their alternate training site in Toledo.
The injury cast a cloud over the good-time atmosphere after the team won its sixth straight to pull within a half game of the Toronto Blue Jays for the final American League wild card berth. The Tigers have roared back from a nine game losing streak in mid-August to win three consecutive series and boost their record back over the .500 mark.
Now they’ll have to soldier on without one of the key drivers of their offense.
JaCoby Jones left tonight's game with a left hand fracture.— Tigers PR (@DetroitTigersPR) September 2, 2020
In truth, Jones had slumped after a white-hot start, but still held an excellent 126 weighted runs created mark (wRC+) on the season. Beyond holding down centerfield, Jones generally finds a way to make things happen even when he’s not swinging it to his fullest ability. He sparked a fourth inning rally in last night’s contest by drawing a leadoff walk, stealing second, and taking third on a throwing error. It was hoped that he had another hot streak coming, but the Tigers will now have to reconfigure their outfield and hope others can pick up the slack.
In Jones’ place, minor league centerfielder Derek Hill will hope to contribute with more than his glove. Manager Ron Gardenhire was on the Karsch and Anderson show on Detroit radio station 97.1 the Ticket on Wednesday morning, where he announced Hill’s call-up from Toledo.
Tiger Manager Ron Gardenhire on @971theticketxyt announces former 1st round pick, CF Derek Hill will be called up to replace JaCoby Jones— Karsch and Anderson (@DougAndGator971) September 2, 2020
The 24-year-old Hill was the Tigers’ first round selection out of the high school way back in the 2014 MLB draft. Injuries stalled his development for a few years, and his bat never developed as was hoped, but a healthy Hill has continued to make incremental gains in recent years though the bat remains something short of major-league ready.
His calling card is speed.
Even as he’s gotten bigger and stronger in recent years, Hill retains double-plus speed, making him a serious threat on the basepaths, and a plus defensive outfielder. The muscle has also added a little more home power to his game. He cracked 14 homers in 120 games for the Double-A Erie SeaWolves last season, easily the best power production we’ve seen in his minor league career.
Still, don’t expect too much at the plate. Hill struck out 27.9 percent of the time against Eastern League pitching last season. He’ll take a walk here and there, but he’s still more of a free-swinger, with too much swing-and-miss in his game to consistently handle major league pitching. Manager Ron Gardenhire likes to get call-ups right into the fray, so he may get a start here or there, but his main role will be as a defensive replacement and pinch runner.
Hill has stolen an average of 30 bases a year over the past four seasons. He does have the ability to be a bit of a weapon for the Tigers in that role. Probably the club wll see a few catches to be added to Hill’s impressive minor league highlight reel. Just don’t expect him to replace JaCoby Jones’ production offensively.
The main beneficiary of Jones’ absence is more likely to be Travis Demeritte. The corner outfielder was acquired in the Shane Greene trade with the Atlanta Braves at the 2019 trade deadline. He’s shown flashes of the power and speed that make his toolkit somewhat compelling, but he’s also shown a ton of swing-and-miss as well.
Presumably, Victor Reyes is now the Tigers everyday centerfielder. Demeritte will probably see most of his time in right field, while Christin Stewart and Jorge Bonifacio platoon in left field. Hill may get a start here or there, but for the most part fans can expect to see him inserted as a pinch runner or defensive replacement. In that role, he has the ability to affect a game and possibly prove more valuable than expected, without being exposed too much at the plate.