The Detroit Tigers added a shiny new toy to the middle of their lineup this week, acquiring Austin Meadows from the Tampa Bay Rays.
The one-time All-Star (2019) is best known for his big bat, something he flashed early in his career as a former top prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. He was traded to Tampa Bay as part of the blockbuster Chris Archer deal in 2018. He made the All-Star game in his first full season in the American League, slashing .291/.364/.922 with 33 home runs (still a career high) and 89 RBIs.
He struggled in the COVID season, finishing that short season battling an oblique strain that eventually got him shut down in September. However, he bounced back in 2021 by mashing 27 home runs, though his average and on-base percentage dipped. Still, he had a 117 OPS — the second best of his young career.
For now, he’ll slot into the Detroit outfield with Robbie Grossman, Victor Reyes, and Akil Baddoo. Once megaprospect Riley Greene returns from his foot injury this summer, the Tigers will have a loaded four-man outfield.
But with that many cooks in the kitchen, there are bound to be problems, right?
The southpaw situation
But, wait a second — three of those four players are left-handed hitters. Baddoo slashed .214/.278/.523 against southpaws in 2021, and Meadows was just as bad at .198/.270/.563. Then there’s Greene, who hasn’t taken an at-bat in the MLB yet, although he actually torched lefties in the upper minors last year. What is is Tigers’ manager A.J. Hinch going to do when the Tigers are up against a good left-handed pitcher?
Fortunately, it doesn’t look like he’s going to be in that spot often. The AL Central is almost entirely devoid of high-quality lefties outside of the Tigers’ own Eduardo Rodriguez and Tarik Skubal. In fact, Cleveland’s Logan Allen (6.05 FIP in 2021), Kansas City’s Kris Bubic (5.14) and Daniel Lynch (4.82) and Chicago’s Dallas Keuchel (5.23) are the only LHP starters in the division. Minnesota has zero.
That’s obviously not taking into account prospects who could get called up at some point, trades that could happen or potential breakout candidates. But all things considered, the division is staggeringly weak when it comes to left-handed pitchers. If you were wondering why we were so enthusiastic about the deal, you have your answer. The Tigers are going to see a lot of right-handers in the AL Central, and Meadows crushes right-handers, posting a 137 wRC+ against them in 2021.
Things don’t change all that much when expanding the scope to the entire American League, either. The Seattle Mariners boast reigning AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray and Marco Gonzalez. Texas has an uninspiring quintet of options in Martin Perez, Kolby Allard, John King, Taylor Hearn and Jake Latz. The Angels’ Jose Suarez is coming off a decent yet unexciting 2021. Oakland’s only southpaw listed is Cole Irvin now that Sean Manaea has been dealt to the Padres.
Looking eastward, Toronto may have the best stable of lefties in Hyun Jin Ryu and Yusei Kikuchi. The big up and comer is Rays’ southpaw Shane McLanahan, but beyond that, only the Blue Jays are really strong in this regard. The Red Sox has a pair of veterans on the 60-Day IL in Chris Sale and James Paxton to go with 42-year-old Rich Hill. Baltimore’s John Means and New York’s Jordan Montgomery round out the list.
In simpler terms, Detroit’s abundance of left-handed hitters in the outfield isn’t a problem so much as an advantage. There simply aren’t many fearsome starting pitchers throwing from that side of the mound in the American League, and particularly in the AL Central.
Who plays once Greene’s healthy?
Of course, you can’t just start four outfielders. Once Riley Greene’s foot is fully healed and he’s put into the starting lineup — something the Detroit Free Press’ Evan Petzold has already confirmed will happen — that means that at least one of Meadows, Grossman and Baddoo won’t be out there on any given day. What remains uncertain is just how long that will take. Greene is roughly out six to eight weeks, but with a fractured foot, and the need to get mobility and strength back, not to mention his timing at the plate, his actual major league debut could take substantially longer.
Of course, questioning where everyone will play assumes everyone is healthy — certainly not a given — and that the outfield group is performing to expectations. If that’s the case, then congratulations, the Tigers have a great problem on their hands.
In that case, they’ll likely all take turns having off days, whether it means they’re sitting once per week and/or slotting into the DH spot, putting the soon-to-be 39-year-old Miguel Cabrera on the bench. Following the trend of the last three seasons, Cabrera will likely sit out once every five games assuming he stays healthy. That lines up decently with the four-man outfield rotation and if Cabrera isn’t performing, and the Tigers are in contention, perhaps we’ll see him getting some extra days off, with the 3000 hit plateau presumably in the rear view mirror by early May at the latest.
If someone is hurt or goes down with an injury later, then Greene slides into the lineup perfectly and Hinch can slip Victor Reyes and Eric Haase into the outfield as his own leisure. When they do see a left-hander, at least early on, we may see a Grossman, Reyes, Haase outfield, which will be interesting, to put it mildly.
In defense of defense
This will likely be the most problematic of the three issues when it comes to the Meadows-Baddoo-Grossman-Greene quartet.
The only position in which Meadows grades out as an above-average defender is left field, where he registered an 8.7 UZR/150 in 615 2⁄3 innings in 2021. Baddoo’s best position by the same metric is right field, but he only logged 32 2⁄3 innings there last season. His next best is left field (-1.3) and, lastly, center (-5.0). Grossman is a below-average defender at every position for his career, but he was actually the best of the bunch in 2021 with a 7.9 UZR/150 in left field.
So, where does that leave us? Meadows and Grossman both grade out best on the left side. As of April 5, it’s assumed that Grossman will swap to right field, keeping Meadows in left and putting Baddoo, the most athletic of the three, in center. While Baddoo’s numbers weren’t great in center field in 2021, the samples are really too small to take anything from. Baddoo is only entering his second season above A-ball, so while his routes need to improve, there is reason to think he can get better. He obviously has the speed to play the position very well.
Reprieve comes once Greene returns. MLB Pipeline grades Greene’s glove as a 55 out of 80, and when he’s capable of making plays like this, you can see why. This isn’t going to be a very good defensive outfield, but with Greene back out there, the situation will certainly improve overall.
RILEY GREENE IS SUCH A STUD— Ben Verlander (@BenVerlander) March 31, 2022
Take into account the tendencies of Tiger starters, too. Casey Mize gets hitters to put the ball on the ground at a 48.6% clip, Tarik Skubal at 39.3% and Eduardo Rodriguez at 44.9%. Matt Manning forced the ball into the dirt at a 44.7% clip, albeit in limited big league action. Michael Pineda tends to get a lot of fly balls, but overall, the Tigers pitchers should do a pretty good job keeping the ball on the ground.
With the Tigers expected to have a good infield defense anchored by Jeimer Candelario, Javier Baez, Johnathan Schoop and Spencer Torkelson, their pitching staff is still a good fit for the defense they’ll routinely be trotting out.
The problems the Tigers made for themselves by acquiring Austin Meadows aren’t much of an issue at all. And that’s assuming that none of the players named get any better at hitting left-handed pitchers or patrolling the outfield.
With the power and offensive capabilities that Meadows brings to the lineup, GM Al Avila solved more issues that he created — and the Tigers are a better team today than they were before acquiring Meadows. They saw the need for a strong platoon advantage against the heavy doses of right-handers they’ll face this season, and they took decisive action. When Greene returns, they can figure it out from there.
Up next? Opening Day.