The Detroit Tigers’ 2019 draft class may ultimately be remembered as the best of Al Avila’s tenure as general manager. Sure, much of that has to do with Riley Greene, but the Tigers’ amateur scouting department also landed several outstanding late-round picks in this draft as well. On Wednesday night in Detroit, the latest product of that draft class will arrive in the form of slugger Kerry Carpenter.
We’ve already seen Beau Brieske, taken in the 27th round of the 2019 draft, develop into a decent major league starting pitcher with a good chance of establishing himself in a major league rotation. Greene hasn’t taken the world by storm yet but is pretty comfortably holding his own at just 21 years of age and looking like a potential star. Carpenter will be the third from the class to make it when he debuts in the designated hitter slot tonight.
Carpenter has been the object of desire amongst Tigers fans for months as he dominated both upper levels of the minor league system this season. With desperation for a glimpse of hope for the Tigers’ offense peaking, now they’ll finally get a first-hand look at him against major league pitching.
The left-handed hitting 24-year-old mauled Eastern League pitching for three months this season, crushing 22 home runs in 62 games with a 1.005 OPS. Low walk and high strikeout rates kept experienced prospect watchers on the sanguine side, refusing to get excited.
However, since his Triple-A debut back on June 25, Carpenter has slashed his strikeout rate from 27.5 percent to 12.3 percent. His walk rate spiked from 6.1 percent to 12.3 percent. That’s right, he has the same walk and strikeout rates since joining the Mud Hens. Sure, this is flukey, covering only 34 games, but the Tigers wanted him to show better discipline and he’s made it happen. He hasn’t sacrificed any power to do so either, slugging .644 with eight home runs with the Hens.
Pretty hard to argue with that, lengthy prospect pedigree or not. Carpenter has clearly earned the trip to the big leagues, and despite a decided lack of defensive value is doing a solid job convincing the skeptics that the bat could be for real.
Maybe a bit convoluted, but alas...— Austin Drake (@austin_drake) August 10, 2022
Tonight Kerry Carpenter will become the lowest player drafted & signed as outfielder (19th round) by Tigers to also make his MLB debut with Tigers. Basically he overcame the greatest odds of any OF in Tigers draft history.
Carpenter originally hails from Eustis, Florida, a small city about an hour and a half from Lakeland. So perhaps he was born to be a Tiger. The current MLB star from Eustis, however, is actually Kansas City Royals starter Brady Singer. Carpenter will have some work to do to seize the Eustis baseball crown.
Carpenter wasn’t a sought-after prep prospect, instead getting a scholarship to St. John’s River State College near Jacksonville. He raked against junior college pitching for two seasons and was recruited to transfer to Virginia Tech to play in the ACC for his junior year. He performed very well, but as always the slightly obscure track record and very limited defensive utility didn’t capture MLB teams’ attention to the degree the bat seemed to demand. The Tigers were able to land him in the 19th round, and it may start paying dividends soon.
Our old friend and former prospect writer, Kenon Carter, interviewed Carpenter and his coach for a Motor City Bengals piece last year if you’d like more on his background.
Former Viking Kerry Carpenter was called up to the big leagues last night by the Detroit Tigers. Kerry will make his MLB debut tonight vs Cleveland. Kerry played for St. John's River in 2017 and 2018. Congratulations Kerry! Viking Nation is so proud. pic.twitter.com/jeoJRi2tkM— SJR State Baseball (@SJR_BASEBALL) August 10, 2022
What to expect
For Carpenter to get this far is pretty remarkable. Pretty rarely do you see a position player taken in the 19th round reach the major leagues, much less with the Detroit Tigers. However, we doubt young Mr. Carpenter is satisfied. There are many questions for him to answer, and while we wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see him hit the ground running until pitchers adapt to him, the road to being an everyday player for the Tigers is still probably going to be a long one, and uphill all the way.
The key issue is where to fit him in even if the bat proves legit. Carpenter doesn’t run or throw very well and is mediocre even in left field where he’s spent most of his defensive reps. The Tigers haven’t seen fit to work with him at first base, but perhaps that’s a project that will begin should he show enough down the stretch. At least it would give him a little versatility even if Spencer Torkelson is still highly likely to figure things out.
As the old saying goes, if you mash, they’ll find a spot for you. Still, with Miguel Cabrera holding the designated hitter role through the 2023 season when his contract finally ends, finding a regular place with the Tigers is going to be a unique challenge for a bat-only player.
Carpenter is still pretty vulnerable to pitchers with high-end command and good offspeed stuff. You can say the same about plenty of major leaguers, but with all the pressure riding on his bat, those issues will be glaring in his case. He’s not just a mistake hitter, but his mediocre pitch recognition is going to require him to squeeze everything out of the hard contact he’s able to make. If he can do that while developing a stronger two-strike approach to put balls in play in bad counts, he’ll get a lot more playing time in which to hunt for and hopefully crush, the occasional hanger or heater over the middle.
On the plus side, Carpenter doesn’t have strong splits. He’s handled lefties really well this season too. The power has played to the opposite field as well as to the pull side, and he’s spraying line drives and fly balls to all fields with fantastic authority. There’s a lot to like on paper, but we would remind people to keep expectations in check. Scouts are still quite skeptical here, and Carpenter is going to have to continue proving a lot of people wrong if he’s going to carve out a major league career.
Sometimes, players who weren’t initially accorded real prospect status do just get overlooked. The lack of defensive utility is another big factor that has kept Carpenter from getting much notice until very recently. However, it’s not as though he just magically started hitting either. He was a good college hitter, and his eruption this season can perhaps be partially tied to a very interesting source.
Over the offseason, Carpenter worked on his swing with Richard Schenck, the private hitting coach who works most famously with Aaron Judge, as well as Ian Happ and others. Tigers minor league outfielder Jacob Robson apparently suggested Carpenter make a pilgrimage to the hitting instructor in an effort to add more lift and bat speed to his stroke. So far, the results have remained excellent, and remarkably consistent, all season long.
Kerry Carpenter probably isn’t going to satisfy the hopes and dreams of Tigers fans desperate for a huge offensive threat to emerge from the farm system and rescue baseball’s worst offense. But he got here the hard way, and he deserves some patience as he works to exceed expectations once again at the highest level. If everyone can keep their expectations under control and let him work at the major league level for a while, there’s a fair chance he’s got enough to be at least a decent contributor. And maybe, just maybe, much more.