After a very tough start to the 2023 season, infielder Nick Maton was optioned to Triple-A Toledo after Sunday’s loss to the Minnesota Twins. The Tigers dropped 5 1⁄2 games back in the divisional race and without a major reversal in fortunes soon, this weekend series against the AL Central leaders could end up marking the point where the club’s outsider hopes for the 2023 season finally failed entirely.
The schedule eases up after their four-game road set against the Texas Rangers, but you can bet teams like the Colorado Rockies and the Oakland Athletics feel the same way about having the Tigers on the schedule. Either way, the decision to option Maton also heralds a season of change to come from now until the trade deadline. The Tigers are due for a busy time with a host of players returning from the injured list, many 40 man roster moves to make, as well as their first draft under Scott Harris and a crucial trading season. But first things first, there has to be a corresponding move on Monday for Nick Maton.
For the 26-year-old infielder, a rough first half finally reached its nadir as his offensive issues started really bleeding into his defense. An uncharged error on Saturday and then a pair of wild throws in Sunday’s contest finally signaled the end, at least for now. For his part, Maton said all the right things and obviously knew this was coming without major improvements.
Nick Maton said getting demoted to Triple-A Toledo was "probably the move that needed to happen."— Evan Petzold (@EvanPetzold) June 25, 2023
Maton: "I've struggled a lot. I know the player I can be. Everyone knows the player I can be. Maybe this will help me out. I'm not going to sulk. I'm going to get to work." #Tigers
A couple of things kept Maton afloat to this point. Most obviously, he’s a rare left-handed bat in a lineup that is currently running rather short in that department with Riley Greene and Akil Baddoo out of action. Of course, we also saw some home run power earlier this season when Maton was going better in April. As he faded in May, his high walk rate meant that until recently he was still putting up a decent on base percentage, lending some credence to the idea that he could pull out of his offensive tailspin.
Unfortunately that hasn’t come to pass. June was a disaster for him and he now has to try and figure it out with what seems likely to be an extended stay in Toledo. The problem for the Tigers at the moment is how to replace him.
Calling up third baseman Tyler Nevin might be a reasonable idea with the Tigers set to face back-to-back southpaw starters in the form of Andrew Heaney and Martin Perez for the Texas Rangers. But even without Nevin, they still have no shortage of mediocre right-handed hitting third basemen to choose from. The glaring lack of a left-handed stick with some threat beyond Kerry Carpenter and Zack McKinstry remains a key weakness in a lineup already stacked with sub-par hitters.
It doesn’t really matter what position they play, the Tigers really need a spark offensively and they can’t be real picky about where they look for it. One way or the other, someone is getting called up to take Maton’s spot, and that could also be more of a rotating cast of characters based on matchup rather than just plucking the next name out of the 40-man roster until Greene and Baddoo return. Still, one would think the Tigers might want a left-handed hitter to add to their lineup, and just such a player exists just down the road from Detroit.
Why not Parker Meadows?
The short term answer could be top outfield prospect Parker Meadows. Scott Harris, and the San Francisco Giants generally, have a reputation for slow-playing prospect promotions but that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in Meadows’ case. He’s 23 and has been in pro ball since the Tigers drafted him with the first pick in the second round back in 2018. Meadows has over 1900 pro plate appearances and is on the 40-man roster already. Worrying about his service time, when the earliest he could reach free agency is age 30, doesn’t make any sense.
So far, Meadows is having a similar year to his breakout 2022 campaign in Double-A. After years of stagnation under the Tigers’ old development group, the arrival of Vice-President of Player Development, Ryan Garko, and the changes in player development staff which followed, seemed catalyst for Meadows to finally make some serious adjustments prior to the 2022 season. He tried to simplify his swing and put a lot of time training to improve his batspeed and approach. After a solid but unspectacular first two months, Meadows caught fire for the Erie SeaWolves last June and raked the rest of the year. He hit 14 homers in his final 85 games with impressive strikeout to walk rates.
We may be seeing the beginning of the same pattern playing out at the Triple-A level. After a solid start in April and May for the Toledo Mud Hens, Meadows currently holds a .926 OPS with three home runs, two triples, and nine doubles in 22 games in June. He’s also in the midst of a 15 game hit streak.
Overall the center fielder has an .872 OPS against left-handed pitching on the year. He’s batting .289 with four of his nine home runs coming against southpaws despite only facing them about a quarter of his plate appearances. Of course that last bit perhaps doesn’t matter that much as the Tigers are playing platoon matchups like mad this season, but it was a goal of Meadows’ this year and so far he’s made it happen.
One way or the other, Meadows is almost certainly going to play in Detroit this summer. It would feel like a demotion from his perspective not to get a decent look at the majors at some point unless he’s really struggling. The Tigers likely just want to call him up for good when they do it, rather than giving him a look for a week or two and then using his first option to send him down until say, August or September once Greene and Baddoo return to the lineup.
Personally I like the idea of calling him up in the next week and giving him his first look while he’s seeing the ball well and doing some damage. There’s a built in parachute on the plan should he struggle by simply swapping him out when Riley Greene or Akil Baddoo return. “Hey kid, we really like you and you did fine, but this was always the plan. Don’t worry about it.” But if he’s productive, there’s no reason for the Tigers to bother sending him back down in July anyway.
The Tigers have to do what is best for Parker Meadows here, and we’re not going to pretend that he’s going to come up and do a ton of damage. The Tigers could certainly catch a hot stretch from him, but he’s got his flaws as a hitter too. But he’s a quality center fielder who can hold his own defensively, he hits left-handed, and he has some power to offer. He’s also on the kind of a roll you want to see when you’re promoting a player to the majors. Meanwhile Tyler Nevin has been scuffling over the past week. With a certain left-handed hitting center fielder on the mend from a stress reaction, it isn’t much of a vote of confidence in Meadows at this point if he’s not the guy getting the call as the club’s top outfield prospect right down I-75 in Toledo.
Beyond Meadows and Nevin, there frankly aren’t many options. The Tigers seem in no hurry to move Colt Keith along. Justyn-Henry Malloy is playing corner outfield now but needs work out there. He’s also cooled significantly after a strong start in April and May. Andre Lipcius could be a decent utility player but Andy Ibáñez is doing the same things more effectively. Calling up Meadows moves Zack McKinstry back to the infield while improving the center field defense as a tandem with Jake Marisnick, and puts a left-handed bat back in the lineup in Maton’s absence.
It’s possible that Akil Baddoo will be ready for a quick rehab assignment soon. With luck, Riley Greene won’t be too far behind them, but from now until the All-Star break, it feels like neither is likely to return. In which case, just call up Parker Meadows guys. The timing and the need are both a pretty good fit right now. It’ll be a little discouraging if they don’t think he’s ready for a short assignment until the Tigers start getting some help back in the outfield and in the left-handed batter’s box.