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The case for a Parker Meadows call-up

The center-fielder has once again settled in at a new level and started crushing the ball after a slow start. It’s just about time to give him a look.

Washington Nationals v Detroit Tigers Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

When the Detroit Tigers selected an 18-year-old Parker Meadows with the first pick in the second round of the 2018 draft, we were pretty pleased with the idea. The center fielder’s eye-popping potential was obvious, and while it was characterized as a bit of a reach, it was the kind of chance on a prep hitter with huge upside that the club has rarely taken in its history.

Meadows came with plus speed and a lean 6’5” frame that already packed average raw power in high school and promised a lot more to come. His hit tool came into question, both for a long, somewhat ungainly swing, and his vulnerability at the bottom of the zone, and the Tigers were notoriously unable to develop hitters. So there was certainly plenty of risk there, but a year after the teardown, people were pretty willing to see them take a swing.

And then for three years, Meadows wasn’t really any good. After a lackluster full season debut at Low-A West Michigan, things were even less impressive two seasons later coming out of a year of lost reps with the cancellation of the 2020 season. He had enough strike zone discipline to avoid being totally overwhelmed, but he really struggled with velocity and with lefties in particular, and he just didn’t do damage. Certainly not the kind of damage that justifies elevated strikeout rates in A-ball at age 21. Very little had changed in his swing or his approach. He’d added a little muscle and that showed up in the occasional tape measure shot, but otherwise the results were bleak and no one seemed to be getting through with any significant changes.

Enter Ryan Garko as VP of Player Development. The Tigers had finally shown signs of alarm at the progress of their prospects when they hired Kenny Graham in 2020 out of the Milwaukee Brewers organization as Director of Player Development, a role he still holds under Garko. But it wasn’t until the new boss took over from the former VP of Player Development, Dave Littlefield, after the 2021 season that we really started to see signs of a transformation in the way that taught and developed hitters.

Colt Keith was most obvious, having added a lot muscle, worked hard training batspeed and making his swing as compact as possible, and then taking more of a mind set to drive the ball in the air. But Meadow clearly followed a similar path that offseason and in spring camp with numerous new hitting coaches and cohesive development plans, he looked markedly improved, finally. Meadows had cleaned up his swing and trimmed his kick into a toe tap. That quickness gave him a split second more reaction time, and as a result he was driving fastballs for power and less vulnerable to the softer stuff as well.

He started the 2022 season repeating High-A, as the Tigers were a little cautious, but he played only 14 games before he was promoted to Double-A Erie. He didn’t hit the ground running, but once the calendar flipped to June, Meadows suddenly broke out in a big way. He cut his strikeout rate by about seven percent from his High-A mark, started walking more, and crushed 16 homers in 113 games for the SeaWolves.

This didn’t land him on any top 100 prospect lists, as there were still questions about whether he could get to enough power against major league pitching. However, when a player makes major gains in a season, obviously it becomes easier to believe they can continue to improve. Meadows held his own to start the 2023 season with Triple-A Toledo but he wasn’t doing much damage. Yet once again, he caught fire in June and hasn’t stopped mashing the baseball, hitting his system leading 17th home run last night against the Iowa Cubs, the Mud Hens’ 100th game of the season.

Meadows is back to striking out more than he did last year at Double-A, holding a 24.2 strikeout rate and a 10.9 percent walk rate. Those are solid numbers, though you’d expect worse in the major leagues, but the two big positives are that Meadows is getting to his power consistently, and he’s hit left-handed pitching even better than right-handers this season. Once again, he took a little time to adjust to the level of pitching, and then he started doing a lot of damage.

Here’s a little taste from Thursday night’s doubleheader in Iowa.

Parker Meadows still isn’t drawing those 50 future value grades and top 100 status quite yet, but he’s certainly close. The fact that he plays quality defense at a premium position certainly helps his case. Even if Meadows tops out as the .230-.240 hitter with a solid walk rate and 20 home run power and 20 steal potential, as a solid center fielder that’s probably an average and or better major league player even if he gets pinch-hit for against lefties some, a la Kerry Carpenter. The difference being that you want Meadows in there the whole game for his defense.

There is still some debate on Meadows’ defense, but he generally gets average grades and matches up pretty favorably to Riley Greene, as a familiar example. Greene seems to get better jumps at times and has great closing ability, but Meadows isn’t too far off and has the speed and wingspan to make difficult plays look routine.

Of the two key components of great defense, an outfielder’s jumps can be hard to properly evaluate unless you’re seeing the player live every night. On broadcasts, we see how the plays end, now how they start for a defender. So, I’m not going to predict exactly how Statcast (OAA) or Baseball Info Solutions (DRS) will grade him as a major leaguer, but it’s difficult to believe he isn’t at least an average center fielder. You don’t have to set the world on fire with the bat to be an above average player with that defensive profile. If Meadows can just produce roughly league average offensive production, you’ve got a good player.

So it’s getting to be decision time for the Tigers. The 23-year-old Meadows already holds a 40-man roster spot, unlike Justyn-Henry Malloy or Colt Keith, who aren’t Rule 5 eligible until the fall of 2024, and he’s about as ready as he’s going to get. If the Tigers wait until there are 45 days left in the season before a call-up, Meadows will retain rookie eligibility for 2024. The Tigers will probably wait out those two weeks before they do so, but at that point it’s time to see what he can do and give the young outfielder a strong dose of major league pitching, setting him up for his offseason work.

The Tigers have four dedicated outfielders currently: Riley Greene, Kerry Carpenter, Matt Vierling, and Akil Baddoo. Unfortunately, while Baddoo has improved a lot defensively, it just doesn’t look like he’s going to get to enough power to be a strong side platoon player on a quality team without a major overhaul. He needs to try to improve his swing mechanics, and he has two minor league options remaining. He really shouldn’t be standing in Meadows’ way.

His sustained slow start in pro ball has kept prospect evaluators skeptical of his case, but the production over the past 14 months is finally changing minds. Meadows retains some further physical projection, and based on his frame was always thought of as a likely late bloomer rather than a player who would set the minor leagues on fire from the start. That prediction looks better and better. The power and speed combo is finally playing up, and there’s a lot more polish to his overall game than was evident even last year.

Meadows still has work to do, and it wouldn’t be shocking if he struggled early on in the majors, but getting some of that out of the way in August and September would set him up for success in 2024. It would behoove Scott Harris and the Tigers to get a better idea of where Meadows stands before heading into the offseason, and the only way to do that is to put his growth over the past two seasons to the test. Hopefully the Tigers agree.