Detroit Tigers reward Derek Hill by offering opportunity to 'stick' in majors

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When the Detroit Tigers optioned outfielder Derek Hill to Triple-A Toledo during spring training, the organization clarified that their aging prospect — the No. 23 overall pick in the 2014 draft — still wasn't ready for a full-time gig in the big leagues.

Manager AJ Hinch added to the message.

"I told him he's going to play for us, just not out of the chute," Hinch said March 16, when Hill was eliminated from Opening Day roster considerations.

The time is now for Hill's opportunity, as the Tigers aim to find out which players will be key pieces in the future.

Hill, 25, was recalled Thursday from Triple-A Toledo, where he carried the Mud Hens with a .355 batting average in 21 games. Outfielder Victor Reyes, hitting .157 in 27 games, was placed on the 10-day injured list with a left intercostal strain.

"It's kind of been the little stigma over my head that I need to perform a little better with the bat," Hill said Thursday. "I already knew that going into the conference (with Hinch in spring training). It was more staying mentally tough, grinding every single at-bat out in Triple-A, not giving one pitch away. Thank God I didn't."

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Detroit Tigers center fielder Derek Hill (54) catches a fly ball during the second inning of a spring training game  against the Toronto Blue Jays on March 11, 2021, at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Florida.
Detroit Tigers center fielder Derek Hill (54) catches a fly ball during the second inning of a spring training game against the Toronto Blue Jays on March 11, 2021, at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Florida.

The Tigers reached out to Hill on Wednesday morning — an off day before starting a four-game road series with the Chicago White Sox — and told him to pack his bags and catch a flight. There was a chance he was joining the traveling taxi squad. Earlier this season, he was called up as the 27th man for a pair of doubleheaders: April 21 against the Pittsburgh Pirates and April 29 against the White Sox.

The decision was a no-brainer.

"He's swinging the bat arguably as well as he's done his whole career, so we want to get a look at him as a contributor," Hinch said. "He's earned this opportunity. ... When he got here, he had a big smile on his face. I told him he gets to stay for a while."

And the Tigers chose Hill because of his results in Toledo. There were other options: JaCoby Jones, Daz Cameron and Christin Stewart. But those outfielders weren't playing as well as Hill, who had a .417 on-base percentage in 21 games.

He chipped in five doubles, one triple and two home runs, with eight walks and 25 strikeouts, for the Mud Hens this season. As the top defensive outfielder in the farm system, Hill added a handful of highlight-reel catches while stealing four bases without getting caught.

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Amid a seven-year journey in the minors, Hill made his MLB debut in 2020 and has received 12 at-bats in 17 games across parts of two seasons. (For Double-A Erie in 2019, he hit .243 with 147 strikeouts in 120 contests.)

The Tigers seem optimistic that Hill's recent success isn't a fluke.

"He's not in the mode of trying to hit the ball in the air a ton, but he's also just not content touching the ball and hitting the ball on the ground," Hinch said. "The line-drive stroke, combined with the knowledge of a ball from a strike, has created some offensive opportunities for him. I'm looking forward to seeing him continue to do that."

For those offensive improvements, Hill credits his swing changes. He removed unnecessary movements from his approach this offseason with hitting instructor Doug Latta — who also works with catcher Jake Rogers — at the Ball Yard in Northridge, California.

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The next step in his development is consistency.

"You have to be consistent up here," Hill said. "I mean, it's results-based driven up here. It's about the finished product and trying to win games, no matter how you win the games, as long as you win them."

Hill is focused on doing his part in his latest opportunity with the Tigers, even if that means serving as a defensive replacement or a pinch-runner more than being in the starting lineup. But Hinch is always willing to give greater opportunities to deserving candidates.

Regardless of his current role, the 2014 first-round draft pick hopes his contributions force the organization to keep him around for the future.

"The end goal is staying here," Hill said. "Whatever I have to do to stay here, I'm going to do. I can only control what I do on my side, and I'll live with the results."

Hinch added: "I'm really glad that he gets a chance to stick up here."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Tigers reward Derek Hill with opportunity to 'stick' in majors