Mar. 15—LAKELAND, Fla. — Be wary of the beasts of March. Minor-league rosters typically get a middle-of-April infusion of spring training warriors who flame out quickly when the real games start.
That's the conventional wisdom, of course. It's gets borne out every year. Mikie Mahtook comes immediately to mind. Daz Cameron from 2019 is an even more recent example, though his flameout came against Triple-A pitching.
But to this point, there's been nothing conventional about the performance of Tigers' Rule 5 outfielder Akil Baddoo thus far this spring. He is hitting .400 (8 for 20), slugging .556 (two doubles, two home runs), has an OPS of 1.356, scored eight runs with seven walks and six strikeouts.
And he's played flawlessly in center field and in both corners.
"March is a terrible time to evaluate," Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. "But it is our only time to get a look specifically at him. His skill set is real. But his calmness about the game is something I've been most impressed by.
"He's coming out of A-ball and he had no (minor-league) year last year. I feel like he's grown up as a man and as a player without playing. And that's very unique."
Because of the vagaries of judging performance in spring training, with veteran pitchers mostly tuning up and not trying to game-plan against specific hitters, the evaluation has to be deeper, more nuanced.
"We have to consider all things," Hinch said. "He's made a nice first impression. The game stuff is outstanding, but his off-the-game stuff, behind the scene stuff, has been incredible. How he's learned, how he's acted, how he's interacted, the maturity he's shown.
"We look at like, is he ready to be a player, that's super important. But the other part is, is he mature enough and ready to be a big-leaguer? So far, he's passed every test."
Hinch is throwing him another test on Tuesday. He is starting in centerfield and batting leadoff against the Yankees' Gerrit Cole.
"Just keep putting challenges in front of him and see where we are," Hinch said.
Talking to Baddoo on Monday, he credits his routine, which he sticks to religiously, from the hot-cold tub in the morning to the relentless cage work from both sides of the plate to his workouts. He credits The Hood ATL, the baseball facility run by Jay Hood, onetime Twins prospect, and his cross-fit trainers back in Atlanta for helping him continue his development through nearly two years without playing the game.
And he also credits Ken Griffey, Jr., Willie Mays and Barry Bonds.
"Really I just watched their videos, picked their brains and really tried to hone in and try to figure out what made them so successful," he said. "I took that and really worked on my mindset. I feel like that is really the key and I tried to really focus on that."
Since being with hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh, though, Baddoo has changed his approach, just in terms of not trying to pull everything.
"I think Coolie would attest to this, but he talks about how you should always be prepared to see the ball," Baddoo said. "Make sure you put your body in position to see the ball and react from there. And try to put good swings on it."
He said he's always had a selective eye at the plate — thus the seven walks already — but he's trying to get himself more in attack-mode.
"I did change my approach, just trying to think up the middle for the most part," he said. "That allows me to put good swings on any pitch that's around the zone."
Case in point: Batting left-handed against the Phillies on Saturday, he got the barrel out and pulled a fastball over the fence inside the right field foul pole. Then on Sunday against the Orioles, also batting left-handed, he kept his hands in on a breaking ball and banged it onto the left field berm.
"I'm just having fun and enjoying the game of baseball," he said. "It's been two years that I've been out of the game (he only played 29 games in 2019 because of an elbow injury). So being able to get back into it, I'm blessed to be out here."
He's created a very happy dilemma for Hinch and general manager Al Avila. As a Rule 5 pick, the Tigers have to carry him on the active roster all season or else offer him back to his former team, the Twins. The Tigers could work out a trade with the Twins at some point, but Baddoo would first have to clear waivers across the league.
"We have to consider whether we're willing to carry five outfielders or do really anything to carry our best guys," Hinch said. "We're not really surprised by this. We took him in the Rule 5 draft for a reason. It's a welcomed problem."
The Tigers have four veteran outfielders in place, two of them they signed as free agents this offseason — Robbie Grossman and Nomar Mazara. They also have JaCoby Jones and Victor Reyes, a Rule 5 success story himself, who both have minor-league options left.
To carry five outfielders, none of whom play the infield, the Tigers would need to carry one less pitcher and at least one less utility player — neither is optimal.
"It's not in my control," Baddoo shrugged. "I just control what I can control and let it happen."