https://www.gannett-cdn.com/gannett-web/apps/teal/dist/vendor/hls/hls.light.0.12.4.min.require.jshttps://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/sdkloader/ima3.jshttps://www.gannett-cdn.com/gannett-web/apps/teal/dist/vendor/ias/ias-3.5.1.min.jshttps://www.gannett-cdn.com/gannett-web/apps/teal/dist/vendor/adobe/MediaSDK.2.2.0.min.require.jshttps://www.gannett-cdn.com/gannett-web/apps/teal/dist/vendor/comscore/streamsense-18.104.22.168316.min.jsCLOSE Detroit Tigers pitching prospect Matt Manning explains Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, what it’s like to face Miguel Cabrera. Detroit Free Press
TAMPA, Fla. — It’s a long shot.
Detroit Tigers outfielder Akil Baddoo, at the center of the dilemma, knows it. Manager AJ Hinch knows, too. General manager Al Avila understands the track records of Rule 5 draft picks aren’t strong, but he wanted to take a chance on someone with big upside this winter.
So, Avila selected Baddoo — a 22-year-old returning from Tommy John surgery without tasting a drip of experience above High-A in the minor leagues. If he does not stay on the Tigers’ active major-league roster for the entire season, he must be offered back to the Minnesota Twins.
“What we’re hoping is that what we see in spring training is enough,” Avila said in the middle of February. “Kind of like (former Rule 5 draft pick) Victor Reyes, where you know he can play defense, run the bases well, pinch run for somebody and can give you a competitive at-bat.”
WHAT BADDOO BELIEVES: Tigers’ 2020 Rule 5 draft pick Akil Baddoo thinks he can stick with team
SCOUTS EVALUATE: MLB scouts project future for Tigers’ Rule 5 draft pick Akil Baddoo
Detroit Tigers outfielder Akil Baddoo fields fly balls Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021 on the Tiger Town practice fields in Lakeland, Fla. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)
There’s a lot that will go into the decision to keep Baddoo or return him to his old team — from Detroit deciding between keeping 13 or 14 pitchers to the debate of putting five outfield-only players on the roster.
But the most important factor, and what will truly determine what happens next, is Baddoo’s performance. That not only includes his physical attributes. He needs to showcase his mental strength.
“He is very balanced as a human, as a person,” Hinch said Monday. “When you get a kid out of A-ball and get him around big leaguers, you put a little pressure on him by talking about him potentially making you team. It’s always interesting to see how they respond.”
Stepping into the batter’s box Sunday for the Tigers’ first spring training game against the Philadelphia Phillies was a long time coming for Baddoo, an adrenaline rush for him. Because of elbow surgery and last year’s shutdown of the minors, he has not played an official game since May 11, 2019.
“All right, calm down,” Baddoo told himself.
Baddoo drew a four-pitch walk (to drive in a run) in the first inning of Sunday’s contest, then pulled an RBI single to left field in the second inning against seven-year MLB veteran David Hale. He finished 1-for-1 with two RBIs and one walk.
“I was good to go,” he said. “It was just like I was playing baseball again. After the first inning, it felt like home. I was being a ballplayer again.”
Outfielder Akil Baddoo speaks Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, about being selected by Detroit Tigers in the Rule 5 draft and his recovery from elbow surgery. Detroit Free Press
On Feb. 22, Baddoo reported to camp in Lakeland alongside fellow outfielders JaCoby Jones, Robbie Grossman, Derek Hill, Christin Stewart, Daz Cameron, Riley Greene, Jacob Robson and Danny Woodrow. It won’t be long before Victor Reyes and Nomar Mazara — dealing with travel and work visa issues — show up.
They all have a 10-page booklet about outfield drills and positioning given to them by bench coach and outfield instructor George Lombard.
“George makes it fun to come out there each day,” Baddoo said. “I try to listen as much as I can. Once again, he has a ring. AJ Hinch has a ring. Having that around, the whole atmosphere is different. We’re all about winning. That’s our main goal.”
Out of his hands
Scouts say Baddoo will likely be overmatched early on, assuming he makes the big-league team. The Tigers went through that process with Reyes and right-hander Rony Garcia of the 2017 and 2019 Rule 5 drafts, respectively.
The organization held onto both.
“You want to bring the best version of yourself out on the field,” Hinch said. “If you can eliminate the nerves and the tension and the pressure that you put on yourself behind the scenes, you can focus on baseball.”
Detroit Tigers outfielder Akil Baddoo takes batting practice Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, on the Tiger Town practice fields at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida. (Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)
Baddoo aims to be the Tigers’ third Rule 5 draftee to make the team in the last four years.
The Tigers know if Baddoo is removed from the roster, he isn’t likely to clear waivers, considering MLB Pipeline ranks him as the No. 25 prospect in the Tigers’ farm system. A different organization might be willing to claim him and stash him on their roster.
“Looks like a big leaguer,” Hinch said. “Physically, he has matured, as far as strength and things you can do. I’ve been very impressed by his arrival and the first look.”
One game won’t make or break Baddoo’s chances. Positive results through the 29-game Grapefruit League schedule will help him in tough roster conversations between Hinch, Avila and other Tigers evaluators.
But that might not be enough.
Many elements — outside of Baddoo’s mindset and on-field tools — are at play.
“If I think about that stuff, then I’ll be all over the place,” Baddoo said. “I just have to control what I can control and go from there. That’s my mindset, going in each and every day saying, ‘Do whatever you can to prepare yourself.’ That’s what I’m going to do.
“And I’m going to do my best.”