DETROIT -- Tigers scouting crosschecker James Orr had just moved to Oviedo, Fla, just outside Orlando, when University of Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan told him about a recruit. Riley Greene had committed to the Gators as a freshman, and he was starting to get attention on the national scene.
That’s when the Tigers started tracking the teenage outfielder with a sweet swing. By the time he worked out for general manager Al Avila and other club officials, Detroit was convinced he could be the impact hitter to round out its rebuilding plan with the fifth overall pick in Monday night’s MLB Draft. And O’Sullivan was likely losing a recruit.
“Anybody that's ever seen Riley knows that he's been able to hit,” Orr said. He's hit with power, hit with average. He's got a great track record of hitting, as good as I've seen coming from a high school player.”
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It was the best track record of any high school position player available in this Draft, according to scouting reports. It was good enough to make Greene the Tigers’ first high school position player with a top-five pick since Tony Clark went second overall in 1990.
“Playing for the Tigers has always been a dream,” Greene said, “but my dream is to play professional baseball and I'm going to get a chance to do that now.”
Greene will likely take time to develop, more than the college hitters who went elsewhere among the top selections, but the Tigers believe he’ll be worth the wait when he arrives.
“There’s always a risk in any of these players when you're looking into the future and what they could be, but no more than any other player,” scouting director Scott Pleis said. “Riley's got tremendous tools and potential to be a really good Major League player, and that's the way we looked at it.”
The Tigers, who added Arizona third baseman Nick Quintana with the 47th pick, have known about Greene’s work for a while. The son of a hitting instructor, Greene has a smooth left-handed swing that has been on display in summer showcases and tournaments. He won the Gatorade Player of the Year Award in Florida while batting .422 with eight home runs and 38 runs scored for Hagerty High School in Oviedo.
On the national circuit, Greene helped lead Team USA’s under-18 team to a gold medal in last year’s Pan-American Championships, slugging three home runs and scoring 18 runs.
• 10 things to know about Riley Greene
“He’s a dynamic outfielder with a large frame and loose swing from the left side, and really knows how to find the sweet spot in a repeatable way,” Pleis said. “He’s got what we call the ‘hit gene’ and matches his performance in the batter's box with highlight-reel plays in the outfield on a regular basis. All of us in the Tigers amateur scouting department are eager to see Riley reach his potential as he grows in our organization over the coming years.”
That growth will likely take longer than that of a college hitter. An example: Nicholas Castellanos, a first-round pick out of high school in 2010, was a standout hitter in the Minor Leagues, became a September callup to Detroit in ‘13 and cracked the Tigers’ Opening Day roster as their everyday third baseman in ‘14. Cameron Maybin was the Tigers’ top pick in 2005, made his Major League debut 26 months and 192 Minor League games later, and was part of the club’s unsuccessful division race down the stretch.
A similar timetable to Castellanos would put Greene a couple years behind the star-studded crop of pitching prospects that form the core of the Tigers’ rebuilding project. But taking a potentially lesser hitter to time with a wave of prospects goes against most Draft philosophies of taking the best talent available. It certainly would’ve gone against Detroit’s need for a formidable hitter in the middle of the order.
“We just have to make sure we get the right player and not get caught up in who gets there faster or who takes maybe four or five years or by a position need,” Pleis warned last week. “We just have to make sure we get the right guy.”
Once University of California slugger Andrew Vaughn went to the White Sox with the third overall pick, two spots before the Tigers, the right guy became relatively easy to determine.
“For a high school player to do what [Greene] did as far as hit ability, power, improve defensively, also improve and mature physically, the makeup and competitiveness -- pretty much every box you can check, he did it,” Pleis said.
“For him, it came together at the right time. We got a lot of looks at Riley, which always helps, got to spend some time with the family. So everything worked out really well for us.”
Greene’s 60-grade hitting on the 20-80 scale ties him for the highest grade awarded by MLB Pipeline among hitters in this year’s class, matching top pick Adley Rutchman, fellow top-five pick Andrew Vaughn and UNLV shortstop Bryson Stott -- all college hitters. The only other prep player with a 60 grade was Washington state outfielder Corbin Carroll. Greene is projected to gain power as he physically matures.
“Power comes with time,” Greene said, “lifting and strength and things like that. When I hit, I don't really do drills. I just do live pitching most of the time.”
Greene is the first high school position player selected by the Tigers in the first round since Derek Hill went 23rd overall in 2014. Hill was an athletic phenom out of high school; his defense has been stellar on his way up the Tigers' farm system, but injuries have slowed his progress.
Greene has much more of an offensive resume. Though some scouting reports profile him as a corner outfielder, Pleis said Greene will start his pro career in center, something Greene said he wants to do.
“I think I need to get a little faster so I can stay in center field,” Greene said.
While Greene could take some time to develop, Quintana gives the Tigers a combination of plus defense and a power bat at third base. A former shortstop in high school, Quintana earned second-team All-America honors as a junior at Arizona. He led the Pac 12 Conference with 77 RBIs, fifth most among NCAA Division I hitters, while batting .342 with 15 home runs, 18 doubles and a .626 slugging percentage. He ranked 77th among MLB PIpeline’s Top 200 Draft Prospects.
“Really good infielder, really good third baseman, good arm, big glove, right-handed hitter with power,” Pleis said. “When you find a bat, especially a bat with power, who can also play a position on the infield, it's a big deal. We like his swing. We like his power. We like his defense, and his makeup, and the way he goes about the game.”
Quintana is the Tigers’ first pick out of the University of Arizona since Ryan Perry was their first-round selection in 2008.
The Draft continues on Tuesday with Rounds 3-10. The MLB.com preview show begins at 12:30 p.m. ET, with exclusive coverage beginning at 1 p.m. ET. Go to MLB.com/Draft for complete coverage, including every pick on Draft Tracker, coverage and analysis from MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo, the complete order of selection and more. And follow @MLBDraft and @MLBDraftTracker on Twitter.
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.