What to expect from Colt Keith in the bigs

March 27th, 2024

The Tigers made notable offseason additions in Kenta Maeda, Jack Flaherty and Mark Canha, but the core of Detroit’s bid to return to the postseason for the first time since 2014 is homegrown. First-round picks Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson form the heart of the club’s batting order, while 2018 ninth-rounder Tarik Skubal will anchor the rotation as a potential Cy Young candidate.

When Opening Day arrives at Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field, another long-term piece of the puzzle will lock into place. No. 22 overall prospect Colt Keith is expected to take his place as the Tigers’ starting second baseman in the club’s 2024 opener against the White Sox.

The move comes after Keith signed a six-year, $28,642,500 contract with Detroit in the offseason. There are additional club options in the deal for the 2030-32 season that could take the total value to $82 million over nine years. There are risks on both sides – Detroit guaranteeing money to a player with zero service time; Keith taking potential discounts in his arbitration and free-agent years – but for our purposes, the most important part was that it cleared the way for the Tigers’ No. 2 prospect to join the big club immediately.

Drafted in the fifth round of the truncated 2020 Draft, the left-handed slugger is coming off his healthiest and best-ever professional season. Keith ranked third among all Minor Leaguers with 68 extra-base hits and fifth with 280 total bases over 126 games with Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo. He finished with a .306/.380/.552 line at those stops, and he added 27 homers, second-most behind Jace Jung’s 28.

Keith’s affinity for hard contact, driven by his strength and bat speed, is what drives his ability to hit for power and average.

The Mississippi native, who missed time in 2022 with a right shoulder injury, kept his strikeouts relatively in check in his age-21 season with a 21.0 percent K rate – a touch better than Evan Carter’s 21.8 percent mark at the same upper levels. Roughly two-thirds (66.1 percent to be precise) of his batted balls were either line drives or flyballs too, leading to the high extra-base hit total. He maxed out with a 110.1 mph exit velocity for Toledo and slugged a 473-foot homer on June 30 that was the fifth-longest measured by Statcast in the International League in 2023.

Listed at 6-foot-2, 211 pounds, Keith should continue to get to that max pop more consistently as he matures deeper into his 20s, and he proved that this spring with 13 batted balls (out of 39 in front of Statcast) exceeding the hard-hit threshold of 95 mph. Funny enough, he once again posted a 110.1 mph max EV on a March 21 homer.

Keith’s .231/.281/.365 line over 57 plate appearances in the Grapefruit League may not be that of a player who screams Major League readiness, but the Tigers were willing to lean on previous looks and the knowledge that he was affected at least partly by illness to give him his Opening Day spot at second.

As a below-average runner, Keith won’t impact the game much with his legs, and his range will be tested on the infield. The Detroit prospect moved full-time from his natural position of third base to second last August to give him more time and space to react to balls off the bat. The organization also viewed his throwing motion as a better fit around the second-base bag, and since the change, both player and club have focused on nailing down the basics, like positioning and double-play actions. If Keith can be surehanded and at least average defensively despite the lack of range, that would be solid enough for Detroit given the value he’d create with his bat alone.

With Greene, Torkelson, Canha and Kerry Carpenter projected to hold down the heart of the Detroit lineup, the Tigers don’t need Keith to be his Minor League slugging self immediately. But given the offensive question marks around Javier Báez and the third-base position, the club could use another bopper on the infield if it’s going to track down Minnesota in the AL Central. Keith has the potential to fit the bill.