LAKELAND, Fla. -- Yes, it’s only Spring Training. But the skip in Ryan Kreidler’s step as he rounded first base Wednesday afternoon after a go-ahead grand slam in the seventh inning is big in just about any league, even one named after fruit.
“Hopefully I can do it outside of Spring Training,” Kreidler said after the Tigers’ 6-6 tie with the Pirates at Joker Marchant Stadium. “But it’s exciting to get it done every once in a while, which is awesome.”
He does not have a grand slam in his regular-season pro career. He has the Tigers’ last two Spring Training grand slams, two years apart.
“Believe me, I love the Grapefruit League,” he said with a smile.
It shows. Including Wednesday’s grand slam, he’s 7-for-19 with three home runs and 11 RBIs in Grapefruit League games. Yet he hasn’t officially been part of a Major League camp until this Spring Training; he was an extra player brought over from Minor League camp in 2020 and 2021 just to play late in games.
For him, Spring Training matters. His performance here last year impressed enough Tigers officials that he leapfrogged Class-A and High-A and earned a placement at Double-A Erie, an incredible jump for a fourth-round pick from the 2019 Draft who hadn’t played at a full-season Minor League affiliate at that point.
Not only did Kreidler open at Double-A, he was hitting behind top prospect Riley Greene in the batting order. His 39 strikeouts over 24 games in the opening month for the SeaWolves raised some question whether he was overwhelmed. But while his home-run rate stayed relatively consistent, his strikeout rate dropped as the season went along and he learned how pitchers approached him.
In Wednesday’s case, he was ready for a first-pitch breaking ball over the plate after Pirates reliever Austin Brice threw it to Detroit’s previous two hitters. Eric Haase took a curveball just off the plate for a walk to load the bases with one out before Brice went back to the big breaking ball to fan Victor Reyes for the second out.
Kreidler jumped on Brice’s next offering and lofted it onto the berm.
“Bases loaded, you’ve gotta just be ready to go,” he said. “You might only get one pitch. You might only get one pitch to hit or none at this level so you’ve just gotta be ready to roll. He threw me a good pitch to hit.”
The numbers show the power isn’t a fluke. Kreidler batted .256/.325/.429 with 15 home runs over 88 games at Erie last year. He earned a ticket to Triple-A Toledo when the Tigers promoted Greene and Spencer Torkelson in August.
Kreidler batted .304 with seven homers, 22 RBIs and a .926 OPS with the Mud Hens, and earned a spot in the Arizona Fall League before a calf strain limited him to three games for Salt River.
All the while, Kreidler showed he could handle the rigors of playing shortstop every day. While most of the infielders rotated around him, he was the constant.
“He’s a well-rounded baseball player,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “If you watch him, you can see his defensive instincts and how he’s into the game, his breaks on balls that are not put in play, he does all sorts of little things that are really advanced and impressive. With the bat, we know he has power. It’s about: Can he handle the right-handed pitching? He has crushed every step along the way in the Minors, so if he can make some adjustments against right-handed pitching, we’ve got a good one on our hands.”
Kreidler, a right-handed hitter, hit for an .880 OPS off left-handed pitching, compared with a .774 OPS against righties.
Maybe it’s fitting that Kreidler’s latest heroics came with former Tigers infielder and current Pirates bench coach Don Kelly watching from the dugout. Kreidler’s athleticism and ability to play around the infield with his size has earned some comparisons to the Tigers legend. But while Kelly played very little shortstop in the Majors, Kreidler seems capable of playing there.
Whether the Tigers need a shortstop anytime soon is another matter. Once Javier Báez signed as a free agent over the offseason, Detroit had its shortstop for the next couple years. Unless Báez gets injured, Kreidler’s best opportunity to get to Detroit is to play around the infield.
“I’m going to work everywhere,” he said. “Shortstop primarily, I think, but as you guys know, being versatile on this team is huge. I’ll just be prepared if they need me to play anywhere and try to get reps as many places as I can.”
Still, the Tigers plan to have Kreidler focus on shortstop at Triple-A Toledo to be ready in case the need arises.
“He’s been a nice story for us,” Hinch said. “I think the only step is to get him to the big leagues whenever he’s ready or whenever we need him. But he’s knocking on the door, and that’s a good problem to have.”