Tigers top prospect Keith (473-foot HR!) knocking on door

July 1st, 2023

DENVER -- For all the buzz about the way balls fly at Coors Field, the Tigers and Rockies combined for eight runs on 12 singles through four innings Friday night before trading homers -- Ezequiel Tovar’s three-run drive to put Colorado in command in the sixth, Andy Ibañez's two-run drive to give Detroit a bit of life in the eighth.

“I’m glad we fought back to put a little bit of pressure on them,” manager A.J. Hinch said after the Tigers' 8-5 loss, “but it wasn’t our best night.”

Yet long before the Rockies had finished off the Tabbies and set off the postgame fireworks show, the most-talked-about fireworks among many Tigers fans came from Columbus, Ohio, of all places. That’s where top prospect Colt Keith’s second home run in three Triple-A games cleared everything in right field and left Huntington Park, landing on a nearby street and entering traffic. It was a Statcast-projected 473-foot drive, and the reverberations could be heard in Detroit.

The Tigers have had their share of offensive fireworks recently without Keith, the No. 41 prospect in MLB. Spencer Torkelson homered three times in his last two games in Texas, and the Ibañez home run was his second this week. Still, the more Keith hits to begin his Mud Hens tenure, the more anticipation he creates about the impact he could eventually make as a Tiger, even if that call-up isn’t imminent.

Keith doesn’t have to say a word about it, just let his hitting -- and the disciplined approach behind it -- do the talking for him. Through three games with Toledo, he’s 7-for-13 with two homers -- totaling 898 feet of distance -- and five RBIs. He has walked twice, once intentionally, and struck out once. He has hit seven balls with exit velocities of 95.9 miles per hour or harder. He’s doing so as one of the youngest players in the International League.

The Tigers understandably need to see more than a hot start, having promoted Keith to see the 21-year-old learn to make adjustments against more experienced pitching than he saw in Double-A, including many arms with Major League experience. They also want to continue his learning process on defense: Keith has started a game each at second base, third base and designated hitter, a rotation he’s likely to continue while working with coaches and instructors on his footwork and throwing.

His defensive fit remains to be defined. Keith's place in the Tigers' offense as a disciplined, left-handed-hitting power source is simpler to find. Add Keith eventually to Torkelson and Riley Greene -- who joined the Mud Hens this week in Columbus to continue his ramp-up toward a rehab assignment -- and Detroit has a trio of impact hitters around which to build a lineup. Torkelson went 1-for-4 on Friday, reaching base in front of Ibañez’s homer with an infield single that deflected off Rockies reliever Jake Bird with an exit velocity of 102.1 mph. He also lined out at 104.8, one of six balls the Tigers hit with triple-digit exit velocities.

They needed to do more with the contact they had Friday. While Javier Báez, Jake Rogers and Miguel Cabrera singled off consecutive fourth-inning pitches from Rockies starter Austin Gomber, including Cabrera’s 1,859th career RBI off his 3,123rd career hit, Zack Short’s 406-foot fly ball with two on later that inning took Brenton Doyle to the warning track in straightaway center. It was deep enough to let Cabrera advance to third on the fly out but not deep enough for a three-run homer that would’ve put Detroit in front.

Gomber tossed seven quality innings on six hits, all singles, with a walk and seven strikeouts. Tigers starter Michael Lorenzen scattered seven hits, all singles, but five came during a five-run second inning.

“[The Rockies'] run-scoring plays, they continue to tack on baserunners,” Hinch said. “It just felt like they were continually putting guys on base while they were getting run-scoring hits. Gomber did a good job of not breaking when we did get him in some vulnerable situations.”

Eventually, whether Keith plays second or third base, or whatever position, he can add depth and balance to the middle of Detroit’s lineup. Simply getting Greene back before that should do wonders for that, though Torkelson has become a bigger impact hitter since moving into Greene’s usual second spot in Detroit’s order. Torkelson finished June batting .196 with seven homers, four doubles and 16 RBIs despite 32 strikeouts in 113 plate appearances.