Opening Day, 2020, and Detroit’s weather is cold as fans jam Comerica Park. The folks are drinking coffee after they perhaps had been quaffing something else on a morning famed for its revelry and for its brisk signal that spring and baseball have returned to Michigan.
Tigers followers are excited, but also nervous. This team is brand new. Isaac Paredes is at third base. Willi Castro is at shortstop. Kody Clemens is playing second base, and there are two new kid starters in the outfield, alongside second-year player Christin Stewart.
Daz Cameron is planted in center. Danny Woodrow is starting in right field.
Cameron makes sense, yes. He’s been in Comerica Park’s waiting room since he was traded to Detroit as part of the 2017 deal that shipped Justin Verlander to Houston.
But this young outfielder, Woodrow, the kid who was no more than a 12th-round grab out of Creighton in 2016?
He’s starting in Nick Castellanos’ old spot now that Castellanos has signed elsewhere as a free agent?
This, of course, is a crystal-ball scenario, this vision of possible rookie starters in 2020, which maybe only partially becomes reality in what is bound to be an eventful next 16 months for the Tigers.
But nothing that Cameron or Woodrow did during their Arizona Fall League stints, which wrapped up two weeks ago, dissuaded the Tigers from thinking two potential outfield starters are brewing.
Woodrow was second in the six-team AFL in hitting with a .371 average in 16 games, spiced by a .420 on-base average. He also stole 11 bases.
Cameron was eighth among the league’s top 64 hitters, batting .342 in 20 games with a .435 on-base average and .468 slugging percentage (.903 OPS). He had a home run, two triples and three doubles. He had nine steals.
“They both had exceptional fall leagues,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers vice president for player development. “It’s a more challenging environment, Arizona, even for players who’ve finished the year at Triple A. It’s kind of an all-star group of players from different organizations who compete there.
“Naturally, Cameron is more on the radar for most people who follow prospects. Some people might be surprised by Woodrow, but maybe not us. He’s hit and he’s a well-rounded player.”
Woodrow, 23, is a fleet, 5-foot-10, 160-pound man who bats left-handed and who is a better bet to bunt for a single than to rip a ball into the seats or up a gap. He played 97 games in 2018, with all but five coming at Double-A Erie. His combined numbers were not out of balance with his AFL stats: .317 average, .371 on-base, .397 slugging. He stole 23 bases, struck out 76 times and had 32 walks.
Woodrow often plays center field and can shift just as easily to a corner spot. He has the traits teams tend to like leading off, all because of his on-base whiles and because he runs so well. One-time Tigers manager Jim Leyland is among those who were impressed with Woodrow during his Erie stint last summer.
Littlefield says any surprises probably stem from Woodrow’s size and the fact he was drafted deep.
“He’s played exceptionally well at all levels, and the biggest thing is he’s hit,” said Littlefield, who watched the past two years as Woodrow went from one step in the Tigers farm to another, batting: .351, .276, .271, .381, and .313. “It’s hard to find hitters.
“But he does a lot of positive things: He swings the bat, he runs, he steals bags. He has above-average speed, he’s a good defender, and he’s a good bunter, as well.”
He also — no surprise — needs a bit more sinew. Woodrow has three home runs and 54 extra-base hits in 267 minor-league games. Lashing a single or dropping down a deft bunt can help win a game. But putting a ball up an alley or over an outfielder’s head most often shakes up a scoreboard.
Another question that figures to be answered in 2019: How will Woodrow fare at Comerica Park’s doorstep? Will he climb another rung, meaningfully, during next year's probable dress-rehearsal at Triple-A Toledo, or perhaps have issues as another prospect from Creighton, Mike Gerber, had when the Tigers watched him get overwhelmed last summer by higher-level pitching?
“He’s got to get stronger, and we’ve got to get some weight on him,” Littlefield said of Woodrow. “All of that will help him stay healthy, the weight and conditioning. What sometimes gets lost in the shuffle is simply that competition gets significantly better as you go up the ladder. It becomes exponentially more difficult.”
Cameron is a different player in scope and in background. He was a first-round pick in 2015 and has helpful genealogy. His dad, Mike, played 17 seasons in the big leagues. Cameron looks more the part at 6-foot-2, 195 pounds. He hits with more crunch (110 extra-base hits in 340 games) and naturally projects as the better bet to make it to Detroit and to flourish.
He also is two years younger than Woodrow and already has played 15 games at Triple A. Any questions center on whether Cameron will become more than a nice all-around player. That could hinge on power and whether it develops in proportion to a player with a power build.
“It’s logical to think when you look at other, similar player, that there’ll be plenty more strength ahead for him, and more power,” Littlefield said. “He’s a strong, well-built young man.
“We’ve seen with a lot of players through the years, there’s not only muscle gained, but so much more strength as you mature physically.
“Look at his dad (6-2, 210 pounds, and 278 career homers). And not only tied to that, it’s what you know about the player and the young man. This is a hard worker. This is a player serious about his craft. He’s smart. He checks a lot of boxes.”
If there was a downside to the Tigers’ AFL crop in 2018 it came in the person of catcher Jake Rogers, who batted .167 in 13 games, with a .502 OPS.
The Tigers and Rogers are still trying to sort out his notorious timing issues because of a leg-kick that can be problematic. The triggering kick helps Rogers load his right-handed swing and leads to a fair number of home runs (17 in 99 games at Erie in 2018). But it can also affect not only contact, but the square, quick-to-the-ball contact that must be part of a big-league hitter’s parcel.
“Going to require some adjustments,” Littlefield said. “But this is a smart guy with a lot of talent. The ball comes off the barrel of his bat very well. He’s aware of it (leg-kick issues). We’re working on it.”
Rogers is a catcher who, like Cameron, came to the Tigers by way of last year’s Verlander trade. He, too, could join the Kids Corps that, to whatever extent, will greet those chilled fans at Comerica Park in the early spring of 2020.
But so much rests on next year. On improvement. On growth. On a coming together of daunting variables that must coalesce before that rare air known as the big leagues can be breathed deeply.