Detroit Tigers: Mikie Mahtook hitting his way into an everyday role

DETROIT, MI - JULY 15: Jose Iglesias
DETROIT, MI - JULY 15: Jose Iglesias /

The Detroit Tigers acquired Mikie Mahtook from the Tampa Bay Rays in January after Mahtook hit .245 in parts of two seasons with the Rays.

Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila knocked down the team’s first domino of the rebuild when he dealt J.D. Martinez to the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for three prospects Tuesday evening.

The swapping of the All-Star outfielder for a trio of average middle infield youngsters took the baseball world, and Tigers’ fanbase, by storm. Fans were expecting a much bigger return package, but were instead disappointed with a paltry improvement to an already weak minor league system.

While the Martinez trade received some backlash, it’s seems appropriate to revisit a recent trade that is seemingly flying under the radar. In January, Avila reeled in outfielder Mikie Mahtook from the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for their 17th ranked prospect, Drew Smith.

Mahtook had spent parts of two seasons with the Rays, posting a batting average of .245 in 106 games. Going the other way, Smith couples a good four-seam fastball with a strong curveball and has had an optimistic 2017 campaign at three different levels.

The 27-year old outfielder came to Detroit and found himself immersed in a playing time log jam. Justin Upton and Martinez were going to lock down the corner positions, but center field was up for grabs. Competing for a spot along with Mahtook was JaCoby Jones, Tyler Collins, and Alex Presley.

While he didn’t necessarily win the starting job, he cracked the major league roster and headed north to Chicago to kick off 2017. He made his first impression to the Detroit faithful on April 7, when his pinch-hit, game-tying double knotted the game at five against the Red Sox. The Tigers would end up squeaking out a 6-5 victory.

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Since then, the center field position at a spacious Comerica Park has been a merry-go-round. Jones has been up and down from Triple-A Toledo and Collins was designated for assignment. Presley made his Tigers debut May 28, wound up on the disabled list with a concussion on June 22, and has since been up with the club since early July.

Despite the constant rotation at center field, which has seen Andrew Romine patrol the position too, it has been the consistent play from Mahtook that should be turning heads.

If not for his heroics in April against Boston, not much could have been said about his first few months donning the Old English D. He didn’t regularly get playing time and came into June batting an ugly .186.

But when his name was inserted into the lineup more, which it was in June, it seemed Mahtook was finally settling into his role. That role was the team’s everyday center fielder, who slashed .333/.333/.529 in a not-so-June-Gloom.

Facing a 2-1 deficit in the ninth inning Wednesday night against the Kansas City Royals, Mahtook stepped to the plate with the tying run on second base and one out. He drove Kelvin Herrera’s 98 mph heater to straightaway center just over the outstretched glove of Lorenzo Cain. The two-run homer allowed the Tigers to leapfrog the Royals for a 3-2 lead.

Although Kansas City quickly dismissed Mahtook’s late-inning heroics with a comeback of their own to win the game, it was refreshing to see some fireworks in the ninth that nearly pulled off their fifth-straight win.

Mahtook is proving to be that ‘firework’ guy, a la Cameron Maybin from 2016. He’s the shot in the arm the team so desperately needs especially after losing a bat like Martinez’s.

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The trade that brought their current center fielder to the Motor City is one that many people didn’t look much into. And while the Martinez-to-Phoenix trade is under scrutiny, it will take some time to play out, like this one may have.

But give credit to where credit is due, as the swap for Mikie Mahtook has to be one of the GM’s finest, yet underrated moves.