Fresh off his 20th birthday, the top-ranked outfielder is making a splash in (and out of) Detroit during an uncertain season
By Andy Reid
Riley Greene never could have predicted that his first big-time play in Comerica Park would happen in front of empty bleachers during a televised intrasquad scrimmage. But that’s precisely what transpired on July 13, when the outfielder, who turned 20 last month, was called up to Detroit to practice with the team. Veteran designated hitter C.J. Cron ripped a powerful shot to left field, and he began an easy trot around the bases to celebrate what looked like a sure-fire home run — until Greene caught the ball, and the eyes of the entire league.
Greene laid his body out, smashing into the wall as his arm extended fully behind him. He snapped back to the field, with a home-run-saving catch in his glove. “When it actually happened, it just felt normal, like a decent catch,” recalls Greene, who comes off as confident, if soft-spoken. Then the official MLB Twitter account posted the highlight, and it instantly went viral: To date, it’s racked up almost 800,000 views. “When I saw the video, I was like, ‘Whoa, that was pretty good,’ ” he says. (Even eight-time MLB All-Star Mike Trout responded to the video with four eyeball emojis.)
In a normal year, Greene might not have popped up on the average baseball fan’s radar. Just last May he was a high-school graduate with his eye on the University of Florida, where he’d committed to a baseball scholarship. But the Tigers had other plans, scooping him up with the fifth overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft last June. (He caught the team’s attention after helping Team USA to a fifth straight title at the U-18 Pan American Championships in 2018.) Greene was expected to play the 2020 season for the Tigers’ Class A Minor League team based in Grand Rapids.
Then the pandemic forced leagues across the world to drastically change course.
Minor league teams canceled the 2020 season outright, leaving hundreds of players cut from rosters across the country. Seeing Greene’s potential, the Tigers held onto the top-ranked prospect to let him develop over the summer — making him one of 60 players with a chance to rise to the active Detroit roster.
These days, Greene spends most of his time at a Tigers’ camp in Toledo, where he’s training in case the team needs an outfielder. (Because there are relatively few non-roster players in the team’s system compared to a normal season, there’s a chance Greene could be called to Detroit well before he would expect otherwise.) “It’s an awesome feeling, being able to wake up and go to the field,” he says. “We obviously couldn’t do that with spring training ending and not having a season.”
Greene has tackled every challenge that’s been thrown at him during training, says Kenny Graham, the Tigers’ director of player development. When the team started using left-handed pitch machines, for example, Greene, who also bats left-handed, struggled to connect with the ball. He’d show up to the field early to get more time in the batting cages and now he consistently crushes those same balls. “He is getting an experience that a lot of younger players aren’t getting,” says Graham. “He still has to perform [and] time will tell, but he is taking advantage of the time he has here.”
That includes days full of warmups, stretching, running drills and playing everything from truncated innings to full games. Between field time and individual workouts, Greene plays Call Of Duty with his new teammates. “I’ve met all the guys, and I’m pretty good friends with all of them already,” he says. “We’re all here to do the same thing: Play baseball.”
“It’s entertaining to some of the older guys how well he fits in,” adds Graham. “You hear some of [them] saying, ‘Man, when I was 19, I wouldn’t have been doing what this kid is doing.’ That tells you a lot about Riley and his character. He is always competing, and he never feels like he is overmatched. He gets the job done.”
Part of that includes “trying to stay away from people,” says Greene, adding that “you never know” who has COVID-19. “I want to play every single day so I am trying to stay as healthy as I can.” If all goes as planned, he’ll likely begin 2021 back in Grand Rapids, but he says he’s excited to eventually spend more time in Detroit. (His first visit to the city was last summer, after the draft, when he came to the ballpark to sign his contract — which included a $6.18 million signing bonus.)
The rocky MLB season is underway, but there is no way to know how things will shake out. By the time the Tigers had completed their first 32 games of the season, they had already postponed 11 games. Although a player as young as Greene wouldn’t be expected to find his way onto the major league roster for several more years — he’s expected to crack the majors by 2022 — this is clearly not a normal season.
Still, Greene isn’t concerned about the future. “I am learning a lot of things while I have been here, and I want to continue to learn things,” he says. “I learn a lot about myself and my swing. I am starting to get comfortable with the routine. [I’m] taking it day by day and trying to get better while having fun with it.”