A Conversation With Detroit Tigers Prospect Colt Keith

Colt Keith exceeded even his own expectations this season. A fifth-round pick in the 2020 draft out of a Biloxi, Mississippi high school, the left-handed hitting Detroit Tigers prospect began his first professional campaign in the Florida Complex League, and he finished it in High-A with the West Michigan Whitecaps. Promoted to the higher-than-expected level less than three weeks after his 20th birthday, Keith had slashed a precocious .320/.436/.422 in 181 plate appearances with Low-A Lakeland.

His profile is compelling. When our 2021 Tigers Top Prospect list came out in March, Eric Longenhagen and Kevin Goldstein called Keith “one of the more intriguing two-way players in the 2020 draft,” adding that he was “seen by many teams as unsignable after the first three rounds.” Eight months after those words were written, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound infielder is no less intriguing, and more promising than ever.

Keith discussed his draft experience, and his eye-opening performance, shortly before the conclusion of the minor-league season.


David Laurila: How did you end up signing with the Tigers rather than playing college ball at Arizona State?

Colt Keith: “I didn’t really want to go to school. That was my thing; it’s why I was willing to take less [money to sign]. After about the second or third round, I figured I wasn’t going to get picked, because teams thought I was going to go to school. But then the Tigers gave my agent a call and offered enough, so we decided to take it.”

Laurila: Why didn’t you want to go the college route?

Keith: “We looked at the positives of both sides, and the negatives of both sides, and I liked the opportunity to start my pro career at a young age. I felt like I was ready to go, that I could compete and didn’t need those three years of college to get prepared for it. On top of that, I’m not a big school guy. Getting a degree… I mean, going to school for three years just didn’t sound like a lot of fun to me.”

Laurila: That said, teams apparently thought otherwise…

Keith: “I mean, I told scouts that I still had interest in school. And I really did. It wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world. I would have had to ‘do school,’ but I still would have gotten to play baseball with a lot of guys that I know, and in a great program. So school wasn’t completely out of the picture. We did use it as a leverage point to get more money, but once we got past a certain [amount], teams stopped calling because they figured I was going to Arizona State. Luckily, the Tigers called at the end, just to make sure, and luckily enough, we took the deal.”

Laurila: Was Detroit the only team that called on draft day?

Keith: “No. We actually had plenty of calls in the early rounds, like the first, second, and a little bit of the third. They were saying, ‘Would you take this?’ and we were like, ‘Yeah,’ and then they’d say, ‘There are two guys ahead of you, so if they get picked, we’ll take you.’ I think three teams did that. They all ended up picking the guys they had listed ahead of me.”

Laurila: Can you name the teams?

Keith: “It’s probably best not to say. It was around the middle of the second round, though.”

Laurila: Was it at all surprising to get the call from the Tigers?

Keith: “No. They were at almost all of my high school games. I’d met with two of their scouts; I’d met with their cross-checker. They’d all came to my house to talk to me. We knew they were one of the teams interested in me.”

Laurila: Were any teams interested in you as a pitcher, as opposed to a position player?

Keith: “Yeah. There were teams that wanted me as [both] a pitcher and a position player. Some wanted me as a hitter first, then as a pitcher; some wanted me as a pitcher, then as a position player. I’d say 60-65% of them wanted me as a hitter, and maybe only two or three teams wanted me only as a pitcher. I think most had at least an opening for me to pitch a little bit. Since I’ve been here, the Tigers haven’t mentioned anything about pitching, so I guess they weren’t interested in that.

“I think teams generally saw me as a top-five rounder as a hitter, but later — and for less money — as a pitcher. Because the 2020 draft was only five rounds, it seemed like the teams that wanted me as a hitter were the ones actually calling.”

Laurila: Was being a two-way player something you saw as a legitimate possibility?

Keith: “I think so. A few teams saw me as a potential guy for one or two innings. I’d have been playing third base or shortstop every day, so they wouldn’t have had me starting. When we played the Cardinals last week, they had a guy come in for an inning and pitch well, and I think that’s kind of what they were talking about when they told me I could potentially be a two-way; I’d be a one-inning guy once a week. That type of deal.”

Laurila: What can people expect to see if you end up taking the mound some day?

Keith: “I’ve actually been messing around with grips a little bit when I’m doing my throwing; I’m kind of working on my pitches just for fun. I had a pretty nasty slider in high school, as well as a pretty good fastball with good extension. I also had pretty good changeup. So I think they’d see a mix of all three. My fastball sat around 90-93 [mph] when I was in school, but I hit 96 a few times.”

Laurila: Do you see yourself as third baseman?

Keith: “I’m mostly playing third base, but with a little mix of second base. When I was in Lakeland, I played three games at third, two games at second, and then I’d DH one day. Here at High-A, I’ve been playing five days of the week at third, and maybe one at second.”

Laurila: Third base sounds like a good fit for you, especially if Spencer Torkelson ends up playing across the diamond.

Keith: “I think that’s right. We’ve got Gage Workman playing short here [at West Michigan] and while I’m not a scout, from what I see he’s a heck of a shortstop. He’s a stud, so I think he’s going be able to stick there. Obviously, there are other guys in the organization, but just from looking at the prospect rankings, there is Torkelson at first and Workman at short, so right now they have me at third base. Of course, Andre Lipcius and Nick Quintana [play third base], too.”

Laurila: I was at West Michigan for a few games this summer and saw Workman made a couple of great defensive plays…

Keith: “Yeah, he’s got a lot of range. It comes with some errors, but that’s not because he misses the routine plays; it’s because he makes these diving plays — these really crazy range plays — and is going to try to get the outs, so he’ll end up making throwing errors. Basically, he gets more errors because he has such big range.”

Laurila: Changing direction a bit, you came into the season as a 19-year-old who had yet to play his first professional game. What were your expectations coming into spring training?

Keith: “Once spring training was over, I was in extended because the [Florida Complex League] hadn’t started yet. My goal was to get to Low-A and compete well enough that I’d be able to start there next year. I didn’t really have an expectation, but that was my goal. I didn’t know if it was possible — high school guys usually get moved a little slower — so I didn’t expect to be able to move this fast.

“Basically, I just wanted to get my first good taste of pro ball, but I played well in extended and they moved me up to Low-A before the [Complex League] even started. I struggled a little bit at first, but then I got the hang of it and ended up batting .320, or whatever it was. I exceeded my own expectations by doing that. I’m obviously struggling since getting moved up to High-A, but that’s kind of normal for me. I struggle when I get moved up, then I get the hang of things. For whatever reason, everything about my swing, and everything I know about baseball, seems to go out the window when I move up. Then I have to restart and get used to the better pitching and to the speed of the game. Once I do that, I’m back in the groove.”

Laurila: One last thing: You only went deep twice this year [in 270 plate appearances]. Why do you feel you didn’t hit for more power?

Keith: “In Lakeland, I was getting a lot of base hits, but like I was saying, it’s a matter of adjusting. I was kind of slowing my bat down and trying to be more accurate to the barrel, trying not to do too much. I had about 150 at-bats in Low-A, and I was just starting to get into my power. I was starting to backspin doubles and triples off the wall — I was starting to swing hard and not strike out at a high rate — and then I got moved up and had to restart. That’s the thing. Had I stayed at one level, I think I would have hit 10-plus bombs. At the same time, I’m not going to try to hit home runs. I’m just trying to backspin balls to the middle of the field. Like they say, you have to hit first, and then the power comes as you mature and get your man strength. So yeah, I have to learn to hit first.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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