Tigers recall Hicks, groom him for utility role

Tigers recall Hicks, groom him for utility role

DETROIT -- John Hicks has been a catcher his entire pro career, and the Tigers acquired him last April to provide depth behind the plate. But he made his Major League debut as a third baseman for the Mariners on Aug. 29, 2015. He made his Tigers debut as a first baseman last September, then reprised the role while Miguel Cabrera was on the disabled list last month.

When Hicks went back to Triple-A Toledo upon Cabrera's return, the Tigers included instructions for the Mud Hens to get him some work in left field, where he started earlier this week.

There's a pattern with an endgoal in mind for the Tigers, who recalled Hicks on Saturday to help fill in for Victor Martinez while he's on paternity leave this weekend. While Hicks isn't likely to unseat James McCann anytime soon as Detroit's catcher, the Tigers believe he could stick in the big leagues at some point if he can play enough positions to use his bat.

"If the bat plays at the Major League level, we can use his versatility at a number of spots," manager Brad Ausmus said Saturday. "It's very valuable, especially if you have other catchers you might pinch-hit for."

The situation isn't new for Hicks, who played some at first base and outfield during his first couple of seasons at the University of Virginia when he wasn't catching. Still, once he entered the pro ranks in 2011 as a fourth-round Draft pick of the Mariners, the goal was to make it as a catcher. He has had a winding path since, including waiver claims by the Twins after the 2015 season, and the Tigers last April.

The Tigers' claim was about adding insurance behind the plate, where Detroit had just traded Bryan Holaday and Bobby Wilson. The offensive resurgence Hicks enjoyed last year in Toledo, batting .303 (73-for-241) with eight home runs and an .842 OPS, opened some eyes. He gained 10 pounds on his frame, lowered his batting stance on the advice of former Mariners teammate Kyle Seager, and reaped the benefits.

Hicks picked up where he left off with the Mud Hens out of Spring Training, enough that the Tigers turned to him over veteran first baseman Efren Navarro when they needed a fill-in for Cabrera. They'd like to have him as an option at other spots.

"He might be a guy that would catch, might play first, might play third, might play left field," Ausmus said.

Ryan Doumit turned that kind of versatility into a 10-year Major League career. Hicks is older and bigger than Doumit was when he broke into the Majors, but he's just looking for a chance to stick at some point. Still, he found outfield duty to be a mental challenge.

"It's definitely different," he said. "I found myself sitting out there like, 'Man, when's the ball coming to me?' I'm used to catching and playing first, where there's all the action."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.