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Steven Moya aims to make bid for 2016 job with Tigers

The year did not begin easily for Detroit Tigers' top prospect Steven Moya.

The highly-touted 24-year-old outfielder, who made his major-league debut last September, started the 2015 season on the disabled list for Triple-A Toledo with plantar fasciitis. Next came a stint with the team’s High-A affiliate in Lakeland, Florida. And when he finally returned to the Mud Hens’ lineup, he found himself struggling offensively.

His timing was off. He was missing fastballs down the middle of the plate. He was falling behind in the count too often and then finding himself at the pitcher’s whims. Moya and Mud Hens hitting coach Leon Durham battled together, but it took months before a breakthrough.

“In the beginning, it was tough,” Moya told ESPN.com in a recent interview. “It was pretty hard starting on the DL and coming back, playing some games in Lakeland, getting to Toledo was hard. The first two months was really bad, but then I started to pick it up a little bit and thank God I finished with decent numbers.”

Moya, known for his raw power, led Toledo with 20 home runs and 74 RBIs and finished the season with a .240 batting average and .420 slugging percentage. Even for an offensive powerhouse team like the Tigers, who lead the majors with a .272 batting average, Moya has the potential to be an impact bat now that he has been called up to the big club for the month of September.

“He hits some balls that you can’t even believe how far they can go. They just seem to never land,” catcher Bryan Holaday said. “I think that’s what catches everyone’s eyes. He has big-time power and that’s something you can’t teach. It’s a God-given talent and he’s got it.”

His size (6-foot-6, 230 pounds) and athletic ability are what make him such a prized talent, according to one talent evaluator that compared him to a young Tony Clark.

“Simply put, he’s got all the physical tools,” an American League scout told ESPN.com. “It’s going to come down to his strikeout ratio. He’s been a high strikeout guy his whole career. He’s not going to change overnight. But, if you’re hitting home runs and driving in runs, you can balance that out.”

Plate discipline appears to be a legitimate concern. Moya finished striking out in 30.3 percent of his plate appearances this season; last season he finished with a strikeout rate of 29.3 percent. But there are other signs that indicate he is improving at the plate. Though Moya was initially perceived to be a pull hitter, he has shown more recently that he can drive the ball the opposite way. What does that mean?

“He’s starting to incorporate more imagination with the strike zone,” the scout said, adding that Moya could add a dangerous dynamic to the bottom half of the team’s order with “game-break power.”

The scout said Moya could use another half season down in Triple-A to develop but predicted his place next year will largely be dictated by which direction the team is headed. Frankly, he’s surprised Moya isn’t playing more now.

The Tigers, however, are easing Moya into the lineup incrementally. Manager Brad Ausmus offered little doubt about his potential but said Moya would likely only receive a “handful of starts” before the season ends. He made one of those in a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians on Sunday, going 2-for-3 with a triple and a walk in the team’s 7-2 loss.

And where he will begin next season remains to be seen, with the Tigers already set in right field with J.D. Martinez locking down that corner of the outfield with a breakout 2015 season. Already, the Tigers have experimented with shifting Moya to left field in the minors to see how he fares.

There was a brief adjustment when he made the transition, Moya admitted, but it didn’t take long before it felt natural. After all, he played 60 games at left field his first year of pro ball, in the Dominican Summer League, so it’s not completely foreign.

“The first day was kinda weird, but then I picked it up right away,” Moya said.

Moya said that he has no real preference. Ultimately, whichever position helps him carve out a roster spot is what he’ll commit to improving. Now that he’s up with the Tigers again, he just wants to ensure he makes the case to stay for next season.

“It’s an opportunity to do some damage and hopefully have a great September,” Moya said of his current stint. “Maybe get [them] to think of an option for next year.”