February 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

Hot Tigers prospect Devon Travis has winner's mentality that's Gibson-esque

Lakeland, Fla. — A guy named Kirk Gibson once talked like this.

He was a hot Tigers prospect in the 1980s, and later a star, who not only had a goal, but a zeal, to win. He was a player who didn’t care for teammates whose post-game faces were long or bright depending upon how they had done, personally, never mind the final score.

Gibson liked hitting’s mental game. He was also tough on himself, mercilessly so, which helped make him a legend in Detroit and a World Series champion and National League Most Valuable Player with the Dodgers.

Devon Travis sounds as if he memorized the Gibson creed.

“If you’re 0-for-10 and on a three- or four-game winning streak and upset, that’s the wrong way to play this game,” said Travis, a rookie second baseman and the Tigers 2013 Minor League Player of the Year.

“That’s terrible.”

Travis sat outside the Tigers clubhouse at Marchant Stadium a half-hour before he joined the big-leaguers Thursday for a third day of full-team workouts. That he was invited to Tigers spring camp speaks to what the front office thinks about a 2012 draft pick from Florida State who last season put together an amazingly consistent year at two Single A stops: West Michigan and Lakeland.

He batted .352 in 77 games for the Whitecaps, which earned him a promotion — technically — to the hot, dusty Florida State League, an outpost that tends to be tough on newbies. Travis followed by batting .350 in 55 games at Lakeland.

His OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) at West Michigan was .916. It was .962 at Lakeland, each number boosted mightily by on-base percentages of .430 and .401.

“I’ve watched him a little bit turning double plays,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus. “He looks like he’s real quick on his feet. He looks real athletic.

“And he seems like a really good kid.”

Travis, who today turns 23, is 5-foot-9, 183 pounds, and bats right-handed. He came to Detroit by way of big-league scout Bruce Tanner, a Florida State alum who had spotted Travis during an FSU game and who alerted David Chadd, the Tigers amateur scouting director, about a player the Tigers needed to follow.

His size was an issue when draft day arrived in 2012. Teams took a pass until the Tigers pounced in the 13th round.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” Travis, a native of West Palm Beach, Fla., recalled. “All the scouts like to tell you you’re going in this round, or that round.

“I was close to going back to school (for his senior season). I loved college. But now I can see that signing was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Travis will likely settle at Double A Erie for the 2014 season. He will be joining a wave of young middle infielders the Tigers regard as likely big-leaguers. Hernan Perez has a chance to play in Detroit this season. Eugenio Suarez would have been in contention, as well, had he not fractured a hamate bone in his wrist last autumn and missed his winter ball assignment.

And then there is Travis. He differs from Perez and Suarez in that Travis is strictly a second baseman whose defense and arm, while considered solid on the infield’s right side, don’t allow the shortstop option Perez and Suarez provide.

“Defense has to be No. 1 on my list,” he said, referring to spring-camp priorities. “Every out in every game is big. If I get an opportunity to make a play, and boot it, I’ve failed. I’ve got to continue to get better there.”

He will focus on making more deft backhand plays, he said, rather than squaring up on ground balls. At the plate, he will work on threading the needle between being aggressive and being picky. It’s a hitter’s delicate balancing act. Travis’ on-base average (he walked 53 times in 503 at-bats) is a matter of pride for a man who understands the need to hit good pitches and to boost pitch counts.

“I’m always trying to see as many pitches as I can,” Travis said, acknowledging that Mike Rabelo, one of the Tigers’ minor-league batting coaches, has reminded him that a first pitch can often be a fat pitch.

It means there is much to absorb for a man who, like a famous blond slugger from yesteryear, wants to master everything.

“I never really set any personal goals,” Travis said when asked about his big-league timetable. “My biggest goal this year is to win. That’s what I want to do: win. I want to see what it’s like playing in the playoffs.

“Even this year — maybe it’s me being a college boy — it’s all about winning.”

Somewhere in Arizona, a former Tigers star now managing the Diamondbacks is smiling at his Tigertown disciple.

Lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
Twitter.com/Lynn_Henning

Second baseman Devon Travis goes through infielder drills Thursday in Lakeland, Fla. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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