August 31, 2014 at 8:46 pm

Tigers decide Devon Travis might help them sooner as a center fielder

Devon Travis, facing a glut of infielders in the Tigers system, has hit well at every level, including .297 at Double A Erie this season. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

There was this problem. Well, not a problem as much as a choice.

What to do with Devon Travis? The Tigers were caught, happily, with a 23-year-old second baseman who has shown at every town and team the Tigers have assigned him that he can hit.

There were those first three stops at Single A: .280 at Connecticut, .352 at West Michigan, .350 at Lakeland. And then there was this season’s migration to Double A Erie, where Travis is batting .297.

But where would he play? Ian Kinsler is at least for now a fixture at second base. Hernan Perez, who has been a quality two-way player at Triple A Toledo, can handle second base, as can Eugenio Suarez, which could be an important consideration if Jose Iglesias makes it back in 2015 from a pair of stress fractures.

The Tigers thought and pondered, and last week they acted. With far fewer options in center field than in their middle infield, Travis was moved, very suddenly, to center field, where the Tigers hope a hard-hitting, skilled athlete’s transition could offer them an answer at some point in 2015.

“Dave and I first talked about it a couple of weeks ago,” said Al Avila, the Tigers assistant general manager, recalling conversations with his boss, Dave Dombrowski. “And we just decided to start practicing him there a few days ago.

“We talked to our (developmental) people, who all felt he had the athletic ability to play center. He’s never played there, and nobody had ever seen him there. But just knowing him in the years he has been with us, everyone felt he was fast enough and skilled enough to make the change.”

Travis has been on a consistent track since the day the Tigers drafted him in 2012, in the 13th round from Florida State. He had been recommended by one of their big league scouts, Bruce Tanner, a Florida State alum who had seen Travis and who saw potential that didn’t jibe with every scout who wondered about a man who was only 5-foot-9.

The Tigers privately wonder if they made one of the 2012 draft’s certified steals. He has hit for average in his three years on the farm (.323), for on-base percentage (.388) and for slugging percentage (.487), good for a minor league OPS of .875.

His defense has not been on the same lofty level, although the comparison has more to do with Travis’ bat than with any serious shortcomings with his glove.

But with his speed (16 stolen bases for the SeaWolves) and with a looming hole in center field, the Tigers decided relocation could help all parties. Travis happens to agree. At least to the extent he has had time to think about a move announced when Erie manager Lance Parrish gave him the word early last week.

“At first I was surprised, it just came out of the blue, but it’s been going pretty well,” Travis said during a weekend phone conversation as the SeaWolves wrapped up their 2014 season with a series against Akron. “I’m still a little nervous out there. The biggest thing I’m trying to beat right now is my nerves. The view is a little different out there, the sound off the bat is a little different.

“But I’m definitely excited about the change. I’m actually enjoying it. I always enjoy challenges. And this is a new one.”

In the two games he had played in center, Travis had no serious issues. And that was a point the Tigers development staff, and particularly roving outfield instructor Gene Roof, had emphasized.

Do not worry about being Mike Trout just yet. Make the basic plays. Catch the ball. Hit the cutoff man.

Davis had been doing just that, at least in his initial forays.

But the Tigers also are being careful about Travis’ transition. When he reports in a few weeks to the Arizona Fall League, he will continue to play second base for the AFL team that will be managed by Lance Parrish.

The Tigers rather like the idea of having a hitter with outfield-infield versatility, which is at least the temporary vision for Travis. Roof, though, will be with Travis throughout the AFL season as they work each morning on steeping Travis in the techniques and responsibilities a center fielder routinely assumes.

His arm, which was not a plus even as a second baseman, will remain something of an issue. But plenty of center fielders have had low-caliber arms, a group that would include Detroit’s former center fielder, Austin Jackson, whose arm weakened during his time in Detroit.

“By no means would I say I have a strong arm,” Travis said. “That would be completely lying. But I actually enjoy throwing with more space. Sometimes at second base, where you’re so close to your target, you don’t want to overthrow the guy. Now I can cut it loose, just let it go.

“But my dream is to get to the big leagues and this at least is giving me an opportunity, a chance to make the most of things. Whatever happens, happens. I just want to relax and have fun and let my instincts take over.”

The Tigers, after all, did the same thing. They trusted a gut feeling that Travis could make a big positional switch. They’ll allow time and experience to take care of the rest.