Maybe because they had learned earlier lessons about rushing players — think of big-bonus outfielder Daniel Fields — the Tigers these days are taking their time with promotions and upgrades.
It might have paid off in the 2017 rise of Cam Gibson, a 23-year-old outfielder who was asked to repeat a second season at Single-A West Michigan.
Gibson is batting .275 in his last 10 games and has nine home runs for the Whitecaps. On the year he has a .331 on-base average and .786 OPS. He tracks balls in the outfield with range reminiscent of his dad, Kirk, who three decades ago was a Tigers centerpiece on some elite teams that in 1984 won Detroit’s last world championship.
This progress Cam Gibson has made in 2017 is not, say his bosses, the product of a one-time Michigan State baseball star overmatching his pitching competition. It’s simple development that, perhaps within a month, will see Gibson heading for a stiffer challenge at Single-A Lakeland.
Gibson ripped a double and had another hard-hit out in Friday’s game against a starting pitcher from Dayton, Tony Santillan, who was firing a 99-mph fastball during Friday’s game at Comstock Park. He had another single and a pair of RBIs in Saturday night’s Whitecaps triumph.
This can happen when swing adjustments and simple maturation move a player from so-so prospect to a youngster the Tigers could eventually see in the big leagues, even as a fourth outfielder.
“He’s adjusted his stance, and his hands set-up, and he’s trying to limit excess movement — trying to be more direct to contact, which he’s doing better,” said Bruce Fields, the Tigers’ roving batting instructor who was taking in the Whitecaps-Dayton series this weekend, and who’s been monitoring Gibson for two years.
“He’s hitting the ball hard and more consistently. His swing hasn’t been in and out like it was last year. Last year, he’d show you a couple of good swings, then lose it for a while, then show you another good swing.
“Now you see that he’s hitting the ball harder. With a little air under it. He’s improved his swing greatly from last year.”
Gibson was a fifth-round pick in 2015 following his junior year at East Lansing. He batted only .221 last year at West Michigan, his first full season of professional baseball. It was not the start Gibson or the Tigers had in mind.
Rather than push him reflexively to high Single-A Lakeland in 2017, the Tigers decided to cool the timetable, not only with Gibson, but with one of his old Spartan teammates, first baseman Blaise Salter, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound, right-handed batting first baseman who last season worked at Single-A Connecticut. Salter is batting .319 for the Whitecaps, with an .859 OPS, five home runs and 48 RBIs in 60 games.
“Put it this way,” Fields said, speaking of Gibson’s follow-up at West Michigan. “When you repeat a league you expect better results. What Cam has shown is what was expected. He’s given us better results, been more consistent with his swing. He’s added the bunt (for base hits) game, as have some of the other young guys there.
“Numbers don’t lie,” Fields continued. “Let me ask you this: If this were another organization, any other organization, and you had a couple of kids one hitting .325, .330, another with a league-lead in RBIs — what would you say?”
Fields was speaking here of Salter’s RBIs, as well as another of manager Mike Rabelo’s outfield colts, Jacob Robson, an eight-rounder (Mississippi State) from last June’s draft, who is batting .321 for the Whitecaps and alternating outfield spots with Gibson and with Danny Woodrow, a 12th-round pick (Creighton) last June.
All of the outfielders have speed. All can — and do — play anywhere in the outfield.
“A little fireplug,” Fields said of Robson, an Ontario native who grew up in London and now lives in Windsor. “He gets after it. Plays hard. I just love the way he goes after it.
“Woodrow — after watching him last night his swing is definitely improving. You see a better plane and path. He’s hitting hard, firm ground balls and using the whole field. And he’s repeating his swing. At least he did last night.”
Gibson, of course, is a left-handed batter, 6-1, 195, with an arm similar to his father’s (a bit beneath average) and defensive range that could help push him to Comerica Park
The Tigers hope for obvious reasons Gibson can make the cut. A defender with his range could be of immense help in a home ballpark that has surplus acreage. He also could decongest basepaths the 2017 Tigers too often tend to clog.
Gibson had 26 steals in 2016. He has 12 swipes in 2017. The Tigers would prefer seeing 30-plus by the time he wraps up his 2017 venture. Speed and power — they’re difficult to ignore in a Tigers system hurting for position options.
“I would say Gibby, if you were to grade his power, probably is slightly below average — but he’s got pop,” Fields said. “It’s mostly pull power, but he has hit a couple of deep balls to right-center and center, and if he’s doing that, he’s making progress.
“Obviously, the next step is you want to see it at the next level (Single-A Lakeland). You want to see if he can repeat his swing at that level. We’ll see where it goes.”
This is where the Tigers are perhaps taking different tacks from some older, less strategic days when the likes of Daniel Fields, who had gotten a $1.6 million bonus from the Tigers, was rushed to high Single A and never spent a day getting a base at West Michigan.
The Tigers have different approaches these days. Gibson might be an eventual salute to more prudent development — and patience.