Spring training is notorious for its Florida phenoms, for the kid pitcher or hitter who burns his way through the Grapefruit League and has fans wondering how quickly this young ranch hand might aid the big club.
That was essentially Dominic Ficociello during the Tigers’ February-March tune-up to 2017 that saw a switch-hitter drill four home runs and behave like your basic 12th-round draft pick notifying a team he intended someday to play in Detroit.
Ah, but Ficociello batted .224 in his 29 spring games and proved why he was all but sure to spend another summer at Double A Erie.
Ficociello’s summer report card is incomplete. But recent grades are all A’s.
He had a 14-game hitting streak heading into Sunday’s game where he went 0-for-3, with four home runs and a .307 batting average in his last 10 games. On the season, Ficociello’s batting .309, with 21 doubles and an .822 OPS.
Ficociello is a whopping 6-foot-4, 205-pound first baseman who might more accurately be considered a utility player, with multi-position versatility looming as his big-league ticket.
Lance Parrish, the Erie manager whose team was about to win its sixth consecutive game Saturday, was asked if Ficociello’s bat and flexibility might, in the view of a former All-Star catcher, qualify him as legitimate big-league material.
“My answer to that is ‘absolutely,’” Parrish said. “He can play first base and third base, and I’ve had him in left field and in right field.
“He’s a very good athlete, just to put it as plainly as that.”
Ficociello, who turned 25 in April, long ago was a Tigers target. He was a California prep star when the Tigers first drafted him, in the 23rd round, in 2010. Three years later the Tigers cornered him again, this time after he had wrapped up his junior season at the University of Arkansas.
This time he signed.
Ficociello hasn’t been a hot-sauce prospect in the seasons since. He had a .270 minor-league batting average and .704 OPS through his first four farm seasons, with all of 22 homers testifying to the fact a man who intended to play first base on the big stage wasn’t close to denting an active roster unless he added more crunch.
The weight-room work has been in progress, and was on display this spring, with noticeable pop to the opposite field.
Ficociello had a modest spring for the SeaWolves before the mashing began last month. It counts double, Parrish said, because Ficociello is so fluid, defensively, wherever he plays.
“I was a little hesitant to get on board with him initially to play all those positions last year,” Parrish said of Ficociello’s super-sub potential, “because I felt it affected his offense. Thinking of playing multiple positions and hitting the ball isn’t easy.
“But after watching him this year, he’s very good at third base, and very good at first base. And he plays the outfield very well – and throws very well. He’s made a believer out of me.
“And now he’s swinging the bat pretty consistently. He might have had a slow start, but for a while now he’s been right around .300. And now he’s starting to figure out his home-run swing and getting the ball in the air.
“He’s certainly got home-run power. And I would say, of his seven homers, probably most of them have been opposite-field homers. Obviously that translates to the fact he’s definitely got power.”
How soon he heads for Triple A Toledo hasn’t been determined. But it appears to be in the cards, particularly if the Tigers are thinking of Ficociello as one of those Don Kelly-Andrew Romine options down the road.
Dave Littlefield, the Tigers’ vice president for player development, is paying attention.
“He’s an interesting guy, a real good athlete, and real good defender,” Littlefield said, mentioning that Ficociello’s Double A repeat is consistent with a number of players who this year weren’t automatically promoted. It’s part of an organizational policy, Littlefield said, that’s been made firmer in concert with general manager Al Avila and manager Brad Ausmus.
“It comes from Al and Brad on down,” Littlefield said. “You want to get into a position where minor-league guys are earning their way to the next level. It’s not just JV-to-varsity.
“Ficociello, in that first year at Double A, we could see he was a good athlete – that there was lots of potential and talent there.
“I know Al and Brad and David Chadd (assistant general manager) had been talking the past couple of spring trainings that they felt, utility-wise, there was enough athletic ability there for him to play third base, right field, left field, and I believe he played some second base in college. So, there’s a lot more flexibility there.”
Parrish has seen it. Regularly.
“He’s a legitimate utility guy,” Parrish said. “He’s as good as there is at first base. And because he’s got such a good glove at first, it’s not that big of a transition to third base. He’s done that very smoothly.”