Bernard vows to keep fighting to make Tigers
Detroit — How far has Wynton Bernard come in two years? How about from baseball’s scrap heap to within sniffing distance of the big leagues.
So close, in fact, he thought he was getting the call last September.
“The last week of August the guys were talking about it around the clubhouse,” said Bernard, a 25-year-old outfielder who most likely will begin the season at Triple A Toledo. “My teammates were cheering me on, ‘Hey, man, you are going to get called up.’
“And I was tearing it up in August (at Double A Erie), hitting like .360, just going off. I was like, ‘All right, get ready to go.’ ”
The call didn’t come. When rosters expanded in September, the Tigers recalled outfielder Steven Moya and eight other players from Toledo.
“It was a little disappointing,” he said. “But I kind of looked at it like it wasn’t my time. It’s on God’s time, not my time. I am just happy to be in the organization. When it is my time, I’ll be ready.”
By now you probably know Bernard’s backstory. He was released by the Padres just before training camps opened in 2014. Desperate to find a team, he flew from Southern California to Lakeland to compete in a Tigers tryout camp on the back fields in Lakeland, Fla.
He was by far the best player on those fields that day, and he’s been among the best players on all the fields he’s played on since.
In 2014, he hit .323 with 45 stolen bases at low-A West Michigan and was named Most Valuable Player of the Midwest League. Last season, at Erie, he hit .301, led all Double A hitters with 161 hits and stole 43 bases.
That’s 325 hits and 88 stolen bases in two minor league seasons. And there are no red flags defensively. He’s made just seven errors in two seasons in center field.
Yet, MLB.com rates him as the club’s 24th best prospect. Baseball America does not have him ranked in the top 20. Moya, Derek Hill, Christin Stewart, JaCoby Jones (who could be moved to the outfield) and Mike Gerber are all ranked ahead of him in the outfield.
“Just like my whole life,” he said. “It’s been an uphill battle. I take it in stride. I think I’ve prepared myself for everything. A lot of people have doubted me. It’s fine. I will just let my numbers speak for themselves.”
The Tigers, after signing Justin Upton last week, are set in the outfield: Upton in left field, J.D. Martinez in right field, Anthony Gose and Cameron Maybin in center. If they keep a fifth outfielder, it would likely be left-handed-hitting Tyler Collins.
That leaves Moya (a left-handed hitter) and Bernard (right-handed) as the immediate outfield depth at Triple A. So close, yet still so far away.
“I try not to think about that,” Bernard said. “It’s hard not to, but I really try not to think about it too much. I can’t control it. All I can control is having good at-bats and proving everybody right, and proving everybody wrong.”
Bernard carries with him some advice Torii Hunter gave him.
“Just go into every game like you are a major league player,” he said. “That’s been my mentality. Never throw one at-bat away. Treat every day like you are a major league player. You know, I went from Single A ball to the major league camp (before last season). That’s a huge jump, but it didn’t feel like it.
“I prepared like I was going to be a major league player.”
That mindset helped him make the difficult jump from low A to Double A last season and it helped him succeed in the rough-and-tumble Venezuelan Winter League this offseason.
He played 20 games for Caracas, hit .288. with a .337 on-base percentage and .737 OPS.
It was an eye-opening experience; stadiums full of screaming people, some throwing beer bottles into the outfield.
“It was crazy,” he said. “After I got out there I thought, ‘This is kind of similar to what it feels like in the big leagues.’ A smaller number of fans, but at the same time everybody is so loud it makes it feel like a big league atmosphere.
“I just tried to take that into my at-bats, keep everything calm and composed. Just know that I am here, I want to be a major league player and this is what it’s going to take.”
Bernard is undaunted by the seemingly long odds against him and hungry for the challenge and opportunity that awaits this spring. Like he said, he wakes up every day thinking and preparing like he is a big league player.
“Going from Single A to Double A, I learned a lot,” he said. “Facing those pitchers who are top prospects and having success against them — I feel very confident going into this spring.”