Tigers prospect Ficociello embraces super-utility track

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — You need to be very careful when you offer up player comparisons. And conversely, when you hear them, you need to keep them in perspective.

For example, the player Tigers prospect Dominic Ficociello draws comparisons to, at least from scouts and coaches within the organization, is Ben Zobrist of the Chicago Cubs. They aren’t saying he’s anywhere near as accomplished a player as Zobrist right now.

What they are saying is, in terms of his skill-set (promising offensive talents with no specific defensive position), his ticket to the big leagues could be in a Zobrist-type role.

“I don’t know if I’d throw Zobrist on him yet,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “He does have life in his bat and an arm that you can put just about anywhere on the field. But he still has to cut down on swings and misses and be more selective as a hitter.

“But when the bat connects with the ball, the ball comes off with a good sound.”

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The baseball axiom goes like this: If you can hit, teams will find a place for you to play in the field. That was the case with Zobrist, who has taken the role of a super utility player to another level — from being a versatile defensive fill-in to a way to get another productive bat into the lineup.

And Ficociello, despite a minor step-back last season, continues to show that he can hit. A switch-hitter (like Zobrist), he presently has more gap power than home-run power (like Zobrist), though he lined a three-run shot Tuesday against the Yankees.

He’s had six at-bats this spring before Wednesday and produced four hits and a Grapefruit League-leading five RBIs. Not too shabby.

“There’s a different level of comfort this year,” said Ficociello, drafted by the Tigers out of Arkansas in the 12th round in 2013. “It’s my second year (at big-league camp). Last year it was sitting back not trying to get in the way, learning and watching and coming in to play late in games. It was a little more tense last year.

“This year, being here again, I’m more relaxed. I feel more comfortable in here. I don’t feel out of place anymore.”

He’s always hit.

In 2014 at low-A West Michigan, he hit .275 with a .334 on-base percentage and .714 OPS. The next year playing between high-A Lakeland and Double A Erie, he hit .293, .349 and .764. In those two years, he produced 287 hits and 219 strikeouts.

Last season, though, after a solid showing in the Arizona Fall League and a productive spring training, he struggled early at Double A Erie. He wound up hitting .248 with a .329 on-base and .677 OPS.

Still, he had a scorching two-month stretch (38 games) where he hit .346, with a .412 on-base and .934 OPS.

“Spring training (production) is good, but we want to see it in-season on a more consistent basis,” Ausmus said. “We think the potential is there.”

Ficociello seems slated to start the year at Triple A Toledo, and it will be telling where new manager Mike Rojas plays him. He’s been playing first base and third base primarily this spring. He can also play corner outfield and, he said, in a pinch, second base.

Seeing the 6-4 Ficociello playing middle infield would be a treat. As Ausmus said, “He’d be the tallest second baseman since Geoff Blum (former Astro who was 6-3).”

Zobrist, who has played the same five positions as Ficociello, is 6-2.

“I don’t want people to see me as a one-trick pony,” Ficociello said. “As being a first baseman only. I’ve always played multiple positions. I came up as a shortstop, just like everybody else at this level.”

He was supposed to be starting third baseman when he got to Arkansas, but they had current Met Matt Reynolds there. So, to get his bat into the lineup, Ficociello was moved to first. He has good hands and, as Ausmus said, he has a strong arm.

The only reps he’s gotten in the outfield in this camp is during batting practice.

“It just comes down to showing people I can be the guy,” he said. “Wherever they need me to fill in at a spot, I can do it. Not just first base. Third base, left field, right field, second base — in an emergency situation —I could do that type of thing.

“It’s a role I can see myself taking on it.”

As for the Zobrist comp, he shrugged and said, “I don’t have a problem with that.”