Gerber restores look of hidden draft gem for Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

To those familiar with Mike Gerber, it seemed a matter of time until one of the Tigers’ better-model prospects restored some of his past sheen.

It has happened.

Gerber cracked two home runs Thursday night for Double-A Erie, then added another Friday, all part of a 10-game spree in which he batted .439.

It implied a 24-year-old outfielder and left-handed hitter was back on a path that could, and maybe should, bring him to Comerica Park at some point in 2017.

“I’ll tell you, he’s a good-looking player,” said Erie manager Lance Parrish, who understands the Tigers are auditioning center fielders, which is Gerber’s everyday position for the SeaWolves.

“He’s coming along at the right time,” Parrish said, mentioning that Gerber’s range and speed easily transfer to a corner outfield spot. “I know what the needs are up there. The way he’s progressing, I could see good things for him down the road.”

Tigers minor-league report: Alcantara solid in Erie

Gerber is one of those stories all big-league clubs relish. He’s a story of discovery.

He played for Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, when the Tigers invested a 15th-round pick on him in 2014. He was 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, a plus defender in center, and he had “plus raw power,” according to a Baseball America scouting report.

But it seemed that .278 career batting average with the Bluejays didn’t overly impress big-league bird dogs, who saw him more as a corner outfielder on the big stage.

The Tigers got him relatively late and soon were thinking they’d made a steal.

He has a three-year, farm-system batting average of .291, with an .833 OPS. In those 364 games, he has 43 homers, 91 doubles, and 20 triples.

He also has struck out 334 times, which was one reason scouts weren’t overly wild about him at Creighton. Baseball America’s 2014 report said: “Aggressive to a fault at the plate, he sacrifices contact for power …”

Parrish can appreciate the critique. But he also sees progress. Steadily.

“Obviously, he’s been through some stretches where he’s struck out,” said the longtime Tigers catcher from the 1980s who later was a Tigers coach. “But through it all, he maintains a pretty good approach at the plate.

“From what I’ve seen this season, he’s kind of streaky. But right now he’s on a hot streak, and playing great in center field, as well. He runs down balls. He’s got good instincts out there, with good reads. He’s able to track balls down, fairly easily. It’s almost like when he gets a bead on it, he glides to it, he makes plays smoothly.”

But it’s the bat that gets you to the big leagues — if you’re an outfielder. And it’s the bat that has made the Tigers pay extra attention to that potential 2014 draft-crop bonus.

“I think it’s just swing mechanics,” Parrish said of Gerber, whose 2017 numbers are formidable: .331 batting average in 32 games, .386 on-base average, and .913 OPS, with 11 walks and 34 strikeouts.

“It’s kind of hard to put into words, but it’s not like he looks terrible when he’s going through a bad stretch. He can swing through a lot of pitches. Sometimes he pulls the trigger a little too late — lets the ball get a little deep. But he’s a guy who uses the whole field, and if you’re doing that, the pitch is going to run deeper.

“He’s hit an opposite-field homer the last two days,” Parrish said as the SeaWolves prepped Saturday for a game at Hartford that eventually was rained out. “And he smoked a couple of other balls they ran down the other way. But he’s got really good power, and, again, obviously he can hit the ball a long way to the other field.”

For any gains in 2017, Parrish and Gerber each pin a blue ribbon on Erie hitting coach Phil Clark.

“Phil just made sure I had a little more rhythm at the plate, not to be too tense,” Gerber said during a Saturday phone conversation. “He squared my stance off a bit. I was slightly open. Now I’m a little less so.

“I think my swing naturally allows me to go the other way with the ball. I think that’s a big part of my game, to hit the ball to all fields.”

This recent burst has all been part of a checklist Gerber had in place ahead of 2017.

“Hitting consistently,” Gerber said of his first objective. “And strikeouts — I was looking to really cut those down, which I’ve been able to do the past few weeks.

“That’s kind of a big one for me. My strikeout rate last year was higher (152 in 132 games) than I’d have liked. I want to cut that down, which is why I’m working so hard on my two-strike approach.”

There’s another item on that Gerber wish-list.

“Working on stealing bags,” Gerber said, running down his personal docket, “and trying to take that extra base. In college, I never really had the green light. I only stole when I was told to go. Now, I’m trying to get good jumps, reading the pitchers better.”

It’s good timing, as the Tigers might agree. JaCoby Jones has major potential as a choice in center even if he has resumed his apprenticeship at Toledo. But there could be an opening in right. J.D. Martinez is headed for free agency in the autumn. And how long he remains in Detroit is an open question.

Tyler Collins is on hand, of course. But help will be needed, one way or another, it seems, and Gerber at the moment has the glove, and the developing bat, to perhaps make things interesting in Detroit.