Better mental approach pays off for Tigers’ Daz Cameron

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — One-third of the talent the Tigers netted in last August’s deadline deal with Houston sat Wednesday at a table in a meeting room at the TigerTown complex.

The room still looks and smells new a year after a nearly $50 million facilities face-lift wrapped up at Lakeland, where the Tigers have been training since 1934.

This seemed like appropriate ambiance for a new and potentially crowd-pleasing Tigers prospect. Daz Cameron did not disagree. He enjoys the trappings at TigerTown. He enjoys his new team — and his new opportunity, as a center fielder, in a system hungry for position talent.

He acknowledged all of this is quite different from emotions that poured over him last Aug. 31, at midnight, as he sat chomping on postgame appetizers at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Peoria, Ill.

He had seen a few minutes earlier his name crawl across the bottom of ESPN’s screen. It spoke of a trade between the Tigers and Astros. Justin Verlander was headed to Houston in a package that would bring to Detroit three prospects: Cameron, pitcher Franklin Perez, and catcher Jake Rogers.

And then he got a phone call from his dad, Mike, who played 17 seasons as a big-league outfielder.

“The deal’s off — don’t worry,” Mike told his son, explaining that Verlander, who had veto power over any deal, was balking.

A half-hour later, Mike Elias, the Astros assistant general manager, called with an update. Verlander had relented and Cameron was indeed headed to Detroit.

“It was kind of like getting drafted,” Cameron said Wednesday as the Tigers, in a bow to the team’s youth campaign, made a handful of prospects available for media interviews.

Cameron meant that as quickly as a player can learn on draft night he is property of one professional team, he can — in the span of an evening’s trade conversations — be headed elsewhere. It’s a lesson in life’s impromptu relocations.

Cameron returned to the Quad Cities — Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa, Moline and Rock Island in Illinois — where he was then playing for the Quad City River Bandits. He sorted through his apartment, loaded essentials into a truck, and then hit the expressway bound for Comstock Park, Mich., and his new baseball team, the West Michigan Whitecaps.

The Tigers are happy to have him. Especially the way Cameron hit during last season’s second half: .309 in July, with a .374 on-base percentage and .906 OPS; .377 in August, with a .460 on-base and 1.026 OPS.

It was quite a turnaround from a bad May (.163, .230, and .442 OPS) and became part of Cameron’s strong full-season numbers at Quad Cities and West Michigan: .271, .351, .814.

When you are 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, cover square acreage on a scale Cameron absorbs, and begin to show the bat big-league scouts had been waiting for, you not only become part of a mega-trade for a pitcher as lofty as Verlander, you confirm that first-round draft status earned when the Astros grabbed him 37th overall in 2015.

What exactly clicked for Cameron ahead of last summer’s blastoff he explains in simple terms. It was mental. All of it.

“Just figuring out what I wanted to do at the plate,” said Cameron, a young man who is polite to the point of being distinguished. “A better routine. Having a plan. Knowing what a pitcher does in a certain count. Mentally, I feel like that’s key for me and enables me to use my athleticism.”

Cameron was born in McDonough, Ga., an Atlanta suburb, and was an Eagle’s Landing High star when the Astros convinced him professional baseball would be more beneficial than a scholarship at Florida State.

He didn’t hit particularly well his first two summers in the minors. But then came last year’s epiphany.

He became wedded to “the plan.” Lay off pitcher’s pitches. Work the count. Get a good pitch to hit. The results can be seen in that high-altitude on-base mark, which in part was product of 48 walks in 522 plate appearances combined at Quad Cities and West Michigan (three games).

“I don’t want to chase, I want to be patient,” said Cameron, who also clubbed 14 home runs, 29 doubles, and eight triples, enhanced nicely by 32 stolen bases. “You’ve got to take what they give you. You want to be aggressive, but not overly aggressive.”

The Tigers became even bigger Cameron fans during last autumn’s instructional league at TigerTown, when their quality minor-league prospects gathered for postseason polishing.

“Maybe it was the fact we got him late and could see him for a longer stretch,” Dave Littlefield, vice president for player development, said after last fall’s seminar. “But he’s got some pop with that bat. He can run, he’s aggressive, smart, with a strong body — just a lot of things to like there.

“He’s serious about his craft, works hard, and appears to be an achiever.”

Cameron has a chance to begin the year at Double-A Erie. It’s not final yet. But it speaks to a team’s belief in a right-handed batter, with big-league genetics, who takes the game as seriously as his dad did, that the Tigers are considering stationing him at an advanced farm level only a few weeks after Cameron turned 21.

“I’m here to work,” Cameron said Wednesday, in between trading quips with another Tigers blue-chip farmhand, Beau Burrows. “I’m here to get the routine started.”