Cam Gibson looks to cut swath through Tigers’ crowded OF pool

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. – This is an important season for Cam Gibson – at least from the Detroit Tigers’ perspective.

Gibson, the Tigers’ fifth-round pick out of Michigan State in 2015, is 24. He was promoted to High-A Lakeland last season and that’s likely where he will start this season. It will be big for him to play his way to at least Double-A Erie by season’s end.

Again, that’s how the organization views it. It’s the difference between a prospect advancing and stagnating.

Outfielder Cam Gibson takes batting practice at minor-league camp this month.

Gibson isn’t going to let himself look at it like that.

“I hope I get into a spot where I can possibly make a run in September or whenever they need me,” he said. “But wherever they put me, I’m going to do my best – regardless. I am going to be ready to play every day – Lakeland, Erie, Triple-A, I’ll be ready to play.”

A player can’t start looking at numbers and depth charts. It would overwhelm even a strong-minded competitor like Gibson.

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He’s is fighting for advancement in a pool of young outfielders that includes Daz Cameron (21, acquired in the Justin Verlander trade), Derek Hill (22, first-round pick in 2014), Troy Montgomery (23, acquired in the Ian Kinsler trade), Jose Azocar (22, ranked the 22nd top prospect in the organization), Herlis Rodriguez (23, free agent signed from Phillies organization), Jake Robson (23, ranked 29th in the organization) and Reynaldo Rivera (21, ranked 20th in the organization).

“Absolutely not,” Gibson said when asked if he felt any more pressure coming into his Age-24 season. “I feel great. Every day. There’s really only pressure if you put it on yourself. People will put pressure on you, but you can easily zone that out.

“As long as you don’t put pressure on yourself and you stay calm and do your job – then everything will be OK.”

Gibson, who traveled with the big-league club to Dunedin Monday and walked in his only plate appearance, played a lot of baseball last year. More than he’d ever played before. Counting his time in Low-A at West Michigan (where he hit .274 with 10 doubles, seven triples, 10 home runs and 12 stolen bases), Lakeland and the Arizona Fall League, he played 132 games and had 563 plate appearances.

Arizona was a reality check. Facing some of the top pitchers in Double-A and Triple-A, he hit .200 and struck out 24 times in 86 plate appearances.

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“You are facing the closest thing to big-league pitching that you are going to see until you actually get there,” Gibson said. “There’s guys that were in the big leagues out there. It’s an eye-opener. You realize you can be good, but there is still always something you can work on.

“You can be great, but there is still stuff you have to work on.”

Facing MLB-quality pitching in the Arizona Fall League was a reality check for Cam Gibson.

The experience wasn’t demoralizing for him, it was motivating.

“It points out the things you need to work on and pinpoint in your game,” he said. “A lot of guys get that from there. I got it from there. I took it with a grain of salt and got back to work.”

The big thing was learning how to make adjustments within each game and each at-bat.

“You step up in your first at-bat and there’s a guy throwing 103 mph – we saw that out there (in Arizona),” he said. “You really aren’t used to that. ‘All right, that guy is throwing 103 and he’s got a good change-up, what do I have to do at the plate?’

“And the next time up you are facing a submarine guy (sidearm deliver) throwing 92.”

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He is noticeably stronger, physically stronger. He’s up to 215, some 20 pounds heavier than he started last year. He hit 13 homers last year, one more than he hit in his first two pro seasons combined.

“The trainers here are freakin’ amazing,” he said. “I am great friends with all of them. They want me to sustain a good weight, around 210-215 and I have to listen to them. Listen to them and they’re going to get you where you need to be.”

There is no doubting Gibson’s battle level or perseverance – the apple didn’t fall far from the tree there. He competes with the same zeal his father (Kirk Gibson) did and he’s made incremental improvements at every level.

Case in point: In 2016, he struck out 24 percent of his at-bats at West Michigan. Last year, he cut his strikeout rate down to 14 percent. His on-base percentage increased by 32 points, his slugging percentage by 149 points and his OPS by 182 points.

He mastered Low-A. This year, High-A and possibly Double-A are his mountains to climb.

“It’s all about learning,” he said. “Baseball is a learning experience and you have to take it day by day.”