Story of redemption: New Tiger Travis Demeritte slugs way from bust to big-leaguer

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
New Tiger Travis Demeritte recorded his first MLB hit, a triple, against the Rangers in the seventh inning on Friday.

Arlington, Texas — Travis Demeritte was a first-round pick of the Texas Rangers in 2013. On Friday, six years and two organizations later, he made his MLB debut — at Globe Life Park, against the Rangers, as a Detroit Tiger.

“It’s full circle, man,” he said before Detroit's 5-4 loss. “Like it was destined to be.”

If that’s true, then destiny has a twisted sense of humor. Because the road this 24-year-old Georgia native traveled to reach his destiny was littered with failure and full of potholes, road blocks, unforeseen turns and detours. 

“I’m proud of the road I’ve taken,” Demeritte said. “It led me here to this destination. It’s been a childhood dream of mine to play major league baseball and I’m here.”

The Tigers acquired Demeritte and left-handed pitcher Joey Wentz from the Braves Wednesday for closer Shane Greene. Demeritte, after struggling mightily in the Rangers system for three years, has come of age with the Braves.

He had hit 28 doubles and 20 home runs, with a .387 on-base average and a .944 OPS at Triple-A Gwinnett at the time of the trade. From 2016-2018, his wRC-plus (weighted runs created plus) was 117. This year, it was over 150.

“I hope he beats the crap out of them,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire joked when asked about Demeritte making his debut against the team that drafted him. “That’s the way it’s supposed to work, isn’t it? I hope he has a great day against the team that drafted him.

“But he’s got to know, they drafted him for a reason. Because he’s a pretty good baseball player. I know he has good thoughts about that organization, but coming back, I’m sure he wants to show them what they’re missing out on.”

Demeritte started in right field, the position vacated by Nick Castellanos, who was traded to the Cubs. Victor Reyes, who is filling in for injured left fielder Christin Stewart (concussion), will also play some in right. Demeritte had a triple, two walks and a stolen base in his debut Friday night.

“The Braves have been doing really well and I wasn’t sure (he was in their plans),” Demeritte said. “So when my manager told me this was happening, I was excited. New opportunity. To come over here is the opportunity of a lifetime.”

There had to be a time where he doubted this day would come. He was the 30th pick in the draft and given a six-figure signing bonus straight out of high school. And he struggled. In his first two seasons in Low-A, his strikeout total was higher than his batting average — 240 strikeouts in 568 at-bats and a .220 batting average.

In 2015, Demeritte was suspended 80 games after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs.

“It was tough,” he said. “I definitely had some maturing to do throughout that process. It’s been a long road. You learn what your priorities are in life and who you are as a person. What works for you and what doesn’t.

“I had to go through the same trials and tribulations that everybody else does.”

The difference being, he was a first-round bonus baby with high expectations and unlike a college kid who flunks first-year chemistry, he failed on a public stage. He had to learn to ignore the expectations of others and just be — as corny as it sounds — the best player he could be.

“It’s just a matter of being confident in who I am and knowing what I can do,” he said. “Being aware of my strengths and weaknesses and not worrying too much about what could happen. Just let it happen. Enjoy the moment and have fun playing this game.”

Because until he got to the Braves and started swatting home runs (80 since 2016) and knocking in runs (252), he was having absolutely no fun.

“That was the biggest adjustment I’ve made — just relax,” he said. “I’ve put too much pressure on myself at times to be great — not great, but perfect. I wanted to be perfect and that's just mentally draining. I went through that for a couple of years and I finally decided, you know what, this just isn’t fun anymore.

“I just went back to having fun. That was the biggest thing.”

Demeritte also changed his hitting mechanics, or at least his approach. He had a long swing and exceptionally fast hands and, as similarly afflicted Tigers center fielder JaCoby Jones discovered, that is a bad combination.

“I didn’t really change my swing, I just learned how to utilize my quick hands,” he said. “I cut down on my leg kick a little bit, and cut down my stride, and just allowed my hands to work.”

Mostly though, Demeritte's biggest adjustment was clearing all the negativity and the residue of his early failures out of his head.

“The mind is a powerful thing,” he said. “A very powerful thing. You often hear that, but until you realize how true that statement is and you start blocking out some things and focusing on what’s really important here, then you can get a lot of stuff done.”

Demeritte and Stewart grew up terrorizing the travel baseball circuit in Atlanta area. Niko Goodrum is from the same area, too, but he’s older.

“It’s nice to come here and see a friend, a guy I played ball with growing up,” Demeritte said. “I just remember, he was so much bigger than everybody else and watching hit the ball — man, he hit it a long way. I was just glad I didn’t have to pitch to him.”

He was asked what kind of player he was.

“I think I’m an exciting player,” he said. “You never know what you are going to get.”

He quickly realized how that sounded, given his early struggles.

“I mean that in a good way,” he said, laughing. “From the outside you might see a little guy, but I pack a punch.”

Around the horn

Second baseman Josh Harrison (hamstring surgery) has restarted his rehab assignment at Triple-A Toledo. Gardenhire said he expects him to get 45 at-bats or so before making a decision about bringing him back up.

… Reliever Victor Alcantara (finger) will begin a rehab assignment at Toledo, as well. He’s been out since July 21.

… Pitcher Spencer Turnbull (back) is expected to make one more rehab start at Toledo before rejoining the team next week.

Tigers at Rangers

First pitch: 8:05 p.m. Saturday, Globe Life Park, Arlington, Texas

TV/Radio: FSD/97.1

Scouting report:

LHP Matthew Boyd (6-8, 3.94), Tigers: With the trade deadline looming and his name churning in the rumor mill, Boyd went out and spun back-to-back gems, allowing three runs with 18 strikeouts covering 12.1 innings in his last two outings. His 178 strikeouts rank fifth in the American League, and his 12.1 punch-outs per nine innings is third.

RHP Adrian Sampson (6-8, 5.32), Rangers: In his last three starts (sandwiched around three relief appearances), he’s got roughed up pretty good — 14.2 innings, 18 runs, 25 hits. He has a sinker (93 mph), slider, change-up mix, with the sinker getting hit at a .343 rate with 14 home runs. His hard-hit rate (46.4) is in the bottom two percentile in baseball.

Twitter: @cmccosky