Tigers hope ‘smooth’ Gage Workman can stick at shortstop for the long haul

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
| The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. – Only eight months ago on a sun-washed field in Tempe, Ariz., with Camelback Mountain’s brown slopes in the distant outfield background, Gage Workman was slurping up grounders and firing the ball to his Arizona State teammate and first baseman, Spencer Torkelson.

Last week at Marchant Stadium’s Publix Field, Workman and Torkelson wore Tigers uniforms.

They also stood at different positions. Torkelson instead was at third. Workman had moved a few feet to Torkelson’s left and was planted at shortstop.

“Wasn’t too hard of a transition,” said Workman, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound switch-hitter who played shortstop in high school. “I had hoped I could get back to short. I enjoy it.

“I mean, I always have felt that I could play shortstop. And for the Tigers to have given me that opportunity was pretty cool.

“It just made it better that my teammate was my partner, which is something we’d never done before.”

History unique to the Sun Devils and to their status as a college-baseball celebrity – and just as specific to two players’ hitting talents – explains why Torkelson and Workman were playing different positions at ASU. And why they were side-by-side on the Tigers’ infield’s left half as Instructional Camp carried on for Detroit’s top prospects.

Torkelson and Workman both arrived at ASU in 2017, along with a California recruit, Alika Williams, as shortstops. All were good. Very good.

That presented a nice challenge to ASU coach Tracy Smith as he sorted out the congestion. He opted to divide and conquer, three ways: Williams would stick at short. Workman would settle in at third. Torkelson would set up at first base.

Three years later, what might have been a ticket for ASU to the College World Series was ripped apart by COVID-19 and cancellation of the Sun Devils’ season.

Torkelson, however, had dazzled, and was headed to the Tigers with the first overall pick in June’s MLB Draft.

Williams also was snagged in the first round, by Tampa Bay, while Workman went a bit deeper, in the fourth round to the Tigers.

Torkelson’s shift to third is going fine, for now, as far as the Tigers are concerned. They’ll wait at least another season before deciding if third is permanent or, perhaps, if Torkelson is a better option at first, or even as a corner outfielder.

Workman, meanwhile, looked last week as if he hadn’t played anywhere but short between his years at Basha High, in Chandler, Ariz., and his arrival at TigerTown.

He didn’t handle any surplus of chances during a pair of games against minor-league teams from Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh. But he moved niftily and naturally. His arm particularly shined: He whistles the ball at high speed and on target.

But the Tigers picked Workman for reasons other than defense.

They like his bat. His power from both sides, specifically. And how high could be the ceiling for a man who Saturday turns 21.

Fourth-round steal?

“Really like what we have seen so far,” said Dave Littlefield, who heads the Tigers’ player development. “Smart, athletic ballplayer, with a lean, long, wiry body. Smooth swing. Fluid defender for his size, with great makeup. Shortstop looks like a real possibility at this point.

“Our scouts did a nice job getting him.”

This all stacks up with what at least one other big-league scout, for a 2020 playoff team, said confidentially this summer about Workman: That he had hoped to persuade his club to draft Workman as early as the second round. That a superb athlete was just beginning to blossom in March when the pandemic shut down ASU’s season. And, the scout said, that the Tigers very possibly had made a fourth-round steal.

It all hinges on how Workman hits for a team that gambled on his upside.

Much depends on a first chore: trimming strikeouts. There were too many at ASU. This past season, Workman’s junior year, saw the Sun Devils play only 17 games as Workman batted .250, with three home runs, a .787 OPS, and 21 whiffs.

A year ago, in 57 games, Workman batted .330, with eight homers and a .947 OPS, while striking out in 68 at-bats against 20 walks.

The rival-club scout was no more concerned about Workman’s swings and misses than were the Tigers. No, the scout said, Workman’s pattern has been to start slowly each season, as he did this year, only to catch fire later. And, the scout said, that’s exactly what was happening as ASU’s season folded: Workman was heating up, as two home runs in his final game, against Fresno State, might have implied.

The scout said Workman was on his way to second-round draft status, with a shot at making it into the compensation-pick corridor between the first and second rounds had coronavirus not intruded.

Not that the whiffs can be overlooked. A strikeout rate above 22 or 23 percent is seen by most clubs as difficult to surmount, with Workman’s leaning toward the higher 20s.

Making better contact, forging better at-bats, has been a priority as a young hitter bores into Tigers camp for five weeks of training. How much progress can he expect to make when hitters’ habits so often are ingrained?

“I think you can make a lot,” said Workman, who was a sharp student at ASU, majoring in exercise and wellness. “I think I’ve made a lot of progress since the beginning of this summer.

“When I got here (signed by the Tigers), we went over the analytics a little bit. That was the focus, and for me, it had never really been the focus before.

“We got into pitch-selection, hunting zones, making sure pitches I would swing at were in the fat part of the zone.

“I’m hunting pitches now. And I feel like I’ve made solid improvements.”

If only a couple of games can be considered, change in fact is in the cards. Workman walked three times in the games against Pirates and Blue Jays minor-leaguers and steadily ran up deep counts, including one at-bat of at least nine pitches.

Workman struck out only once, on another marathon at-bat that finally saw him whiff on a 95-mph, 3-2 fastball that beat him high in the zone.

“He was really grinding,” said Andrew Graham, the Single A Lakeland manager who skippered both games last week. “I don’t think I saw a single at-bat that was less than six pitches.”

Small sample, as they say. But if the at-bats hadn’t been so consciously different, and so much an effect of that new hitting emphasis, Workman says even his turns last week likely would have gone a different route.

Edge in athleticism

Scouts inside and outside the Tigers galaxy believe Workman has another edge: his overall athleticism. It’s at the center of his switch-hitting bat, which he has been swinging since he was a child. One might guess where the sports skills originate.

Workman’s father, Widd, was a 1996 third-round pick by the Rockies as a pitcher and made it as high as Double A. His mother, Shayla, played basketball at Cal State-Fullerton.

Widd, who is 46 and who now has his own physical-therapy practice, can still throw with enough fire to have helped keep Gage in tune during his summer at home as the 2020 minor-league calendar was zapped.

“We have a cage in our backyard, so there was a lot of cage work,” Workman said of his weeks and months after signing a deal for full, fourth-round slot value under MLB’s guidelines: $571,400. “My dad, being a pitcher, threw a lot of BP to me.

“There was also a lot weight-lifting.”

Which is how Workman rose from 195 pounds as he left ASU to 205 as he checked into Lakeland earlier this month.

Athleticism that allowed him to play deftly as a basketball forward at Basha High is pretty much a hallmark of the Workman family, as is a propensity for original names.

Gage’s middle name is Tater, which not only is old-fashioned slang for a home run, but more directly was his paternal grandfather’s nickname.

He has an older brother, Trey Gunnar. Then, there is a younger brother: Bitner Widd Workman, as well as a sister, Rea K – yes, a single initial middle name – and the youngest of all, another brother, Kutter Cy.

Nothing boring about those monikers. Nor, to date, says Workman, has there been anything jaded about his professional baseball baptism with the Tigers.

He didn’t necessarily know last June that the Tigers were hot on him. And while he hoped he would be picked early, he wasn’t offended when he slipped to the fourth round.

What mattered was getting on with baseball, even if he concedes he knew next to nothing about Detroit, or the Tigers.

“They’re a good organization and I’m glad to be here,” he said, adding that getting a taste of the TigerTown complex, with its vast acreage has been “cool.”

“The fields are really nice,” he said. “The dorms are slightly old, but they’re livable.”

So, for now, is that left-field infield set-up, with him at short and his old Sun Devils crony, Torkelson, at third.

If the bat catches fire and the strikeouts cool, the Tigers are banking that they caught a good one in Workman.

And if his power evolves as a team dreams it will, don’t be surprised if his middle name – Tater – is resurrected, in a strict baseball context.

That’s a baseball term the Tigers and their power-hungry rebuild will more than welcome.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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