Around the Tigers’ farm: Gage Workman making shift to shortstop work at Lakeland

Detroit News

The Tigers have peeked under rocks. They’ve climbed trees to better scan the baseball landscape. They’ve all but advertised their needs on ZipRecruiter as they search for that Next Good Shortstop a team building for an eventual return to October’s playoffs must feature.

If it isn’t Ryan Kreidler at Double-A Erie, or Adinso Reyes, a youngster now training with the Tigers West Team in the Florida Complex League, it ideally might be Gage Workman at Single-A Lakeland.

Workman was drafted a year ago by the Tigers, in the fourth round from Arizona State, as a big switch-hitter (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) who was about to be moved from third base to shortstop.

With a brand of irony baseball loves to deliver, Workman was shifted from third to short to make room for Spencer Torkelson at third. Torkelson, of course, was also an Arizona State player and infield-corner teammate of Torkelson before both became Tigers recruits last June.

Workman has been getting comfortable at short — on all ends.

He had a double and a triple Saturday as the Flying Tigers walloped the hated Daytona Tortugas, 7-2. It left him, through 50 games, with a .255 batting average, .354 on-base percentage, and .422 slugging average, which is worth a .776 OPS.

Those numbers have steadily gotten better, including a big one: strikeouts, with only four in Workman’s last five games entering Sunday. That’s a gain, for sure, over his 60-whiff total in 50 games.

He also has been playing acceptably at short. And he’s running well, especially for a big lad, as 22 stolen bases confirms.

There are, of course, issues. And not only about cutting down on those punch-outs.

Workman is batting .283 with an .847 OPS as a left-handed hitter. Swinging right-handed, ouch: .121 and .438.

He has three home runs, 15 doubles, four triples — and 29 walks.

“I like him a lot, and, obviously, the organization does, too,” said Jeff Branson, who is the Tigers’ minor-league hitting instructor. “He’s a switch-hitter, and he’s got some work to do from the right-handed side to get more consistent at-bats. But he’s another guy who can use the whole field and drive balls through the gaps.”

The Tigers are buying Workman stock for reasons that surpass his size, his both-sides bat, and what he has to date shown.

They view Workman as being one of MLB’s countless COVID casualties — players who were denied an entire year of development due to a pandemic that shut down last year’s farm season. This year is the least they owe a talented 21-year-old playing his first games since early 2020.

They also asked him, minus last year’s initiation, to change positions. That’s a good deal to process in the minor-league season’s first 60 days.

“He’s doing a nice job, especially for a guy who hadn’t played much shortstop,” said Dave Littlefield, who heads Tigers player development. “He’s really responded well.”

There will be no quick relocation to upper-A West Michigan as Workman’s first full year of pro baseball plays out. The Tigers believe they can tutor him and his switch-bat with the help of Branson and John Murrian, who is Lakeland’s every day hitting coach.

They also like what’s happening on defense, thanks to Workman’s natural gifts and reactions at that oh-so fierce position known as shortstop.

Now, if they can get that right-handed stick going.

“It just takes extra work,” Branson said. “Obviously, you don’t get as many at-bats from the right side as you do from the left when there are so many right-handers throwing. But without a doubt, I think he can hit.”

It wasn’t only the Tigers who a year ago liked Workman as a potential shortstop. Another club, from the National League, was also being lobbied by one of its area scouts to draft Workman early and think of relocating him, said the scout, who requested anonymity because of internal sensitivities.

So, the tutelage continues. The at-bats continue. And the mission to hit with some sustained crunch from both sides of the plate, with as few strikeouts as possible, becomes Workman’s quest, all as the Tigers seek that next quality everyday shortstop.

Arms race at West Michigan

Pitching depth, or lack thereof, is one reality tracking the Tigers, even as Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Matt Manning shift to full seasons in Detroit.

Joey Wentz and Alex Faedo are convalescing from Tommy John surgery and should also help, more likely in 2021.

That leaves a batch of farm teams trying to forge a new wave of starters. There is potential help germinating at West Michigan.

Keider Montero, a 20-year-old right-hander, has the highest ceiling and could by next year be looking at Double-A work. He’s 6-1, 150 pounds, and adding some helpful bulk to his body as he builds a resume that reveals a 2021 ERA of 4.98 and 63 hits in 47 innings spanning 11 starts — with 49 strikeouts and 15 walks.

Keep tabs on Montero, given that those numbers should steadily get better, firmly so. He was 20th on The News’ 2021 list of top 50 Tigers prospects.

As for a few of his Whitecap cohorts:

Brendan White, RHP, 22, 5-11, 185 (26th round draft pick, 2019, Siena):  He’s starting, exclusively, after working in the bullpen and has been sharp: 1.08 ERA in five starts, 0.84 WHIP, 25 innings, 15 hits, six walks, 24 strikeouts, .169 opposing batting average

“He’s been able to attack the strike zone on both sides,” said West Michigan manager Brayan Pena. “He forces hitters to make early contact. His fastball can go 95, but mostly 93, 94. He’s got a slider that’s his out-pitch and he’s not afraid to use it in any count. We like his arm, like his metrics, and now he’s getting an opportunity to start.”

Adam Wolf, LHP, 24, 6-6, 215 (fifth round, 2018, Louisville): He made it to West Michigan last month after roughing up low-A batters at Lakeland, and has been even better with the Whitecaps: three starts, 18⅓ innings, 10 hits, five walks, 14 punch-outs, 0.82 WHIP and .161 opposing batting average.

“Very interesting young pitcher,” Pena said. “Fastball is 91, 92, but we believe it’s going to get better and stronger. He’ll get it to 93, 94. I really like the way he’s used his change-up, and I like his curveball. He trusts his pitches.”

Beau Brieske, RHP, 23, 6-3, 200 (27th round, 2019, Colorado State-Pueblo): Brieske’s been doing it all spring, straight into the summer: 10 starts, 3.55 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, thanks to 45⅔ innings, 37 hits, nine walks, 56 strikeouts. Opposing batting average: .219.

“Very interesting young pitcher,” Pena said. “He’s one of those guys who’s getting a lot of swings and misses, which is kind of rare to see at this level. His fastball can go to 96, and probably averages 93, 94. Very strong guy. Athletic, and his body’s powerful.

“He can reach the upper 90s with that fastball and has a wipeout slider and a change-up. He’s understanding the kind of pitcher he can be.”

More pitching help, of course, is expected to be snagged a week from now when the Tigers dive into the 2021 MLB Draft.

Until then, a team that realizes you’ll go in this game only as far as your pitching allows, will be praying for health and for a select few gents to move from farm-team apprentices to big-league rotation help, preferably soon.

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

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