Former Michigan star Jimmy Kerr joins wave of Detroit Tigers prospects moving on up

Detroit Free Press

When Jimmy Kerr was promoted to the West Michigan Whitecaps, he felt at home — for good reason.

Kerr was born in Arizona but he was key member of the Michigan baseball team that advanced to the 2019 College World Series and his parents have a place in northern Michigan.

But there was another thing.

Kerr felt comfortable because of all of the familiar faces playing for the Whitecaps, the Detroit Tigers‘ High-A affiliate. The entire infield that started the year at Low-A Lakeland has been promoted and is now playing together in West Michigan: Kerr (first base), Wenceel Perez (second), Gage Workman (short), Andrew Navigato (third) and Cooper Johnson (catcher).

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“We all started together in Lakeland,” Kerr said. “It felt normal to be here playing with those guys again. It wasn’t like the biggest step up ever because these are guys I’m close with and love playing with.”

Tigers general manager Al Avila describes it as moving in waves.

A trio of young pitchers has already reached the big leagues: Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning.

Another group of prospects is playing together at Double-A Erie: Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson and Dillon Dingler.

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And the players in West Michigan are next in line.

“This is cool,” Kerr said. “When I got drafted back in ’19, I had some friends that have played here, like Blaise Salter, a good family friend of mine. He had nothing but amazing things to say about West Michigan. So the first goal was to spend a summer in West Michigan and it’s really cool to finally be here.”

It’s not just familiar faces in the dugout.

It extends to the faces in the stands.

“My family is gonna be here all the time and I’ve already been in contact with some of the coaches and staff over at the University (of Michigan),” he laughed. “We’ve had a lot a lot of people on the pass list, which is so fun.”

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How 2020 was a blessing

Kerr, 24, was the Tigers’ 33rd-round pick in the 2019 draft. He played in 25 games of rookie ball in 2019, hitting .278 with six home runs and seven doubles.

“The first year was awesome,” Kerr said. “It was a good taste of minor league baseball. I went from Omaha down to Florida. It was a good experience, a different kind of baseball, where you’re playing every day. Just a good adjustment period. We were playing with the Latin American guys and I got to see how those guys play, how much fun they have playing.”

He lost the entire 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think the year was a blessing in disguise,” Kerr said. “I hurt my back at the end of 2019. Having a year and a half without stressing my body every day worked out great.”

Kerr spent the summer in northern Michigan and then moved back to Ann Arbor to train. He started a baseball facility with Ben Keizer, a left-handed pitcher from Portage Northern who played at Michigan and is now in the New York Yankees organization.

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“We found a spot and started a little business,” Kerr said. “It’s called K2 Baseball. We had a little facility on the west side of Ann Arbor.”

They trained with former Michigan players in the morning and coached high school players in the afternoon.

“It was a very cool experience to go through the whole life cycle of a small business and stay ready at the same time,” Kerr said.  “We just kept each other accountable, working hard and continuing to stay locked in even though it was such a weird time not knowing if we were gonna go back or not.”

Earlier this year, Kerr returned to Florida for his first spring training and was assigned to the Lakeland Flying Tigers. He batted .225 in 54 games, hitting five homers and 10 doubles.

“I feel like I started out hitting pretty well down in Lakeland,” Kerr said. “I definitely had my struggles throughout the last few weeks. But we always try to get better every single day.”

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Kerr is trying to clean up his swing and miss. He had 41 hits with 67 strikeouts in Lakeland.

“The coaches have really just been working on me making good decisions at the plate, swinging at the right pitches and letting the quality contact take care of itself,” Kerr said.

That magical run

Playing for the Whitecaps, Kerr looks up in the stands and sees plenty of U-M hats and T-shirts.

Two years removed from a magical College World Series run — in which U-M lost to Vanderbilt in the championship game and Kerr was named to the all-tournament team — Kerr can see how that experienced altered the course of his life.

“It was definitely life-changing,” Kerr said. “If we don’t make that tournament, we probably look back on our Michigan careers very differently. I don’t even know if I’d be playing professional baseball or not right now. So that run was totally life changing and brought that group so close and fortified a lot of those friendships that were had throughout the first four years of college.”

Chris Fetter, who was the U-M pitching coach, has taken that role with the Tigers.

“He was such a big part of the success of that 2019 team,” Kerr said. “He’s such an impactful coach. It is not surprising at all to see growth of those young (Tigers) up in the big leagues.”

Kerr has been playing mostly first base in the minor leagues. But he is also dabbling in the outfield.

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“First base is great and that’s probably where I feel at home the most,” Kerr said. “I’m kind of in the honeymoon phase in the outfield, where I couldn’t believe I was actually playing outfield in a professional baseball game. That was one of the coolest things ever. It’s been really fun, trying something new and just having fun with it.”

He hit a home run and a double in his first three Whitecaps games.

“There are 6,000 or 7,000 people all going crazy,” Kerr said. “Honestly, the first impression has been amazing. I’m just trying to stay in the moment and appreciate every single day. You never know when the career is gonna end. You never know when your last day of baseball is. And just the fact that I’m still getting to play baseball every day is an absolute blessing.”

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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