Hard-hitting Workman keeps climb up Tigers’ farm

Detroit Tigers

LAKELAND, Fla. — Traffic on Lake Parker Drive gets busy around rush hour, but the two-lane road that runs by Tigertown’s back fields usually stays quiet in between. So maybe it’s a good thing that Tigers prospects like shortstop Gage Workman usually take batting practice in Minor League minicamp just after 9 a.m. ET.

On Tuesday, Workman hit with international prospects Cristian Santana, Jose De La Cruz and Manuel Sequera, sluggers all. Workman, Detroit’s No. 14 prospect per MLB Pipeline, more than held his own, and sent a drive to the Drive on the bounce, thankfully with no cars passing by.

While Workman battled strikeouts in his first pro season, the ball jumps off his bat on contact. His tape-measure power at High-A West Michigan last summer rivaled that of his former Arizona State teammate Spencer Torkelson, who came through before him. Combine that with athletic, strong-armed defense at shortstop — MLB Pipeline named him the organization’s best defensive prospect — and the switch-hitting Workman has the kind of tools package that organizations like the Dodgers and Rays have built around.

With a little more development, he could well become the Tigers’ shortstop of the future.

The Tigers snagged Workman in the fourth round of the 2020 MLB Draft, three rounds after Torkelson. However, Workman was one of the most unique players in his Draft class. Though he played 124 games over three seasons as a Sun Devil, he was young for his group. He graduated high school a year early and enrolled at Arizona State at age 17.

“It was actually a religious decision,” Workman explained. “I’m LDS, which is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I was going to serve a two-year mission. So I was going to go to ASU a year early and then go on a two-year mission and then come back and hopefully be regular Draft age.

“It all came about, and then I ended up just staying at ASU. I felt like that’s where I was supposed to be. And that’s all kind of how it played out.”

Thus, while Workman has a wealth of baseball experience and physical maturity, he’s still just 22. And yet, he has an additional maturity very few at his stage of baseball know.

Workman had no Minor League season in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he attended the Tigers’ instructional camp at the end of the year. Shortly after that, Workman married his high school sweetheart, Alexa.

When Workman began his pro career last spring at Low-A Lakeland, he and Alexa decided to experience his first pro season together. Her job allowed her to work remotely during the day, so she could attend his games in the evening. When he was promoted in July, they made the move together.

“When we got the call, we drove together to West Michigan,” he said. “She was there the whole time.”

For a prospect on the move, it’s a challenge. But it provided Workman with some perspective.

“The best part of the whole thing was that she enjoys the games, but once we were home, we were talking about her day, talking about things that are in our lives besides baseball,” he said. “So it wasn’t just the mental beatdown for a full season. I was able to kind of get away from baseball when you’re off the field, and then focus once you get to the yard. She was awesome support.”

The support helped through a roller-coaster season. Workman’s first month at Low-A Lakeland included multiple hits in three of his first four games, a cycle in his 17th pro game, and stolen bases galore with a limit on pickoff throws in the Florida State League.

Workman was hitting .256 with a .782 OPS in 51 games at Lakeland when he got the call to West Michigan after their July 4 game. Less than 48 hours later, he was in the Whitecaps’ lineup and singled in his third at-bat.

The jump to High-A ball turned out to be tougher than the drive. After five weeks, Workman was batting .173 (22-for-127) with a 54-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 137 plate appearances. His defense fared better, but a .510 OPS was troubling.

“It was slow going for sure,” Workman said. “But to me, it was just going too quick. Whole body’s moving quick, my mind’s racing, thinking about a whole lot. So, just slowing it down and really focusing on simple things [was key].”

From that point in mid-August, he became more selective at the plate, bumped up his walk rate, dropped his strikeouts and churned out more extra-base power. He hit .300 (39-for-130) over 35 games with 14 doubles, seven homers, 23 RBIs and a .963 OPS.

The finish left Workman with respectable offensive numbers for the season, including 31 stolen bases, and a reputation for doing damage when he makes contact. But it also left him pondering what kind of hitter he needs to be.

“I definitely want to do damage at the plate; that’s always a goal,” Workman said. “But the focus of the offseason was to increase that contact. I want to be on base all the time. You’ve got to put the ball forward to get on base, so that was a goal.”

The solution was to keep the swing but improve pitch recognition. Workman spent the winter training his eyes with everything from colored and dotted baseballs to blinking lights to specialty glasses to video.

“In the offseason, every swing I take, that was the emphasis of getting my pitch in the zone and still doing damage with it,” he said.

The variety of pitchers he has seen in live batting practice this week also helps. His Friday morning included matchups against hard-throwing Dylan Smith and sidearming hurler Tanner Kohlhepp, both recent Draft picks and college standouts. He also has faced some wilder youngsters.

Workman could return to West Michigan, but considering how aggressively the Tigers promoted Ryan Kreidler a year ago, Double-A Erie shouldn’t be out of the question. Some evaluators compare the two, both with tall frames for a shortstop and similar hitting approaches.

Given Tigers manager A.J. Hinch’s love for versatility, it’s also possible Workman moves around the infield some, possibly third base like he played at Arizona State.

This much is clear: With Workman’s penchant for hard contact, even a small uptick in contact rate could make him an all-around impact prospect.

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