Stop me if you've heard this one before: "[Team such-and-such] boasts outfielder toted as this year's next big thing." It's a title that, without fail, raises the question of what sets this one apart, and whether he has a skill set that can beat the ever-ticking clock on the lifespan of a prospect. Adversity, meet Michael Gerber.
The Tigers weren't the only ones who saw something in the now 23-year-old right fielder, with the New York Yankees making their bid at Gerber as their 40th round selection in 2010. Gerber bypassed the offer, choosing instead to attend Creighton University, where he played four years before taking the plunge with Detroit as their 15th round selection in the 2014 MLB amateur draft.
During his inaugural assignment to short-season Connecticut in 2014, Gerber hit .286/.354/.493, adding a .207 ISO and .847 OPS through 57 games, before earning a brief promotion to Low-A West Michigan for the final eight games of the season. It wasn't until 2015 that West Michigan got a real taste for the ability embodied by the Naperville, Illinois, native.
Gerber concluded the 2015 season with a team highs in hits (150), doubles (31), triples (10, two short of a Midwest League-best), home runs (13) and RBI (76). With an .822 OPS, Gerber earned a Midwest League All-Star slot, as well as being named the Tigers minor league player of the year.
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After being ranked the No. 19 prospect in the Tigers' organization in 2015 by Baseball America, Gerber came screaming up the charts to land in the No. 3 slot for 2016. While his scouting grades have mainly landed him with 50s across the board, several aspects of his performance jump off the page in such a way that you're forced to take notice.
His roster profile weighs him in at 175 pounds, but the 6'2 outfielder could be leaning closer to 185. With a .176 ISO last season, his broad-shouldered left-handed swing is fluid and effortless. If you get to see it, that is. One of the most entertaining pieces to watching Gerber at the plate is his mental stamina, a characteristic made visible every time he settles in to hit.
Dan Farnsworth, Lead Prospect Analyst for FanGraphs, broke down his observation regarding Gerber's offensive focus.
"His plate discipline profile has been the product of patience at the plate rather than a discerning eye, as he will chase balls down out of the zone and won't be more than average in contact rate. He has been able to drive balls to all fields, though his power likely settles in the above average range while maxing out at a plus grade if his approach develops."
That same patience landed him on base with his top-three team production in walks and also top-three production in stolen bases with 16. While you won't find Gerber powering the ball in every at-bat, his consistent results give plenty of expectation for continued honing in his overall approach.
Baseball Prospectus' Chris Crawford saw Gerber during his time in the Arizona Fall League, and came away impressed.
"There's a lot to like about Gerber, and he was one of the most pleasant surprises of the Arizona Fall League. His short stroke allows him to make hard contact to every part of the field, and there's average power potential in his left-handed bat. Defensively Gerber can handle any of the three outfield spots, but he profiles best in right with good enough arm strength. Ultimately it probably profiles best as a fourth outfielder, but if he can hit at the higher levels like he did in the AFL/lower-levels, he has a real chance to rise in the system."
Defensively, Gerber solidified himself as a staple in right field for West Michigan and showed no real signs of difficulty in handling the corner, allowing only three errors in 135 games with West Michigan. Farnsworth also shared his thoughts on Gerber's outfield abilities, including some decent versatility.
"Defensively he fits in as a right fielder with slightly less arm strength or a left fielder with slightly more range than the typical fits."
Although Gerber showed obvious command in multiple categories with West Michigan, his biggest success question mark will most likely come in the form of maintaining production at the higher levels, both offensively and defensively. Farnsworth noted one area in particular.
"He has a solid swing with great hands. The only complaint I would have is how his swing can be too much of a one-piece move, without a lot of torque, particularly in his lower half at times."
A primary focus for Gerber going into 2016 will ultimately come down to his ability to adapt to his surroundings. There is agreement across the board that he possesses average to slightly above average numbers on all accounts, but maintaining the same consistency higher up the food chain will tell the full story of Gerber's chances at a trip to the Comerica Park outfield in the future.
Evaluation: Ben Badler, Baseball America
"Gerber quickly went from an under-the-radar, late-round pick to become one of the organization’s best prospects. He’s a smart hitter with a good approach and a short, simple swing that stays on plane through the hitting zone for a long time, so he’s able to make frequent contact and use the whole field. The biggest question mark on him is his power, which isn’t prototypical corner outfield power that many teams traditionally look for from that position, but he’s a well-rounded player who can give you value in a lot of different ways without too many holes in his game. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Tigers skipped him to Double-A to open the year."
Projected team: Double-A Erie
Coming off his breakout season with the Midwest League champion Whitecaps, the truest test for Gerber will come in the form of a jump to the Double-A level. Within the Tigers' organization, the most significant leap tends to come during the transition from Advanced-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie. Entering 2016 at the age of 23, a jump to Double-A should paint a clear picture as to whether Gerber's well-rounded profile will continue to thrive, or if this offseason's hype was all for naught.
Note: We're changing up our prospect coverage a bit this year. Instead of an "official" ranking of the best prospects in the system, we're going to profile those that are most interesting to us (and you too, hopefully). Don't worry, no one has been fired, and daily recaps will still happen during the season. We appreciate any constructive feedback you offer, and we'll take your prospect suggestions into account as well.