It sounds like a movie. Hell, it was a movie, in a sense. Baseball can surprise you sometimes, and it certainly did so in Wynton Bernard's case. A speedy outfielder who played for a couple of small colleges before making his way to pro ball, Bernard has taken the Detroit Tigers' farm system by storm over the past two years.
Bernard won the Midwest League MVP in 2014 after earning a contract through an open tryout -- one he paid his own way to, no less -- and was a surprise addition to the Tigers' 40-man roster at the end of the season. We were skeptical of the move at the time, but Bernard continued to prove us (and other doubters) wrong with a solid season at Double-A Erie in 2015, jumping the Advanced-A level entirely.
While hitting .301/.352/.408 in his first crack at the Double-A level should silence most detractors, there are still doubts as to how high Bernard can go. Evaluators are quite mixed on him, with some projecting a platoon future and others seeing no big league future ahead. His skill set should earn him an honest look at some point, but it may take an injury or two for that to happen in 2016.
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Bernard's standout tool is his excellent speed, which evaluators have teetered on labeling as double-plus (70 grade). It helped him steal a whopping 88 bases over the past two seasons, and helps him cover a lot of ground in center field. Getting on base may be a bit of a challenge as Bernard progresses to the highest levels of the game, but his speed down the line should help him squeak out a few more base hits as well. MLB.com gave his speed a 65 grade, and offered the rosiest outlook of Bernard's future that I've seen.
While he's 25 years old, he's still a little green in terms of experience as he continues to figure things out. His plus speed is his carrying tool and he thinks he's capable of stealing 70 bases a year once he learns the nuances of the craft. He can really go get the ball in center field and while his arm is fringy, it's accurate.
Scouts aren't sold on Bernard's ability to continue hitting for average, but the numbers haven't lied so far. Bernard hit .323/.394/.442 for Single-A West Michigan, and .301/.352/.408 for Double-A Erie last season. His numbers at Double-A were carried by modest platoon splits, including an .803 OPS against left-handed pitching. His ability to hit righthanders will determine how much playing time he gets at the big league level, but being able to handle lefties should help expedite his path to a major league roster. A platoon outfielder with good speed and a decent glove is a valuable asset, and Bernard has the chance to make his case for a major league job this year.
This is where things get tricky. Bernard has put up solid numbers over the past two years, but there is more to projecting prospects than glossing over a box score. Many evaluators have questioned Bernard's ability to hit for average at the highest levels. TigsTown's Mark Anderson noted that Bernard "frequently hits off his front foot and chases out of the zone" and projects him as more of an organizational player. MLB.com was a bit more blunt, saying, "He doesn't always look pretty at the plate, but he makes contact and knows his job is to get on base."
These question marks extend to Bernard's speed -- or, more accurately, his ability to put that speed to good use. Anderson points out that Bernard "lacks the instincts to put that tool to good use," and the numbers support this. While Bernard's stolen base totals are gaudy, he has been thrown out 35 times over the past two years, a staggering number for a speedster squaring off against minor league catchers. This method of evaluation isn't perfect -- Billy Hamilton was thrown out a lot in the minors too -- but it will be interesting to see how he fares against more advanced battery combos this year.
Bernard probably won't hit for much power at the major league level, though he should be able to leg out the occasional double or triple with his excellent speed. Still, scouts are unanimous that Bernard's power rests in the 30-grade range, well below average. He posted a meager .107 ISO last season, a number that may continue to climb as he progresses through the system.
OFFSEASON WORKOUT MONTAGE
Evaluation: Dan Farnsworth, FanGraphs
Bernard’s back story is incredible. He was a late draft pick for the Padres, played sparingly over two seasons and was released. The Tigers picked him up, and he’s hit like crazy in their system, creating the possibility that they have a real prospect on their hands. The guy makes a lot of contact, and really has a knack for getting the barrel to the ball. He won’t be much of a power threat, but his feel to hit, base-running ability and outfield defense all figure to be average or better.
Projected team: Triple-A Toledo
After a strong showing at Double-A Erie in 2015, Bernard will likely slot in between Tyler Collins and Steven Moya in the Mud Hens' outfield. His ascent to this level has been rapid, but he should continue to stay afloat offensively at the minors' highest level. The real challenge comes whenever he is called up to the major leagues, but the Tigers' crowded outfield may keep him waiting until September.
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.