While first baseman and power hitter extraordinaire, Spencer Torkelson, rightly drew most of the ink in the Detroit Tigers’ 2020 draft class, he wasn’t the only Arizona State product the organization selected. Torkelson’s teammate, infielder Gage Workman, was the club’s fourth round pick. In his first year of pro ball, Workman showed the ability to stick at the shortstop position, as well as above average raw power. The question is whether he’ll be able to eventually hit major league pitching well enough to get to it.
Over the last 10 years, the Tigers have had very little success developing position players who didn’t arrive as top tier amateur hitters like Torkelson or Riley Greene. The club has had any number of prospects with power who never improved enough to make an impact at the major league level. Draft picks like Christin Stewart, Rey Rivera, and Parker Meadows either washed out at the major league level like Stewart or Steven Moya, or never even got close. The case of Meadows isn’t closed yet, but it’s certainly tracking along the same lines as the worst examples. However, in the case of Gage Workman there are some reasons for optimism.
First of all, the bar for a hitter is a lot lower when they can handle a premium position. Throughout his 2021 pro debut, Workman showed signs that he should be able to play a solid shortstop at the major league level. Secondly, the Tigers finally moved on from their old school player development staff, and brought in an entirely new team of coaches much more fluent in data-driven, modern player development. Whether they can do a better job with hitters or not will have to play out over the next few seasons, but for now, there is reason to hope that the new breed will have more success turning potential into reality.
Here at BYB we had Workman, Colt Keith, and Izaac Pacheco all in basically the same tier. Of the group, Keith is the most likely to hit. Pacheco has the most power upside. Workman has the best collection of secondary tools, from defensive ability and average speed, to above average raw power. You can order them as you prefer, but we ended up with Workman as our 12th ranked prospect. He may have the best chance of reaching the majors in some kind of role, but perhaps the least chance of being a good full-time regular because the hitting ability remains in the high risk category.
Gage Tater Workman was raised in Arizona, son of Widd Workman, a pitcher who was drafted by the Colorado Rockies and made it as high as the Double-A level. Gage was a multi-sport standout athlete in high school who blossomed physically and as a hitter during his junior and senior seasons and earned a scholarship to play for Arizona State.
A shortstop by trade, Workman moved over to third base in college to make way for a better defensive shortstop in Alika Williams. Williams eventually went 37th overall in 2020 as part of one heck of a draft class for the Sun Devils. However, as we saw in 2021, Workman can handle shortstop with no issues. He burst on the 2020 draft scene with a big sophomore season as a 19-year-old, and was off to a solid start in 2020 before the season shut down due to the pandemic.
At just 20 years old, Workman was young for his draft class. Combined with solid defense at a premium position, above average raw power from a switch-hitter, and average speed, he offered the Tigers a nice package of raw athleticism, tools, and projection. They were no doubt pleased to see him still available in the fourth round as most had him projected to go earlier.
The Tigers split Workman’s 2021 campaign between Low-A Lakeland and High-A West Michigan. Workman responded with 12 home runs and 31 stolen bases combined. His 34 percent strikeout rate in West Michigan illustrates the amount of risk involved with the bat, and it’s possible Workman never quite makes it to the bigs. However, he has enough tools to potentially make for an excellent utilityman as well. And if the Tigers can tune him up at the plate they could still have a very nice everyday shortstop prospect on their hands.
The first things to notice about Gage Workman are the most obvious. At six-foot, four inches, and a listed 202 pounds, he’s a sizable individual, particularly by shortstop standards, and likely has added 10-15 pounds of muscle since draft day. Combine that with average footspeed and likely future above average defensive ability at shortstop, and you have a very impressive athlete on your hands. Even better his second full season in pro ball will still only be his age 22 campaign, as he won’t turn 23 until October.
FanGraphs projects both above average raw power and above average defensive ability as Workman continues to develop. However, while Workman did steal 31 bags this year, it has to be remembered that the new step-off rule for pitchers before throwing to first led to a major increase in stolen bases in Low-A last year. Workman has average speed, and probably the best case outcome as a base stealer is something like Tigers’ outfielder Robbie Grossman, who also has average speed, combined with the savvy to find good times to run, and is a threat to steal 10-15 bases a year, though he peaked in 2021 with 20 steals.
The real issue with Workman is obviously his hit tool. It’s nice to have a switch-hitter, but as a right-handed hitter last year, he looked pretty overwhelmed by pro pitching. In Lakeland, he posted a truly meager .438 hitting right-handed, versus an .853 OPS hitting left-handed. As a left-hander, he still struck out too much, but looked much more viable by getting to his power with some consistency. Concerns about how grooved his stroke is, even hitting left-handed, will remain an issue for him, but at least hitting left-handed he showed far better ability to adjust and still put the barrel on pitches not in his sweet spot on the inner half of the plate.
In his favor, is a pretty good idea of the strike zone. Workman will lay off fastballs out of the zone reasonably well, and when he moved up to West Michigan, he was doing a better job hunting pitches he could mash. There remains plenty of work to do adjusting to breaking balls and changeups. If his pitch recognition improves, a major focus for him this offseason, and the Tigers can help him cover the plate more effectively, they should be in business from the left side. Whether he can make the kind of major improvements required to hit right-handed seems unlikely, but we’ll have to wait and see how things go in his second season in pro ball.
For Workman to become an everyday regular someday, we’ll have to see serious improvements in his contact ability against left-handed pitching. Whether that will eventually require him to give up switch-hitting or not remains to be seen. However, the amount of strong tools Workman possesses gives him an excellent chance to eventually reach the majors as a role player. If he can mash right-handers, play good defense at shortstop, and continue to steal some bags as he moves into the upper minors, the Tigers will have a darn good utilityman or platoon infield prospect who could be very valuable, even if the path to a full-time starting role remains out of reach.
Projected 2022 team: High-A West Michigan Whitecaps
Workman really started to flourish when he arrived in West Michigan last summer. He hit nine home runs in 67 games for the Whitecaps. Expect him to begin the year as their starting shortstop once again. If he can close up some of his offensive holes, he should reach Double-A Erie pretty quickly. By year’s end, we’ll have a better idea if he can remain a viable switch-hitter, or whether a future as more of a platoon player continues to look like the likely outcome. Either way, with power, defense, and solid speed, there is a lot to like here even if it’s ultimately more of a bench profile rather than an everyday one.