Better mental approach pays off for Tigers' Cameron

Better mental approach pays off for Tigers' Cameron

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Tigers outfield prospect Daz Cameron says he was welcomed “with open arms” following the trade of Justin Verlander to the Astros. Robin Buckson, The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — One-third of the talent the Tigers netted in last August’s deadline deal with Houston sat Wednesday at a table in a meeting room at the TigerTown complex.

The room still looks and smells new a year after a nearly $50 million facilities face-lift wrapped up at Lakeland, where the Tigers have been training since 1934.

This seemed like appropriate ambiance for a new and potentially crowd-pleasing Tigers prospect. Daz Cameron did not disagree. He enjoys the trappings at TigerTown. He enjoys his new team — and his new opportunity, as a center fielder, in a system hungry for position talent.

He acknowledged all of this is quite different from emotions that poured over him last Aug. 31, at midnight, as he sat chomping on postgame appetizers at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Peoria, Ill.

He had seen a few minutes earlier his name crawl across the bottom of ESPN’s screen. It spoke of a trade between the Tigers and Astros. Justin Verlander was headed to Houston in a package that would bring to Detroit three prospects: Cameron, pitcher Franklin Perez, and catcher Jake Rogers.

And then he got a phone call from his dad, Mike, who played 17 seasons as a big-league outfielder.

“The deal’s off — don’t worry,” Mike told his son, explaining that Verlander, who had veto power over any deal, was balking.

A half-hour later, Mike Elias, the Astros assistant general manager, called with an update. Verlander had relented and Cameron was indeed headed to Detroit.

“It was kind of like getting drafted,” Cameron said Wednesday as the Tigers, in a bow to the team’s youth campaign, made a handful of prospects available for media interviews.

Cameron meant that as quickly as a player can learn on draft night he is property of one professional team, he can — in the span of an evening’s trade conversations — be headed elsewhere. It’s a lesson in life’s impromptu relocations.

Cameron returned to the Quad Cities — Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa, Moline and Rock Island in Illinois — where he was then playing for the Quad City River Bandits. He sorted through his apartment, loaded essentials into a truck, and then hit the expressway bound for Comstock Park, Mich., and his new baseball team, the West Michigan Whitecaps.

The Tigers are happy to have him. Especially the way Cameron hit during last season’s second half: .309 in July, with a .374 on-base percentage and .906 OPS; .377 in August, with a .460 on-base and 1.026 OPS.

It was quite a turnaround from a bad May (.163, .230, and .442 OPS) and became part of Cameron’s strong full-season numbers at Quad Cities and West Michigan: .271, .351, .814.

When you are 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, cover square acreage on a scale Cameron absorbs, and begin to show the bat big-league scouts had been waiting for, you not only become part of a mega-trade for a pitcher as lofty as Verlander, you confirm that first-round draft status earned when the Astros grabbed him 37th overall in 2015.

What exactly clicked for Cameron ahead of last summer’s blastoff he explains in simple terms. It was mental. All of it.

“Just figuring out what I wanted to do at the plate,” said Cameron, a young man who is polite to the point of being distinguished. “A better routine. Having a plan. Knowing what a pitcher does in a certain count. Mentally, I feel like that’s key for me and enables me to use my athleticism.”

Cameron was born in McDonough, Ga., an Atlanta suburb, and was an Eagle’s Landing High star when the Astros convinced him professional baseball would be more beneficial than a scholarship at Florida State.

He didn’t hit particularly well his first two summers in the minors. But then came last year’s epiphany.

He became wedded to “the plan.” Lay off pitcher’s pitches. Work the count. Get a good pitch to hit. The results can be seen in that high-altitude on-base mark, which in part was product of 48 walks in 522 plate appearances combined at Quad Cities and West Michigan (three games).

“I don’t want to chase, I want to be patient,” said Cameron, who also clubbed 14 home runs, 29 doubles, and eight triples, enhanced nicely by 32 stolen bases. “You’ve got to take what they give you. You want to be aggressive, but not overly aggressive.”

The Tigers became even bigger Cameron fans during last autumn’s instructional league at TigerTown, when their quality minor-league prospects gathered for postseason polishing.

“Maybe it was the fact we got him late and could see him for a longer stretch,” Dave Littlefield, vice president for player development, said after last fall’s seminar. “But he’s got some pop with that bat. He can run, he’s aggressive, smart, with a strong body — just a lot of things to like there.

“He’s serious about his craft, works hard, and appears to be an achiever.”

Cameron has a chance to begin the year at Double-A Erie. It’s not final yet. But it speaks to a team’s belief in a right-handed batter, with big-league genetics, who takes the game as seriously as his dad did, that the Tigers are considering stationing him at an advanced farm level only a few weeks after Cameron turned 21.

“I’m here to work,” Cameron said Wednesday, in between trading quips with another Tigers blue-chip farmhand, Beau Burrows. “I’m here to get the routine started.”

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Astros' top pitching prospect suspended 50 games

Astros' top pitching prospect suspended 50 games

The Astros top pitching prospect, Forrest Whitley, has been suspended for violating Minor League drug rules.

Whitely is suspended for 50 games without pay, the Astros confirmed. It’s the standard penalty for minor leaguers who test positive for drugs of abuse.

“As an organization, we’re going to suffer a little bit but we’re still optimistic that Forrest can be a big part of our future,” said Astros GM Jeff Luhnow.

Whitley, a 6’7 powerhouse out of San Antonio, was expected to reach the majors at some point this season, so this puts a bit of a damper on his prospects for 2018.

However, he could still join the big-league rotation at some point this summer, as it seems unlikely he’ll meet much resistance in the upper levels of the minors.

Whitley will be able to pitch in spring training and could return to game action at Double-A or Triple-A in late May. The Corpus Christi Hooks are scheduled to play their 51st game on May 29.

The Astros drafted Whitley 17th overall in 2016. He was named to the Rawlings-Perfect Game 1st Team All-America and Texas All-Region 1st Team in 2016. In his junior year, he was named to the Perfect Game Underclass Second Team and played on the USA Baseball 18U National Team.

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With too many starters, Houston's Hinch must make decision

With too many starters, Houston's Hinch must make decision

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Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander throws live batting practice during spring training baseball practice Monday, Feb. 19, 2018, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — With virtually every position already a lock for the Houston Astros at the beginning of spring training, the toughest decision manager A.J. Hinch might have to make this spring is which of his talented pitchers won’t make the rotation.

On a championship team with Cy Young winners Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, newcomer Gerrit Cole and Lance McCullers, Hinch will likely have to send one or more of his other starters into the bullpen to open the season.

”Poor me to have too many starters that need to be in the rotation,” Hinch joked.

Hinch’s ”problem” is one that many managers would love to have. The addition of Verlander late last season combined with the offseason trade for Cole, made Houston’s already solid rotation arguably one of baseball’s best.

Keuchel, who won the Cy Young in 2015, bounced back from a tough 2016 by going 14-5 with a 2.90 ERA last season. The 30-year-old lefty started five games and collected two wins in the playoffs to help Houston to its first World Series title.

Verlander was spectacular after being traded from Detroit on Aug. 31, going 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA and 43 strikeouts in five regular-season starts. He continued his solid pitching in the postseason, propelling the Astros into the World Series by going 2-0 with an 0.56 ERA to down the Yankees in the ALCS.

The 24-year-old McCullers is looking to take the next step this season after going 7-4 with a 4.25 ERA in 22 starts last season. He started four games and pitched in relief in one game in the playoffs, including getting the start in Game 7 of the World Series.

Cole is the only new face in Houston’s rotation after joining the team in a January trade from Pittsburgh. He was 12-12 with a 4.26 ERA while starting a career-high 33 games last season.

That collection of pitchers leaves the Astros with Charlie Morton, Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh competing for the last spot in the rotation. Morton will likely get the job, but Hinch didn’t say for sure that it was his.

Morton started and won Game 7 of the ALCS with five shutout innings, then won Game 7 of the World Series by pitching the last four innings against the Dodgers.

”If we’re healthy I think deciding is pretty easy,” Hinch said. ”I think communicating is going to be the hard part, because I think there are a lot of guys that deserve to be in the rotation – guys that have basically started their whole careers.”

The easiest player to move into the bullpen will be Peacock after he has bounced between starting and the bullpen for most of his career. He started last season as a reliever, but moved into the rotation when injuries decimated Houston’s rotation in late May. The 30-year-old had his most consistent season last year, posting a 13-2 record and 3.00 ERA in 34 games to revive his fledgling career.

Another reason why he’s an obvious choice to move to the bullpen on this team overflowing with starters is because of his easygoing attitude. He says he’ll be happy to fill whatever role Hinch has for him and never complained last season when he was bounced back and forth between roles.

Convincing Morton or McHugh that moving to the bullpen is a good thing will be a bit more difficult. McHugh hasn’t pitched in relief since doing it in two games for the Mets in 2013, and Morton’s only regular-season appearance out of the bullpen came as a rookie in 2008.

But Hinch isn’t worried about his players adjusting to whatever he decides to do.

”If you’re committed to doing things at an elite level – and we’re chasing championships here – there’s going to be some tough decisions for me,” he said. ”There’s going to have to be some reality conversations with players and everybody will be on board because of what this team potential is.”

Hinch was also quick to note that the Astros will almost certainly have to use more than five starters through the course of the season, so there will be opportunities for players who don’t make it out of spring.

”You can never have too much pitching,” he said. ”There’s usually something that happens that you need an extra starter here or there.”

The Astros had 11 players start at least one game last season and while it certainly won’t be a regular occurrence, Hinch showed during the postseason that he wasn’t afraid to bring any starter out of the bullpen. That was evident in Game 4 of the ALDS against Boston when he went to 13-year veteran Verlander in the fifth inning to make his first career relief appearance.

”I think if the postseason last year proved anything, it’s that pitchers pitch,” Hinch said. ”You’ve got to give them a little bit of time to warm up. You might be careful with them pitching back to back early in the season. But when guys get out there on the mound (they) compete.”

More AP baseball: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball

One of baseball's top 10 prospects was suspended 50 games for a drug violation

One of baseball's top 10 prospects was suspended 50 games for a drug violation

One of baseball’s top pitching prospects has received a 50-game suspension. Forrest Whitley of the Astros‘ system has been suspended without pay for a violation of the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. MLB made the announcement Wednesday morning, including that Whitley will serve the suspension to start the season for Double-A Corpus Christi. 

What’s interesting here is MLB in the release didn’t specify what exactly the suspension is for. Generally, if it’s a “drug of abuse” suspension (such as marijuana) or a PED, the league says so. In the Whitley release, the league was vague. Perhaps there will be more news on this front in the coming days. 

Regardless, Whitley will miss a large portion of the 2018 season. Here’s a statement from his agent: 

The 6-foot-7 right-handed pitcher was an Astros’ first-round pick (17th overall) in the 2016 draft out of Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio. 

Last season, Whitley pitched to a 2.83 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 143 strikeouts in 92 1/3 innings between Class A (46 1/3 IP), Class A-Advanced (31 1/3 IP) and Double-A (14 2/3 IP). 

Only entering his age-20 season, Whitley was unlikely to impact the Astros’ deep rotation this season, but he’s not too far away from the bigs. He was ranked as a top-10 prospect in baseball this spring by outlets like MLB.com (ninth), Baseball America (10th) and Baseball Prospectus (10th). He’s the consensus number one prospect in the Astros’ system. 

Astros pitching prospect Whitley handed 50-game ban

Astros pitching prospect Whitley handed 50-game ban

Forrest Whitley’s suspension will be effective from the start of the 2018 Texas League minor league season (AFP Photo/RONALD MARTINEZ)

New York (AFP) – Houston Astros top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley was suspended for 50 games on Wednesday for violating baseball’s minor league drug prevention and treatment program.

The suspension was announced by the office of the commissioner of baseball.

Whitley’s suspension will be effective from the start of the 2018 Texas League minor league season.

Neither the commissioner’s office nor the reigning World Series champion Astros offered further details on the nature of the violation.

“We’re disappointed in the outcome,” Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said in a statement.

“We support Major League Baseball’s drug program, and we do everything we can to educate our guys and keep them from making decisions that results in suspensions.

“But in this case, as an organization, we’re going to suffer a little bit. But we’re still hopeful and optimistic Forrest is going to be a big part of our future.”

Whitley, 20, was the Astros’ first-round draft pick in 2016. He dominated at three Minor League levels last year building a 5-4 record with a 2.83 earned-run-average.

In 23 games, 18 of them starts, the towering 6-foot-7-inch (2.01m) hurler had 143 strikeouts, leading the minor leagues in strikeouts per nine innings with 13.94.