Prospect returning to Minors to refine skills
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Curtis Granderson was happy to welcome Cameron Maybin to Tigers camp. After spending last year as the new guy, he needed someone else to fill the role.
When they went to the Atlantic Coast Conference Men's Basketball Tournament together a couple weeks ago, Granderson wanted to root against whichever team Maybin was rooting for. Whenever Granderson would give him some grief this spring, Maybin would jokingly tell him to stop bullying.
Granderson had no problem poking fun at Maybin for his age. His talent is another matter.
"Definitely," Granderson answered when asked if the 19-year-old has eye-opening talent. "His power in batting practice by far is advanced for his age. His speed is definitely one of the things to watch, when you see him get down to first or track down balls in the outfield. Those things I see right away. He's definitely got it."
Maybin is the first Tigers prospect in years to earn comparisons with great Major Leaguers -- not just good, but great ones. He counts Ken Griffey Jr. as a close friend, and he has been compared as a right-handed-hitting version of him. Gary Sheffield compares him to Eric Davis. Others watch him and see Mike Cameron.
Maybin looks in the mirror and sees his own reflection.
"I always say I don't try to be like anybody but myself," he said. "As far as trying to be like anybody, I'm just trying to be me, trying to make a name for myself."
He needed just one big-league camp to make that name pretty familiar.
"He's got star-type ability," manager Jim Leyland said. "Whether he turns into a star or not will be up to him. But he's blessed with star-type ability."
The cousin of NBA player and former University of North Carolina great Rashad McCants, Maybin looks like a basketball player on a baseball field. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, his tall, lanky frame stands out among his peers before he takes a step. When he runs, his long stride covers enough territory that his speed appears effortless when he gets to full velocity, such as when he rounds second base on a triple.
"I know he can fly," said Jeremy Bonderman. So the athleticism is there. And then he swings.
"Maybin looks like he and I swing the same," Leyland said. "His ball goes over the fence, and mine's a popup to short. But that's what separates the big-leaguers from the Minor Leaguers."
The combination separates Maybin from a lot of players. It also puts him in common with a few.
"Eric Davis used to steal 70 bases and hit 30 home runs," Sheffield said. "And [Maybin] has the potential to do that."
And Sheffield isn't generous with his judgments. When he first saw Melky Cabrera with the Yankees, he wasn't sure Cabrera was a Major League talent.
"If he looks at the game the way Eric Davis looked at the game," Sheffield explained about Maybin, "Eric Davis probably stepped on the field saying, 'I can do what I want out here.' Because anybody who can hit 30 home runs and can steal 70 bases, that's pretty much doing what you want. If we can get that kid to do the same thing, he has that potential."
Maybin flashed his ability in smaller doses last year in his first professional season. The Tigers wanted him to spend a full year at Class A West Michigan to get accustomed to being an athlete for a living. He hit .304 in 101 games with nine home runs, 69 RBIs, six triples and 27 stolen bases in 34 attempts. Others had stronger stats, but when Baseball America decided on the Most Exciting Player in the Midwest League, Maybin was the choice.
This winter, when the Tigers had to decide who would go to Spring Training with the big club, Maybin was a choice again. He didn't have to be, since he wasn't on the 40-man roster. The Tigers gave him a non-roster invitation. After Maybin saw spot duty in a few Spring Training games last year as an extra player, the club wanted to put him in camp every day, let him work with the Major League staff, and run him out on the field for as many games as possible.
Maybin learned about the finer points of the game, not to mention how to carry himself in a Major League clubhouse.
"That's definitely a good experience for me to take out of camp," he said.
For most players and coaches, it was the first time to see him and witness his ability firsthand. Leyland had seen him before and had a good idea about his abilities. What stood out to him was Maybin's maturity, not just his ability to learn, but his willingness.
"He's smart," Leyland said. "He's a very bright young man who figures things out pretty quickly. He's got it all going for him, but probably the best thing he's got going for him is he's a good person. He's really a wonderful young man, and that's a great start for him."
Maybin attributes part of that to playing so often against older players as he grew up, not to mention his upbringing.
"I come from a very humble family," Maybin said. "I think my parents have done a good job, always telling me to stay humble."
There's also the factor of the older people surrounding him. He met Griffey while he was playing summer ball in Cincinnati as a high schooler, and they became fast friends who now share the same agent, Brian Goldberg. He talks to Griffey and McCants often, and he has tapped the knowledge of guys like Sheffield and Granderson.
A lot of times, though, Maybin talks about life.
"We play so long," Maybin said. "It's not always about baseball when we talk."
Leyland could see Maybin improve as camp went on. His pitch recognition improved, to the point where he could not only fight off breaking balls, but could put them in play. He tripled off one against the Nationals last week. Against the Blue Jays last Saturday, he hit a wind-blown home run to straightaway center and lined a triple to the left-field wall.
"He picks up the breaking ball pretty good for a young player," Leyland said, "better than most I've seen. He recognizes it."
He's still made his share of mistakes, usually on the basepaths. He went 1-for-3 in stolen-base attempts. Both times he was caught came in part because of short leads. When he ran on a 3-1 count against the Dodgers last week and was easily caught for the third out, Leyland simply said he shouldn't have gone.
Unlike last season, his stats this spring -- 9-for-21, two homers, two triples, seven RBIs and seven runs scored -- arguably looked better than his readiness for the big leagues. There's a sense that Maybin belongs in the Majors, that it's only a matter of time. Right now, though, that time is important, starting with his assignment this season to Class A Lakeland or Double-A Erie.
As much as Leyland likes the future center fielder, he says it's "very unlikely" he'll see an at-bat in the Majors this year, not even as a September callup. If he felt like Maybin was better than Sheffield, Granderson, Magglio Ordonez or Craig Monroe right now, he might keep the kid. But he doesn't, yet.
"He just needs to play as much as he can," Leyland said. "He just needs more time. He's just a work in motion, really."
Leyland meant that Maybin's a work in progress. It's just that he's progressing that fast.
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