With dark days behind him, Detroit Tigers' Zack Short ready to blossom

Evan Petzold
Detroit Free Press

Zack Short picked up his keys from the counter and turned toward the door of his home in Kingston, New York. He had a tee time with his best friend at Twaalfskill Golf Club and didn't want to be late.

Looking back at his counter, he decided to snatch his headphones, too. Maybe the phone call he had been wishing for finally would happen, he told himself.

It was Aug. 31, the day of the trade deadline. By the 13th hole of his round of golf, Short's obsession became obnoxious. His phone read 3:55 p.m., five minutes before the deadline.

"Dude, put your freaking phone away," Patrick Dorrian, his childhood friend and a Baltimore Orioles prospect, told him. "If it happens, it happens. ... Just put your damn phone away."

Cubs infielder prospect Zack Short gets a new start with a trade to the Tigers Monday. Short, 25, spent four seasons in the Cubs organization, playing as high as Class AAA. ROSS D. FRANKLIN/AP

Short's phone rang 10 minutes later. He didn't recognize the California area code. But it was Jason McCloud, the Chicago Cubs' senior vice president of player personnel. The 25-year-old infielder had been traded to the Detroit Tigers, opening the door to a new chapter in his career.

"I put my headphones in and didn't take them out until we were done golfing," Short told the Free Press on Wednesday. "From hole 13 to 18, I just had different phone calls coming in from the Tigers and Cubs. It was a sigh of relief, but it also was bittersweet."

This year was Short's fifth season with the Cubs, after getting drafted in the 17th round in 2016 from Sacred Heart University. Yet he wasn't invited to the team's summer camp or alternate training site, despite being on the 40-man roster.

Short wanted a chance to play, and the Tigers gave him the opportunity by sending him directly to the team's alternate training site in Toledo for the remainder of the year. To acquire him, they gave up outfielder Cameron Maybin, who was set to become a free agent at season's end.

[ Detroit Tigers trade Cameron Maybin — again — this time to Chicago Cubs ]

"Sitting there, week after week, and not hearing a thing, trying to force yourself to believe that you're going to be a part of that team moving forward, it's tough," Short said. "It was mentally taxing.

"That day that I got traded and having that feeling of the team wants you again, a team that's going to be on the rise moving forward. It gives you that boost."

'I wanted to be perfect'

Ranked by MLB Pipeline as the Tigers' No. 26 prospect, Short knows his batting average didn't help his chances of joining Chicago's summer camp or alternate training site.

For not including him, the Cubs told him it was a "numbers thing." They wanted more pitchers at their disposal.

Zack Short.

"That was awful," Short said. "When they called me the day that the rosters came out, when they told me that I wasn't going to be on the initial list, it was like, listen, I get it. There's a bunch of superstars on the Cubs and in their infield. But why did you add me to the (40-man) roster if you're not going to have me even work out with 60 guys?"

The answer to the question truly comes down to numbers, both in production and based on a headcount of the team's pitchers.

Short had struggled offensively. In 2017, he had a .250 batting average with 13 homers, 47 RBIs, 94 walks and 104 strikeouts in Single-A (66 games) and High-A (65 games). 

Short hit .227 in the 2018 season with 17 home runs and 59 RBIs through 124 games in Double-A. He had a .368 batting average in six games for Triple-A to start the 2019 season, before fracturing his left hand.

"Really kind of just threw me through a whirlwind," said Short, who finished 2019 with a .235 average in 63 games. "I haven't been hurt since like seventh grade. When I came back, I was just all over the map. My glove wasn't great. When that goes, my whole game was just off. I was freaking out. If I struck out, the rest of the day was over. I wanted to be so perfect."

[ Want to know more about new Detroit Tiger Zack Short? Just listen to his podcast ]

Admitting his faults is nothing new. Matt Sherman, a regional scout for the Cubs, learned this about Short when he visited him numerous times in college.

"His ability to take ownership of the failures and talk about them was really eye-opening," Sherman told the Free Press on Friday. "He was really intuitive into his own abilities and what he could improve on. That took maturity. This guy knew what he wanted to work on. He had visions. He had goals. He was very much motivated to solve them. I really liked that part about him."

But in the 2019 season, Short recognized his psyche was his greatest enemy. He remembers spending countless hours trying to fix problems instead of battling through them. If his swing didn't "feel great" for a week, he would often tweak it. If he didn't like the new swing, he switched it up again.

The Tigers believe in his glove, so much so that general manager Al Avila called him an "MLB-ready" defender.

Yet Short won't see the big leagues unless his mindset in the batter's box delivers positive results, possibly by sacrificing some of his power for contact. In-depth conversations with Cubs outfielder Ian Happ — and a clean slate with the Tigers — leads Short to believe he can get back on track.

“We like him a lot in the sense that from a makeup perspective, he’s one of those guys that managers love to manage because he’s a high energy — sort of a baseball rat who plays hard,” Avila said. “He’s a very good shortstop, from our reports, and from our data. He’s really major league ready right now from a defensive perspective.

"He’s got some pop in his bat, knows how to play the game well, can play all infield positions, has some options, which is really good and really upgrades our depth at that position as we move forward for the upcoming years.”

Inspired by Trammell

When the trade happened, Short packed his bags, flew to Detroit, drove to Toledo and went through COVID-19 protocols. By Sept. 3, he embarked on his first day at the alternate training site. 

It was like going to a new school, Short said. But his transition was simple. He lived with right-handers Jason Foley — a friend from college — and Alex Lange, a former Cubs prospect who was traded to the Tigers in 2019.

The first person Short met was Alan Trammell, a Hall of Famer. He played shortstop for the Tigers from 1977-96 and serves as a special assistant to the general manager. The 62-year-old spent the summer training infielders in Toledo.

[ Detroit's newest infielder hasn't made his debut, but Tigers say Zack Short is 'MLB-ready' ]

Alan Trammell and Ramon Santiago talk before Detroit Tigers practice at Comerica Park on July 4, 2020

"Oh, hey, Zack," Trammell said, as Short hurried into the clubhouse for the first time. "I remember you from the (Arizona) Fall League last year."

"Of course," Short responded. "It's great to actually talk to you instead of just walking by (in Arizona) and saying, 'Oh my God, it's Alan Trammell.'"

Trammell and Short worked together in the infield before practice that day. How Trammell, a six-time All-Star and World Series champion, went about his business made a lasting impact, Short said. 

"As soon as he opens his mouth, you're all ears," Short said. "He knows what he's talking about. To have a Hall of Famer giving you kudos for whatever you're doing, that goes a long way. When he's giving you compliments for your defensive work, positivity comes back.

"I can do this and I'm a big leaguer, one way or another. Just have to get a shot and go from there."

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.