By Chris Toman, Canadian Baseball Network
Last year, the Black Bears were crowned America East champions and earned a berth in the NCAA regionals with Gibbs anchoring the staff. Head coach Steve Trimper is expecting him to thrive in that role again in 2012.
“We don’t want to put the weight on his shoulders, but we are looking for him to be our 1-2 guy with Stephen Perakslis,” Trimper said of the two right-handers.
As a sophomore, Gibbs started a team-high 14 games, posting an 8-5 record to go along with a 3.42 ERA. He notched 69 strikeouts over his 76 ⅓ innings of work, while holding opposing hitters to a .204 batting average. This, after being named to the America East Second Team and the America East All-Rookie team in his freshman year.
Trimper said Gibbs single-handedly won Maine some of its bigger games last season, which included shutting down one of the top offensive teams in the nation in Florida International University in the regionals.
“When he can go seven, eight, nine innings with consistency of all three of his pitches, he’s deadly.” said Trimper. “And we saw that at the end of last year.”
Gibbs’ arsenal consists of a fastball that can reach 97 MPH, a slider he can throw at 86 and a refined changeup he plans to incorporate more this season.
Trimper described the slider as a pitch that can at times have “ungodly breaking movement” and his fastball as one of the best in the nation.
“I’m spending a lot of time on my changeup,” said Gibbs. “Last year I was really a fastball, slider kind of guy. This fall, I came in and worked really hard with my coach to feel more comfortable throwing that off-speed pitch as opposed to using the fastball to get me out of situations and I’ve definitely seen a lot of benefits from it.”
Trimper agrees that Gibbs’ focus should be on his changeup and believes he has the potential to have three major league-quality pitches. The key, Trimper says, is to become more of a pitcher than a hurler so that opponents don’t have the luxury of always sitting on his fastball.
“He’s turned into a fireballer,” explained Trimper. “He can really run it up there when he needs to, but he’s also effective with his changeup and slider when he’s not trying to throw 97. He can also get deeper into games and he doesn’t walk many guys. Like most guys that throw hard, he’s more effective when he’s pitching 92-94 because his movement does take over and he becomes absolutely deadly.
“If he breaks off his slider or changeup, he becomes that much more difficult.”
It’s imperative for Gibbs to polish his secondary pitches to promote his stock even further as he heads into the 2012 Major League Baseball amateur draft as an intriguing talent. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, the 20-year-old should draw plenty of interest.
“The draft is so unpredictable, but, if he stays on course, he has the potential to go in the first-to-fifth rounds,” Trimper said of Gibbs. “I’ve been in Division 1 baseball coming up on my 17th year and he’s one of the best arms I’ve seen. I’ve seen Justin Verlander, Andrew Miller, Daniel Bard and he’s as good as what those guys were in college as far as what his stuff is.”
Quite the praise for a player who didn’t commit to pitching until his junior year of high school. Like many players before they reach college, Gibbs was a two-way player growing up — at least in theory.
“I started pitching at the beginning of high school and I was getting hit quite a bit,” explained Gibbs. “I came to my Dad and said I don’t want to be a pitcher anymore. I was a tall and skinny center fielder who couldn’t hit. But I started to get a little bigger and got an arm, so I tried pitching again in grade 11 and things took off from there.”
That they did, as Gibbs went on to pitch for the Canadian Junior National Team and was selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2009 draft before committing to Maine — just like a number of Canadians have done under Trimper’s watch.
Greg Hamilton, the Head Coach and Director of Canada’s National Teams, has been instrumental in helping Trimper decide what Canadians to recruit.
“It starts with Greg Hamilton, who always gives us great recommendations,” said Trimper.
The other Canadians on the Maine roster this spring are: INF-C Tyler Patzalek ( Burlington, Ont.), INF Alex Calbick (Burnaby, BC), INF Troy Black ( Mississauga, Ont.), OF Brian Doran (Ayr, Ont.) and RHP Dane Gordon (Barrie, Ont.).
Over the years Maine Canucks have included the likes of C Alain Picard (St. Foy, Que.), C Aaron Izaryk (Markham, Ont.), RHP Ryan Harris (Woodstock, NB.), 3B-CPat Tobin (Pickering, Ont.), RHP Kris Ehmke (Peterborough, Ont.), C Matt McGraw (Burlington, Ont.), RHP Scott Robinson (Ajax, Ont.), RHP Paul Bruder(Guelph, Ont.), RHP Aaron Smith (Oakville, Ont.), SS Quinn Peel ( Manotick, Ont.), RHP Joel Thorney (Stouffville, Ont.), RHP Kyle Benoit (Brampton, Ont.), RHPMatt Jebb (Toronto, Ont.), RHP Carson Pillar (Mississauga, Ont.).
Gibbs is a far cry from the skinny kid who didn’t want to pitch anymore, morphing into a star on the diamond and someone who enjoys the classroom as well. He takes pride in the fact he’s pursuing a college degree and is focused on having one final strong year at Maine before he’s presumably drafted and signed by a major league club.
“It was probably the hardest I’ve ever worked this fall,” Gibbs said of his offseason routine. “I do appreciate people noticing me, but I try not to think about that. I just try to think about getting better. My goals for 2012 are more team oriented. I want to win the America East again and win the conference. It was incredible to go to the regionals. We have a great team and I think we are going to do well.”
As does Trimper, which is why he scheduled games against some of the top teams in the nation this upcoming year. Trimper admitted the schedule is difficult, but it’s something he welcomes because he feels like Maine can beat the best.
Trimper’s excited to see how Gibbs fares against the stiff competition, but he also can’t help but think what the future has in store for him once his time with the Black Bears is over.
“Jeff is, right now, a guy that can get to a major league club and certainly work out of a bullpen and close in less than five years,” said Trimper. “I think he can be set up to be a closer type-guy, he could be like a Joe Nathan-type that can throw the ball by you and come back with a slider.
“Every minor league manager that he plays for after he leaves me is going to say the exact same thing and that’s how much of a joy he is to be around in the clubhouse and as a leader to the team. I think that’s one of the things that will allow him to get to the major leagues pretty quick.”
It’s that clubhouse leadership that got him voted on as a co-captain this year.
“There are things that are hard to teach and that competitiveness and tenacity that Jeff brings is one of them,” said Trimper. “He’s one of the hardest working kids I’ve ever seen. He’s the only player I’ve ever had to yell at from my office and tell him to get off the field because he won’t stop.
“That’s what makes him a special player.”
With a more polished repertoire, Gibbs is poised to take another step forward this year. As he does, so will Maine.
Chris Toman is a freelance sports reporter for the Canadian Baseball Network and can be followed on Twitter @Chris_Toman.