"I think he's a Major League hitter right now," said Toledo hitting coach Leon "Bull" Durham. "If he takes the same approach and doesn't put pressure on himself to try to do too much, he can hit in the big leagues and play first base in the big leagues."
Whether he's here with the Tigers' Triple-A affiliate or in Detroit, Shelton is becoming the exception to the notion that a position prospect who spends a season on the bench as a Rule 5 Draft pick loses a year of development.
When the Tigers plucked him from the Pirates' farm system in December 2003, he had just 35 games above Class A ball, though he was Pittsburgh's Minor League player of the year and the Carolina League's MVP. The reward for a team that keeps a Rule 5 Draft pick is that it gains a prospect. The risk is how he comes out of the experience.
Unlike Detroit's three Rule 5 pitchers a year earlier, Shelton struggled for playing time. He actually earned more at-bats in a 20-day rehab assignment for the Mud Hens last summer (62) than he did the rest of the season for Detroit (46). Just 14 of those 46 at-bats came after the All-Star break.
So Shelton sat there and watched. He battled his frustration by taking joy in watching other Tigers grow. Most important, he learned.
"He didn't just sit there and watch it like a movie," Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish said.
Shelton hit in the cages like an everyday player. He listened to veterans talk about hitting and preparation. He took ground balls at first base with an ear open to what Carlos Pena and Dmitri Young were saying.
All that listening, he said, has a direct correlation with how he's doing now.
"It was always worth it," Shelton said. "Yeah, it was tough. Don't get me wrong; it was a struggle. But I was happy. I learned a ton from those guys. I always tell people you can only learn about the big-league game in the big leagues. You can't learn stuff about the big-league game playing in Triple-A. There's only so much you learn in the Minors before you've got to start learning stuff in the big leagues and how they play the game up there. And I think that's the best way to go about it -- watch how they go about their business every single day."
Shelton credits Rondell White with teaching him about run production, knowing when to put the ball in play with a runner in scoring position and give up an out for an RBI. It was different thinking for someone with a .332 career average in the Minors. With that mind-set and a strong top of the order ahead of him, Shelton is on pace to threaten 100 RBIs.
His ability to hit for average never rusted, especially after going to the Arizona Fall League last season. This year, he's learning how to do more with his hits. His home-run pace is about the same as 2003, his last full Minor League season, but he leads the International League with 19 doubles and 101 total bases. Instead of using the opposite field so often, the right-handed hitter is finding doubles in both the gaps as well as down the lines. In turn, he's showing signs of the production expected out of a Major League first baseman and a potential doubles machine at Comerica Park.
The point of comparison the Mud Hens have is his rehab stint last June, after spending time on the disabled list with plantar fasciitis. He hit .339 in 18 games, but just two of his 21 hits went for extra bases, both doubles.
Now, Parrish said, there's no comparison.
"He doesn't have it locked in yet," Parrish said of Shelton's power, "but he has the potential for it."
Shelton is also fully aware of the defensive questions. Not only is he working daily with Durham, a longtime first baseman for the Cubs and Cardinals, but he's also working every day at one position.
"I believe the Tigers think I can play. I think what's going on is more just showing, 'You guys invested the time in me. It's going to pay off.'"
-- Chris Shelton
"Talking with Bull, I've got that feeling back," Shelton said, "where I'm going to come in every day and play first base every day. So all I have to do is come to the ballpark worrying about playing first base that night. It helps a lot when you know what you have to prepare for that night.
"Now, if they still want to use me as a catcher and throw me back there, then I have to continue to keep doing that. I'll prepare just as well for that spot as I will if I was playing first. But as it gets going and I start playing every day at first, it's just a lot easier to come in knowing I'm going to play first every day. And I'm starting to feel really comfortable over there."
The keys, Durham said, have been his footwork and hands.
"He can do some damage over there as far as getting himself in position," Durham said.
The most important progression for Shelton, however, might be that he's having fun. When he would come to the plate in Detroit last year, he said, he'd feel the pressure of not knowing when his next appearance would come. A bad at-bat would sit in his memory for a while. Between playing every day and playing well, he's come out of his shell.
For possibly the first time in his professional career, the former 33rd-round pick doesn't feel like he has to prove something. His performance last fall, he felt, showed the Tigers he could play.
"I believe the Tigers think I can play," Shelton said. "I think what's going on is more just showing, 'You guys invested the time in me. It's going to pay off.'"
Whether it starts paying off next week or next year isn't his primary concern. If he gets a call, he'll be ready. If he stays at Triple-A, he has room for improvement.
"Everybody's goal is to play in the big leagues," Shelton said. "But if I play here the full season and have a big year, I'm going to have no regrets whatsoever, because I play with a good bunch of guys and I think this team can do some special things down here. I'll just move on and be ready for next spring and see what we can do at that point."