Tigers Need A Longer-Term Answer At Second

No one year rentals or journeymen, please. I’m writing this in response to the contention from members of the official press like Lynn Henning as well as some fellows in the tiger-blogo-sphere that Detroit has premium prospects waiting in the wings to take over the position – not next year, but probably in 2013. I simply do not believe this to be the case.

Let’s do a brief rundown of the likely suspects, shall we? And since the tone of this will likely come off dismissive, I want to state beforehand that all of these guys are legitimate prospects and most will be found in the MCB top 50 before this offseason once all has been written. I do not believe that any or all of them lack potential or that any of them are doomed, but neither do I believe that any of them are blue chips nor that any of them are near to being ready to contribute at the major league level.

A. Hernan Perez.
Perez is a 20-year-old Venezuelan who spent all of 2011 with the Whitecaps splitting his time between second and short. He is young and improving – as the more than 100 point bump in OPS between 2010 and 2011 shows – but as of yet he has been far from productive. That bump came while repeating low-A and left him with a still mediocre slash line of .258/.314/.364. He is a toolsy guy and an athletic defender, but has been fairly error-prone thus far – committing 35 in 2010 and 24 in 2011. Again – that’s an improvement – but still not good enough. If Perez continues his rate of improvement in Lakeland at age 21 we will begin see the rate of production, offensively and defensively, that is required for a top-tier prospect at that age and level. By the time he wraps up a AAA campaign in September of 2014, if he continues to advance without dropping from that level of play, he may be ready to contribute to the big league squad… but to be the team’s starting second baseman (or shortstop, for that matter) out of the gate in 2013? That’s a pipe dream.

B. Gustavo Nunez
Ever since Nunez’ tremendous (for a middle infielder) .309/.356/.421 2009 campaign as a 21-year-old at West Michigan we’ve been hearing about him a lot. His 2010 in Lakeland was, offensively, an utter disaster which tarnished his luster more than a little. However, in a Lakeland repeat this past season Nunez matched his 2009 so we got to hear plenty more “when Nunez gets here”. He’s got some speed and he’s got some glove and when he’s on he can get on base with a BABIP-driven game so there’s something to be optimistic about here. Nonetheless, he struggled mightily after promotion to Lakeland in 2010 and now struggled mightily after a promotion to Erie in mid-2011. The impression that gives is that Nunez – though he has real tools – adapts relatively slowly to better pitching at higher levels. When he finally masters AA – assuming he does – I’ll be expecting him to adapt slowly to AAA and when he finally masters AAA, I’ll expect him to adapt slowly to the big leagues. The one thing I can’t do is picture him progressing fast enough to win a starting job in Spring Training 2013. 2015? That’s a possibility after a callup during the season in 2014.

C. Argenis Diaz
Diaz came into the organization from outside this past season after 6 years bouncing around the Boston and Pittsburgh systems. He did have a pretty decent season in AAA, driven mostly by a higher walk rate than he had shown previously. He could conceivably see some play in 2012, much less 2013, but he’s no younger than Danny Worth and hasn’t shown that he can hit better than Danny Worth. If Worth is qoute-unquote not-the-answer, it seems a little silly to argue that Diaz might be.

D. Brandon Douglas
As you’re probably well aware if you follow the prospect pieces on this blog regularly, Douglas has been a bit of an under-the-radar favorite. His career numbers in the minors are awfully good, both on the offensive and defensive ends, but he was signed old and has been old for every level he has played at. A guy like that has to move rapidly to prove he’s a ‘finished product’ rather than a diamond in the rough, because he simply doesn’t have the luxury of time. Compared to his .328 in 2008, .322 in 2009 and .345 in 2010 his .281 batting average in AA this past season doesn’t seem like quite enough – for a guy whose whole offensive game is getting those singles and doubles. Like Diaz, with a good first half in Toledo in 2012 he could conceivably see the big leagues as early as next year, much less 2013. However, he’ll be 26 already and his profile is looking a lot like l’il Will Rhymes. Like I wrote above: if Rhymes is not the answer, Douglas probably isn’t either.

E. Audy Ciriaco
He’s 24, he spent the season in AA, and he has a career minor-league on-base-percentage of .273. Even if you think he has the most amazing glove you’ve ever seen (and I doubt you’d make that argument) he shouldn’t be confused with a rapid climber.

Lets compare this bunch to the last round of real middle-infield prospects that the Tigers featured – and when I say real I mean that they performed well at young ages relative to their level (as opposed to simply being at a high level for their age) to such a degree that BA gave them a nod: Omar Infante and Ramon Santiago. Both of those guys were once Baseball America top-100 prospects while in the Tigers organization and while neither has challenged for an MVP both have had productive big-league careers.

Infante earned has #95 with a solid 2001 in AA at age 19 in which he hit .302 with 27 steals. He was in Toledo at age 20, hit .268 with a few more extra base hits and played well in a short stint in the bigs in 2002. He played a half season in the Tigers memorable 2003, and was utterly awful both in the majors and back in Toledo. In 2004, on the other hand, he put together a very solid season that would signal the kind of career he was going to have. The key points here: hits well in AA in 2001 – not ready to contribute at the major league level until 2004. That’s two years of figuring out AAA, dipping your toe in the big-league pool and getting ready to dive in.

Santiago earned a #92 followed by a #95 with a very good short season in rookie ball in 1999 at age 19 and maintained the enthusiasm with a season similar to that of 2011 Hernan Perez in West Michigan at age 20 with more steals, a higher OBP and a lower SLG. Note: for a speedy, little guy with a good glove getting on base at a better clip will do a lot more for your prospects than a couple more jacks. So… at age 20 Santiago has a decent season in low-A. He follows it with more of the same at high-A the following season, but doesn’t improve enough to maintain his marginal top-100 status. After starting 2002 strong he gets rushed to the big leagues, gives us 65 games of mediocrity and cements himself in the 2003 lineup for lack of a better alternative. His 2003 is, like Infante’s, uspeakably foul. He then winds up in Seattle and while he finally shows that he can handle AAA in 2005, doesn’t do anything significant as a big leaguer until his second year back in Detroit as a reserve in 2007. Santiago did not hit well in his first full season in AAA (in Tacoma at age 24) and may not have hit well over a full season in Toledo had the Tigers given him a trial there before immediately installing him in the infield in Detroit. Keys points: solid season in A-ball in 2000, unquestionably not ready for the big leagues three years later, never proves that he is until 7 years later.

Both Infante and Santiago were considered to have higher ceilings than the guys on this list, but neither was able to make a rapid transition from mid-to-low minors to quickly come to the aid of a big-league club in desperate need. If – as the lead prospect on the list – Perez progresses as rapidly as Infante, it will be safe to hand over the position to him by 2015 but no earlier. If he follows Santiago, he’ll (depending on how you want to frame it) be rushed to the majors and flop in 2014 or never prove worthy of a starting job until he’s over 30. To find a middle infielder who really could make the jump from success in A-ball to success in the big leagues in short order, you have to set your sights a little higher than marginal top-100 prospects like Infante and Santiago. Rafael Furcal – at the time the #8 prospect in the land – had a .392 OBP with 96 steals as a 21-year-old in single A in 1999. The next year he played in all of 3 minor league games and won Rookie Of The Year. Unfortunately, none of our guys looks anything like Furcal (though Furcal does look a bit like a Furcal…)

So if I’m Dave Dombrowski, I’m not looking for an old guy to fill in for a year – like Mark Ellis or Jamey Carroll (who both signed multi-year deals elsewhere). I’m looking for a solution to last the next three years, because the problem is unlikely to go away any time sooner.

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Tags: Argenis Diaz Audy Ciriaco Brandon Douglas Gustavo Nunez Hernan Perez Omar Infante Ramon Santiago

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