While much of the discussion of the Tigers minor league system revolves around top prospects Jacob Turner and Nick Castellanos, and rightfully so, not every guy on a big league roster comes from a top prospect pedigree. It’s a clubs ability to contributions from people you don’t expect that can make the difference between just a regular ball club, to one that is competing for a playoff spot. Yeah, ideally teams would love to have guys who should be starting on their bench, but that just isn’t reality. As we have seen with a guy like Don Kelly, a player can carve himself out a nice niche in the majors by providing utility.
Justin Henry is a guy that could be providing that role for the Tigers before we know it.
Henry, is currently on a career path that is starting to become eerily similar to that of current Tigers utility man Don Kelly. Drafted in the 9th round by the Tigers in the 2007 draft, Henry has made a slow ascension into the Tigers organization’s conscience, as well as Tigers fans minds. Why? Well, first and foremost, it’s Henry’s ability to get on base. So far, throughout his career, Henry has shown an ability to control the strike zone at a tremendous rate. Over his career, he has drawn more walks than he has struck out, and has posted a career OBP of .373. That kind of number is bound to get recognized by a fanbase that is yearning for someone to get on base in front of Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera.
A second thing that is intriguing with Henry is his ability to play multiple positions, and play them well. A 2nd baseman by trade, and his best position, Henry is able to play the all the outfield spots, and SS and 3B as well. His arm is solid, his range is good, and he doesn’t make a ton of mistakes either. Much like Don Kelly, his future is going to be dependent on his versatility.
Henry is the ultimate glue guy. He may not be the most talented player in the world, but what he lacks in ceiling, he makes up for in determination and effort. He is the type of guy that managers love to have on a ball club, and a perfect example for younger players coming up through an organization on how to play the game day in and day out. Still, effort and determination can only take you so far, and there has to be some ability there.
When Henry was first drafted, he started his professional career in short-season Oneonta. In 250 at-bats there, Henry hit a robust .340 with an OBP of .421, putting people on notice that he intended to make a name for himself. There was no power to speak of, and given that Henry was 22 at the time, people needed to take a wait and see approach. In 2008, as a 23 year old, Henry hit well in low A West Michigan, posting once again an impressive OBP of .356, and a batting average of .295. Over the next two seasons, Henry struggled a little more, hitting in the .260 range, and with so little power, he began to fall out of the minds of many prospect followers.
2011 was a different story for Henry. Now at the age of 26, Henry became arguably Erie’s best player. He hit .309 for the Seawolves in 2011, and posted a very impressive OBP of .410. Again, Henry showed a complete lack of power, failing to hit a home run all season, and posting just a .404 slugging pct. Regardless of the lack of power, Henry has seen his status take a jump in Tigers fandom, and there is a couple of reasons for that.
First, I truly believe that as more fans become schooled in advanced metrics, players like Henry are becoming a little more popular. There is value in a player getting on base via the walk, and Henry has shown the ability to control the zone, and make pitchers work. Stat geeks see a BB rate of around 14%, and they get as excited as when a girl talks to them.If he had power as well, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion, he would already be in the majors.
Second, the major league clubs’ lack of a true top of the order hitter, who can get on base, has Tigers fans quite possibly prematurely drooling over the prospect of having a guy like Henry on the club. With Austin Jackson looking more and more like a guy suited to the 9th spot in the order, Tigers fans everywhere began combing minor league statistics looking for that guy who could get on base. And of course, people fixated on Henry. It helps that Henry runs pretty well too, and could potentially steal about 20 bags a year with every day time.
Lastly, it also doesn’t hurt Henry’s status that his best position also happens to be 2nd base. Defensively, Henry is above average at 2nd base, and given the Tigers troubles at the 2b position the past couple of years, it makes sense people look at Henry as an option. But fans have to temper even their modest enthusiasm when looking at a guy like Henry.
Henry is on a path to become a major league baseball player, but it’s most likely in a role of a 25th type man on a bench. I began in one of the earlier paragraphs likening Henry to current Tiger Don Kelly, and that comparison is apt. If you look at the two players career minor league slash lines, they are very similar. Kelly sits at .288/.360/.388. Henry has a career slash line of .291/.373/.363. That is a .748 OPS for Kelly, and .733 OPS for Henry. Age wise, both guys were performing at essentially the same levels at the same age as well.
It’s not a bad thing for Henry to have the same career path and similar abilities as a guy that is currently playing in the major leagues. It just suggests to Tigers fans that they shouldn’t get their hopes up for much more than a utility guy that Don Kelly is. And for those that almost can’t wait for Don Kelly to be replaced on the roster at some point……I think we have found your guy.