As John Verburg noted today in the latest installment of “Down on the Farm” – the Lakeland Flying Tigers are stocked with the best positional talent in the Tigers system, but are only a .500 team. The reason? Well, some of it is injuries but obviously physical talent doesn’t necessarily translate into production – especially in the low minors.
I’m not going to rehash who is doing well and who is not and why that might be the case and what should be done about it. That’s been done. I’m writing this to make the case for creating one minor league squad to be the organizational champion. The Tigers don’t have a well-stocked minor league system at the moment. The Mud Hens are doing well, in large part thanks to “AAAA” talents and journeymen, but there isn’t enough juice down there to make more than one team competitive. The way things stand now, the Flying Tigers are at .500, the White Caps are 7 games under and the Seawolves are (surprisingly) 1 game over.
The Tigers do have levers and strings if they want to make one team win at the expense of others – after all, they sent all those prospects to Lakeland in the first place – without doing anything egregious they can simply rush promotions to a club and slow promotions from it. Teams have certainly been known to keep top performers at a lower level so that they can play in the minor league postseason. So why do I think they should want to? Part of it you could describe as wanting players to “learn how to win”. Now I don’t believe that a team has to “know how to win” in order to win, but it helps to have exposure to the kinds of situations that you face disproportionately when your team does well: protecting leads, driving runners in and making and seeing pressure pitches. The second part would be what it does to a player psychologically to be in contention rather than out of it. There is always tremendous pressure on anyone in the minors – I would guess even more pressure than on an established major leaguer. To make a career for yourself you need to perform – with limited chances in a variance-prone sport where you can do everything right and still wind up with nothing to show for it. If the team is out of contention – there’s nothing to focus on but your own numbers in the box score. Putting too much pressure on yourself to get results now as opposed to having good at bats is a recipe for disaster. If the team is in contention, what happens to the team seems to matter more and who gets how much credit seems to matter less. That should help a player resist the urge to adjust his mechanics from at-bat to at-bat.
You might disagree with my fundamental idea. Or you might be a fan of the White Caps or Seawolves and want to see those teams win. But from my perspective, since Lakeland is already stocked that’s the place to build a champion. After all, demoting Nick Castellanos to give the Caps a little more pop doesn’t seem like a sensible thing to do. If the Flying Tigers win, that cohort could advance through the minors together – winning at every level. So what steps could be taken? As I mentioned above – it would have to be some combination of holding guys back in Lakeland and rushing promotions from West Michigan. That would mean that Castellanos ought to stay in Lakeland – despite the .400 average. Personally, I’m in no rush to see the guy hit the majors: he’s got the average tool down, but we’re going to be waiting for the power and defense for a couple of years. There are some other guys who might otherwise get promoted to Erie in a month or two, but Castellanos is the one that sticks out.
For the second part – glaring weaknesses in the Flying Tigers lineup could be addressed through promotion. The White Caps top hitter is Steven Moya, but he isn’t the guy I’d like to see get sent south. The guy who ought to go is first baseman Dean Green First base has been the weakest lineup position for Lakeland (since at least Dixon Machado has a decent glove at a tough position) and Jeff Holm isn’t an “answer” any more than James Robbins. Other weak points in the lineup are occupied (or would be, were it not for injuries) by legitimate prospects like Machado, Hernan Perez and James McCann. The team is scuffling to get production at center field to replace Daniel Fields while he is on the DL. Jamie Johnson is struggling in his (undeserved, in my opinion) repeat of AA. He might balk at a demotion to A+, but sending him down there would make a sort of sense. You couldn’t ask for a better leadoff hitter – at least from the choices available in the Tigers organization.
The other issue for Lakeland has been starters who often miss the strike zone or struggle to miss bats if they don’t. I’m not entirely sold on the potential to fix this defect through roster juggling… for one thing the Flying Tigers’ most talented pitcher (Alex Burgos) has been one of the worst offenders. The White Caps rotation has done a good job of throwing strikes, but has given up a lot of hits. That could be noise, but it suggests poor command within the zone. The Seawolves have starters with good peripherals but poor ERAs (who could help Lakeland even if they didn’t find the competition easier) but they’re old for their level already. In part this issue may have been addressed already by bringing up Luis Angel Sanz and moving him from the ‘pen to the rotation. In two starts, he has gone 12 innings with 11 Ks, 2 BB and only 2 earned runs. If the current roster can’t pull together – maybe a promotion for Wilsen Palacios is in the cards.
There’s another tool available to the Tigers, of course: the rehab assignment. Jacob Turner and Luis Marte have thrown some good innings for Lakeland this year. Just making sure that any Tiger in need of a future rehab assignment does so for the Flying Tigers would help. Maybe Austin Jackson will need a series to prove he’s over his strain and Al Alburquerque and Daniel Schlereth are likely to need longer stints at some point this summer. Maybe Victor Martinez could even join Lakeland before the end of their regular season…