For those of you that follow the Tigers minor league players as much as I do, or at least casually, one thing that has been apparent over the past few years is a lack of positional prospects in the system. We have seen with injuries at the big league level that the Tigers top two levels of their farm system offer very little in the way of position players. Quentin Berry and his spark aside. However, the lower levels are beginning to develop some interesting guys, and the Tigers top 20 could have more positional guys in it than it has had in a while.
What has become obvious, however, is that while the positional prospects are more encouraging than year’s past, the pitching in the organization seems to have weakened. What was once considered a strength of the farm system, now appears to be the weakness.
The question is, where has it gone?
It’s a product of numerous things. Injuries, poor performance, and guys just not getting better.
Prior to the 2012 season, many of the Tigers top 5 prospects lists had pitchers Jacob Turner, Drew Smyly, Casey Crosby, and Andy Oliver in them. Just outside of the top 5 stood Brenny Paulino on a lot of lists including ours. Drew Smyly of course has graduated to the majors and done pretty well. However, his last 6 starts have made him look like the back of the rotation starter a lot of us thought he was.
That leaves Turner, Crosby, and Oliver.
Jacob Turner was the Tigers unquestioned #1 prospect heading into 2012. That isn’t the case anymore, as Nick Castellanos has had a fantastic year, while Turner has had some question marks including some shoulder tiredness in the spring. At draft time, Turner was seen as a potential ace, now, given that he doesn’t appear to have dominating stuff, he looks more like a mid-rotation starter than anything. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I’m saying it isn’t the kind of ceiling that was expected at draft time. His recent outings have been more encouraging, but his K/BB ratio suggests a guy that won’t be a top of the rotation guy in the majors.
Both Casey Crosby and Andy Oliver have run into the same problem. They can’t command the golden stuff that they have in their powerful left arms. More and more it looks as if both of these guys are more fit for a relief role, which of course takes away from their value. The guy just outside the top 5, Paulino, has yet to throw a pitch for the Tigers this season, spending time in extended spring training on a strengthening program.
While the aforementioned pitchers all have good potential, and people shouldn’t give up on them yet, the Tigers system sees a drastic drop-off from that point. There is little to nothing in the way of pitching at AA Erie, with the exception of recently promoted reliever Bruce Rondon. And speaking of relievers, Rondon is really the only one that stands out as a real prospect. There are guys like Jose Ortega that have good arms, and guys like Michael Torrealba that have good numbers, but neither is really a great prospect.
Back to the starters.
Alex Burgos had a promising 2011 season last year in West Michigan. This year has been a different story for Burgos. He has taken a major step backward with command, getting hit around regularly in Lakeland, and his prospect status has taken a hit as well. He still has time to get better, however, he doesn’t have top shelf to begin with and isn’t projectable. Fellow Lakeland pitcher, Brian Flynn, has better stuff than Burgos, but isn’t consistently sharp with his secondary pitches, and lacks a strikeout pitch. At their best, we are again talking about back of the rotation starters.
West Michigan is filled with more of the same guys. Thomas Collier, who is probably the best of the rest of the bunch, doesn’t have much more than a #4 starter ceiling himself. Marcelo (Josue) Carreno is built in the same mode. A back of the rotation innings eater. Again, while these guys have their use, these are their likely ceilings, and ceilings aren’t often reached to 100% potential. Kyle Ryan, another starter at West Michigan, is repeating his season there. He is a projectable lefty, but has failed to really show any noticeable improvement in his stuff and his results at this point.
The Tigers pitching depth in their system has gotten so thin, 2nd round pick in this year’s draft, Jake Thompson, could easily move into the conversation as one of the top couple prospects in the system. Really raw, high end arms like Endrys Briceno, and Edgar De La Rosa have to enter the conversation as well, and it’s not because they even know how to pitch at this point. Their fastballs alone almost demand some notice in a system that has all of a sudden gotten soft-tossing friendly in recent years.
Given the vast amount of resources the Tigers have spent on drafting pitching, it is a little baffling that the system still struggles in this regard. The 2008 draft, at least pitching wise, has turned out to be a disaster. Andy Oliver in the 2nd round in 2009 is beginning to look like a flop. Austin Wood from that draft recently called it quits. They traded away supplemental pick Chance Ruffin from the 2010 draft, who at this point hasn’t looked that good anyway.
The good thing is the Tigers rotation is still young and guys from the system like Ruffin and Charlie Furbush have netted the Tigers Doug Fister. The problem is, beyond the Tigers top 6 guys, the system can’t recover for injuries. If Fister and someone else should get injured, the Tigers are dipping into the well that includes Crosby, Oliver, and Andy Wilk, none of which have proven capable.
Maybe some of these guys in the lower minors will step up in the next year or two, and the Tigers could potentially need it with Fister, Rick Porcello, and Max Scherzer heading towards free agency years.
It’s funny how big of a difference a year makes. At this time last year, pitching depth in the minors was the clear strength. This season, that doesn’t appear to be the case.