On Jan. 10, Baseball America released the Top Ten Detroit Tigers Prospects for 2014 with some surprise rankings. Baseball American ranks the Tigers’ farm system as a whole 29th in all of baseball, mostly because of the trades for major league-level talent in the past.
The 2014 season brings intrigue among a handful of prospects for different reasons. Some prospects are still in their teenage years and some are on the cusp of the majors.
Prospects always have something to prove, but these Tigers prospects are going to be looked at even closer in 2014 and could possibly have much interest via trade as the season goes on.
These two Tigers prospects couldn’t quite crack the Top 5 Most Intriguing.
Domingo Leyba 2B/SS (No. 9 Tigers Prospect, according to Baseball America)
Leyba dominated the Dominican Summer League (Rookie) in 2013 as a 17-year-old. Leading off for the DSL Tigers, Leyba produced a line of .348/.446/.577 giving him an OPS of 1.023 in 201 at-bats. Leyba clubbed 28 extra-base hits (8 triples) in just 57 games; he played 36 games at second base, 20 games at shortstop and one game as the designated hitter.
For such a young prospect, Leyba has displayed excellent gap power as well as a good eye at the plate (34 walks). Leyba is so early in his development that he won’t be seen as a major league contributor for a few more years. The Tigers will look to develop the young infielder slowly as time is on Leyba’s side.
Leyba becomes a very interesting, long-term prospect for the Tigers at either second base or shortstop. If he continues to drive the ball all over the field, he will move up the Tigers’ Prospect List in a hurry.
Look for him to start the season in the Gulf Coast League (Rookie) after proving himself in the DSL last season. He is someone to keep an eye on as he develops over the next few seasons.
Jonathon Crawford RHP (No. 6)
Crawford was the Tigers’ first round pick (no. 20 overall) in the 2013 MLB Amateur Draft out of the University of Florida. In 2012, Crawford threw a no-hitter in the first game of the Gainesville Regional against Bethune-Cookman. Crawford has since struggled to find that same command that he possessed during his superb sophomore season. He did get eight starts for Connecticut (Short-Season Single-A) last season, finishing with a 1.89 ERA, 1.263 WHIP and 9.9 K/9.
The 6-foot-2, 205 pound Crawford has a power arm with a solid fastball-slider combination, but he has been susceptible to bad control (4.3 walks per nine, to be specific).
Crawford still has the stuff to return to the form that made him a first round pick and could potentially make him into a starting pitcher in the majors. The 22-year-old could potentially have a big year and rise through the minors quickly. Depending on whether Crawford will come out of the bullpen or start in the majors will determine his estimated call-up date.
If Crawford can put together some solid starts, most likely for West Michigan (Single-A) to begin the season, then he could also be used as a trade chip at the deadline in 2014 to bring a bullpen arm or a power bat.
5. Austin Schotts CF
Schotts, a third round selection in 2012 out of Centennial (Frisco, Tex.), was converted from shortstop to centerfield upon his arrival to professional baseball. In 2012, Schotts spent all but two games playing for the GCL Tigers, where he hit .310/.360/.452 with 11 doubles, 21 RBI, 12 walks and 15 stolen bases.
2013 wasn’t kind to Schotts, who struggled with the bat throughout the year. His line of .212/.278/.277 between Connecticut and West Michigan was a major step back for the 20-year-old. However, Schotts did showcase an ability to steal bags at the Single-A level, swiping 31 total bases last season. The knock on Schotts is how many strikeouts he has posted in his short minor league career. In 2012, he had a 26.6 K%, and in 2013 his strike out vulnerability increased, finishing the season with a 35.5 K%.
The transition from shortstop to center field for this tremendous athlete is starting to come together. Schotts showed major improvement on the defensive side of the ball in 2013. Schotts becomes an intriguing prospect for the Tigers in 2014, because if he can make great strides regarding hitting for average and gap power, then the Tigers have found an interesting prospect as the future centerfielder or, more commonly in the their organization these days, a future trade chip.
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound outfielder will add to his frame as he matures through the minor leagues. Teams love athletic ability and raw talent; Schotts possesses both of those traits as well as a solid glove. Keep an eye on his offensive numbers in 2014 as an improvement is expected. Schotts most likely will be hitting leadoff and playing centerfield for West Michigan to begin the 2014 season.
4. James McCann C
Although McCann was a second round selection in 2011, the University of Arkansas catcher was the Tigers first selection. McCann is known for his defense behind the plate and his ability to handle a pitching staff, something the Tigers covet when scouting potential catching prospects.
In 2012, McCann split time between Lakeland (High Single-A) and Erie (Double-A) hitting .237/.278/.311 in 109 total games.
McCann earned the full-time job as catcher for Erie in 2013 and his batting numbers improved across the board. In 119 games, McCann hit .277/.328/.404 with 30 doubles, eight home runs and 54 RBI. McCann was also the injury replacement for Josh Phegley in the 2013 Futures Game for the US team.
Jason Beck of MLB.com wrote an article about the Tigers’ representatives for the 2013 Futures Game back in July:
To more than a few in the organization, he has the defensive skills to catch in the Majors right now. The offense has always been the question. With a .283 average and 37 RBIs at Erie this season, he’s starting to provide an answer.
McCann has a future as a catcher in the majors, whether it’s in a Tigers uniform or not. He shown the ability to throw out runners consistently (2012:43%; 2013: 37%) as well field his position (.991 FLD% in 2013).
At 6-foot-2, 210-pounds, McCann has the frame to hold up defensively as a catcher. His defense and the ability to handle a pitching staff are already major league-ready; his bat needs to be consistent for the Tigers to trust him at the next level. If he can hit at a consistent level, then he looks poised to start some games behind the plate for Toledo (Triple-A) at some point in 2014.
3. Jake Thompson RHP (No. 5)
This 6-foot-4, 230 pound right-hander was the Tigers first selection out of Rockwall-Heath (Heath, Tex.) in the 2012 draft at 91st overall. Thompson is an imposing force on the mound and has a good fastball-slider combination that has led to his high strikeout ratios during his minor league career (9.8 K/9 in each on his two minor league seasons).
In 2013, the Tigers had an innings limit on Thompson, and in many outings, he did not pitch more than five innings. Thompson started 16 games for West Michigan accumulating 83.1 innings, 79 hits, 32 walks, 91 strikeouts and a 1.332 WHIP. Not to bad for a 19-year-old in his first year of professional baseball.
The challenge for Thompson will be the second and third time through the opposing team’s batting order. For the most part, Thompson only went through the order once, sometimes twice. In 2014, look for Thompson to pitch more innings and start to establish what kind of professional pitcher he will be.
Thompson still has a lot of work to do in the minor leagues before he makes his jump to the majors; his secondary pitches need further development, especially his changeup and curveball, which project as average pitches right now.
2014 will be an interesting year for the right-hander as his innings will likely increase from his low total last season. Thompson will most likely start in West Michigan or possibly in Lakeland depending on his innings plan and where the Tigers see his progress.
2. Devon Travis 2B (No. 2)
All Travis has done since his days at Florida State is hit, hit and hit some more. Standing at only 5-foot-9, Travis has a compact swing with very little extra movements. His fluid swing allows him to sit back on breaking balls and drive the ball into the gap.
In 2012, Travis was the Tigers’ 13th round selection, so for him to rise through the Tigers’ farm system with such ease has been a pleasant surprise for the big club.
Travis totalled 132 games between West Michigan and Lakeland in 2013 hitting .351/.418/.518 with 28 doubles, 16 home runs (10 in Lakeland), 76 RBI, 53 walks and 22 stolen bases.
Travis hit in the third spot of the order for both teams, producing at a high rate. The fans noticed Travis’ breakout season as well and voted him as the MiLB Offensive Player of the Year in 2013.
In 2013, Travis took the low-level minor leagues by storm displaying an ability to run, hit for average and some power, as well as solid defense at second base. Travis looks like he could make an impact as a utility infielder in late 2014 (if Steve Lombardozzi struggles); most likely, Travis won’t be anything more than a September call-up.
Right now, Travis isn’t listed on the 40-man roster, but the Tigers did announce earlier this month that Travis and 15 others have received invites to Spring Training.
2014 becomes an extremely intriguing year for the second baseman. Can he stay on this incredible tear and look like the heir apparent to Ian Kinsler? Or will he struggle in the next level of the minors and stall his progression? Will he be traded like so many other Tigers’ prospects?
Travis has the focus and swing mechanics necessary to move up the minors rather quickly. The 22-year-old will likely be assigned to Erie (Double-A) after his time in camp comes to an end.
1. Robbie Ray LHP (No. 4)
Would the No. 1 Most Intriguing Tigers Prospect be anyone else? The 22-year-old lefty was the main prospect that the Tigers acquired in the Doug Fister trade, which was questioned by many. Dave Dombrowski must see something in Ray that the Nationals and many others didn’t pick up.
Ray was a high school selection back in the 12th round of the 2010 draft, who has progressed well through the minor leagues during his time in the Washington Nationals’ farm system
Ray had a solid 2013 season in the Nationals’ system, posting a record of 11-5 with a 3.36 ERA, 142 innings, a 1.254 WHIP and 10.1 K/9 in 27 starts. He pitched at two levels in 2013, High Single-A and Double-A.
Although Ray is 22, he has a wiry frame that needs some filling out. The 6-foot-2, 170 pound left-hander may always be a slight pitcher though, which doesn’t necessarily hurt his chances to become a steady big league starter as their have been other pitches similar to Ray’s build that have had success in the majors.
He comes to the Tigers as the No. 4 prospect in the system, according to Baseball America. The Tigers’ system is very slim on major league-level talent, and Ray is one of the few pitchers that are fringe starters in the majors.
Dombrowski must have noticed something in Ray to trade Fister for him and two other players. Maybe it was his K/9 or stuff from the left-side of the mound. Tigers fans will watch Ray closely, and the lefty could be under heavy scrutiny in 2014.
Tigers’ scouts had numerous chances to see Ray later in 2013; Ray pitched for the Harrisburg Senators in the Eastern League last season, who edged out the Tiger’s affiliate, the Erie SeaWolves, for the Western Division crown.
Ray could be on the short list of emergency starters as well; the Tigers have very little left-handed pitching in the big leagues.
2014 becomes even more intriguing for Ray and Tigers’ fans because of the trade. Ray is expected to start the season in Erie after he compiled a 3.72 ERA in only 11 starts at the Double-A level in 2013.
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