Winter Ball Roundup: Surprise & More


Jeff Loria has thrown his chum in the water, and Tigers fans, like others, are circling. While we wait to hear some news, any news, on the Florida trade front – there has been baseball played this past week! The Tigers have seven prospects in Arizona with the Surprise Rafters and plenty more in the Caribbean leagues. Only one of those players is named Cale Iorg, but unfortunately most have been equally disappointing. There are some bright spots, though, particularly Robbie Weinhardt.

Before his last start I was going to write: “Brooks Brown has been struggling – to say the least – allowing 35 baserunners in 13 innings spanning five starts.” Now I’ll have to say “allowing 41 baserunners in 13 2/3 innings spanning 6 starts”. With a 14.49 ERA. Good Lord. Brendan Wise has seven walks and seven strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings of relief. He’s earned every bit of that 6.35 ERA. Matt Hoffman is getting knocked around (15 hits in 8 2/3), but at least he’s getting lefties out. As for righties, better not ask. 2010 supplemental pick Chance Ruffin has four saves but he hasn’t shown much in the way of control, with five walks in 8 1/3 leading to his 4.32 ERA despite allowing a measly three hits. Since that 8 1/3 represents the sum total of his minor league record to this point, it’s probably a little bit early to make any definitive statements.

Cale Iorg isn’t doing enough to silence his critics (yet), although he is 10 for 19 over his last 5 games. If he can stay that hot, maybe he’ll at least get a closer look in spring training – but his cold start in Arizona and lead glove haven’t helped. He’s batting .304 but Third Baseman Francisco Martinez hasn’t shown enough glove, enough patience or enough power to impress. At least outfielder Ben Guez is giving us something to think about – though he has cooled while Iorg has heated up. So, if reports from the Surprise Rafters thus far aren’t very encouraging – we should at least be glad we’ve got players in other leagues as well.

The Tigers have three minor leaguers in Venezuela playing for Caribes de Anzoategui, including Brayan Villarreal – he of Baseball America’s ‘Best Slider in the Tigers System’.

23-year-old righty Villarreal has been used exclusively in relief, though he has primarily been a starter at all stops in the minors. Perhaps with his slight build, that’s how Tigers management ultimately projects him. Villarreal has had his control issues as well so far, but he’s been able to pitch through them with a 1.06 ERA through 17 innings over 11 games.

19-year-old Whitecaps outfielder Avisail Garcia isn’t seeing much playing time, with only 13 at bats so far, but he isn’t doing anything to warrant more – with only one single to show.

Erie closer Lester Oliveros is pitching in Venezuela very much like he pitched in Erie this season. He’s still striking out more than a batter an inning, but walking way too many – with 6 walks over 8 2/3.

Lakeland lefty Wilfredo Ramirez didn’t post a spectacular ERA last year (2010) but his 7.4 K/BB rate makes him interesting. In limited time this fall for Tiburones de la Guaira he has yet to allow a run.

Moving on to our men in the Dominican… Outfielder Andy Dirks is putting up good numbers (and earning a lot of playing time) for Toros del Este, with a .862 OPS in 66 at-bats driven by a quartet of triples. A bad showing in Erie in ’09 made Dirks drop off the radar, but he got real hot after a late call-up to Toledo this summer. He does bat left-handed, and if he doesn’t have the power of Casper Wells he doesn’t swing and miss as often either. Jeff Frazier is mauling the ball for Estrellas de Oriente in the Dominican, with 6 home runs and a 1.164 OPS through 16 games. Frazier, at 27, seems mostly forgotten, though. No word has yet come through, but it seems unlikely that he will remain in the organization long.

It would seem fitting that we’d have some guys playing for Tigres del Licey in the Dominican, and lo and behold we’ve got three: Scot Drucker, Robinzon Diaz and Alfredo Figaro. Drucker, the Mud-Hens’ mediocre long man last season, doesn’t really qualify as a prospect to watch – and his numbers in 3 appearances with the Tigres aren’t worth noting either. 7 baserunners in 1 1/3 doesn’t excite. Catcher Diaz is 27 already, and hasn’t done much of anything in his minor league career to suggest he would be an upgrade over Gerald Laird – hence the line on our offseason wish list. In limited time Diaz has turned it on down in the Dominican, though, might his .351 average get him another look? You would think a guy who strikes out as rarely as Diaz ought to be able to do that more often, but his track record says otherwise. Figaro is doing well too; he has yet to allow a run in 3 appearances (one start). Figaro always seems to look good in the minors – but whatever it is he does down there hasn’t seemed to work in the bigs.

Shortstop Gustavo Nunez is following up an awful year in Lakeland with an equally awful fall in the Dominican, with a .397 OPS in 6 games for Leones del Escogido. The playing time is as revealing as the production in this case, I believe. We send players to Caribbean winter ball for developmental reasons, but the pressure to win is there. We had such high hopes for Nunez after what seemed a breakout year on 2009. To say that his star has dimmed would be an understatement.

Also with Leones del Escogido is Casper Wells, who looked pretty good in his September call up – and could have a place on the major league roster in 2011, depending on how things shake out. Wells numbers don’t look good, with 10 strikeouts in 33 at-bats (to only 2 walks) and a .680 OPS. Still, that is better than Nunez. For a number of the guys on the list here, great numbers in winter ball might give the organization a reason to pay attention that they didn’t otherwise have – for Casper Wells spring training will be the real test no matter what.

In Mexico we’ve got exactly one guy: Mud Hens’ third baseman Maxwell Leon. As before, he’s been drawing a fair number of walks (with a .365 OBP this fall) but doesn’t hit for enough power to project as a major league third baseman – with only 1 home run in 102 at-bats for Tomateros de Culiacan.

In Puerto Rico, 22-year-old right-handed reliever Miguel Mejia – who posted an ERA of 2.80 in 35 appearances in 2010 split between Lakeland, West Michigan and Connecticut – has been quite good thus far for Gigantes de Carolina. In 9 1/3 innings Mejia has an ERA of 1.83.

Our other guy in Puerto Rico this fall is none other than Robbie Weinhardt, who saw some time in Detroit this summer (with mixed results) and is likely to be a factor in the bullpen picture out of the gate in 2011. Weinhardt is closing for Senadores de San Juan, and looking very sharp. He has an ERA of 0.77, a WHIP under 1.00 and a 4.5 K/BB ratio – you can’t ask for more than that. Weinhardt had not allowed a run until a three-inning stint on Thursday in which he took the loss after throwing two scoreless. Let’s not forget, he was every bit as effective in Toledo last year – something seemed to be off when he hit the show. Lets hope it was just nerves, we’ll be needing him next year.