Detroit Tigers: Early Returns Weak Farm System
By Chris Hannum
We know that the Detroit Tigers farm system has been gutted by trades over the past few years (and some lost draft picks) and that it is consistently ranked at or near the bottom of the league. But, that isn’t to say that the Tigers don’t have any guys with the talent to be possibly be big leaguers and all it takes is one great year to put some guys on the map (Devon Travis?). They have along list of guys that we all hope get their acts together and start to show what they are capable of.
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And so I say with some genuine disappointment that the Tigers farm system looks to have very few bright and encouraging spots as of mid-May. That isn’t to say that there isn’t anyone whose performance we should be pleased about, just that the disappointments far outweigh them.
Let’s start in Toledo. If we can ignore Mike Hessman‘s strong start (since he is 37) the only position player who is hitting the ball particularly well is Daniel Fields (a guy on his last legs as a prospect) slashing .312/.431/.538. Fields is still striking out far too often given that he is facing minor league pitching and is unlikely to ever hit 30 homers at any level, but his walk rate has been Adam Dunn-high, which is very encouraging. Dixon Machado shouldn’t be criticized for hitting .299 without power either, as that is close to his ceiling.
For his ceiling to be better than utility-level he might sadly need to start hitting 10 balls over the fence a year. Thus far Steven Moya has been very disappointing (.426 OPS) as has Tyler Collins (.690 OPS). Much of the Mud Hens lineup has been minor league free agents and retreads of which only catcher Manny Pina has done anything to raise his stock. On the pitching end, we should be pleased that Buck Farmer is doing just fine (with an ERA a hair under 4.00 and more than a strikeout an inning) in his rapid progression.
Kyle Ryan has stopped missing any bats at all and the other 3 retreads (Mike Belfiori, Tim Melville and Thad Weber) are trying hard to convince somebody to look to AA or beyond if more spot starters are needed than Lobstein and Farmer. In relief the Mud Hens have some guys that we have periodically considered as future Tigers bullpen pieces (or at least as future bullpen depth) like Melvin Mercedes, Kenny Faulk and Jose Valdez. However, the only guy not getting clobbered is minor league free agent signing Alberto Cabrera formerly of the Cubs. Cabrera has stuff that misses bats and often the plate, but if he can keep it up a but longer we may see him in Detroit before the break.
That’s just Toledo, though. The land of AAAA players and stud prospects who are blocked that the major league level. It’s AA where the Tigers system typically looks good, so… At least starter Austin Kubitza (who we do like to think of as something of a prospect) is doing alright with a 3.25 ERA and almost 9 K/9. The rest of the pitching staff? Almost uniformly bad – though some are more middling than awful. Chad Green we had higher hopes for… DH Dean Green has apparently upped his game a bit. The .360 BA probably can’t last, but it’s a good sign when a power hitter walks as often as he strikes out…
With the numbers Moya and Jordan Lennerton have been putting up, it doesn’t look inconceivable that it could be Green to get the cup of coffee if Miguel Cabrera or Victor Martinez hit the DL at some point this summer. RF Jeff McVaney has given Erie a decent 27 games (.836 OPS) but outfielders tend to need speed and/or pop and not just line drives. Wynton Bernard has been impressing on the basepaths, though nothing special at the plate with a steep dropoff from his WM 2014. The rest of the lineup has been pretty bad, with major lowlights in minor league free agents Brendan Harris and Casper Wells and the collapse of Wade Gaynor. So… full of optimism and mid-level prospects? Not anymore. Erie is really just Kubitza and Green at the moment.
In Lakeland, at least Steven Moya has been hitting (after being shuffled down there from Toledo). One time top Tigers prospect Fernando Martinez is not hitting at all. Many guys are not hitting at all of whom I would say only Grayson Greiner (who some of us thought would crack the Tigers top 10 sooner rather than later) is a surprise. Some of the others are still disappointing, as unheralded youngsters turning tools and a frame into production in A ball is how “prospects” are made.
We’d be thrilled if somebody like Ismael Salgado or especially Javier Betancourt started putting up numbers. Justin Verlander‘s kid brother Ben got off to a solid start in Lakeland but has since cooled off substantialy (now at .298/.372/.417). Only 2B Curt Powell‘s numbers stick out – but sadly those are entirely BABIP driven. There are some bright lights as far as pitching is concerned…
Tigers #5 prospect (FanGraphs) Kevin Ziomek has been approximately as good as expected (for the record, what I look for is most importantly more Ks than IP, fewer hits than IP and a walk rate kept under control). Tommy Collier’s numbers look decent, but he’s a non-prospect: a 25-year old that already flunked AA twice. In the Lakeland ‘pen a complete unknown from the Dominican (he skipped West Michigan) Confesor Lara has been lights out and has been getting some save opportunities. He has the markings of a guy who rises immediately to the top of the minors (old for league that he overpowers), so we may hear more about him soon IF he keeps it up.
Last but definitely, definitely not least we come to West Michigan. In low A frankly we don’t know what to expect from young guys and frankly neither to the talent evaluators. Prospects are always gambles, but before a guy hits A ball you’re almost betting blind. So… we really, really want to hear about what our top rolls of the dice are doing for the Whitecaps. Let me run through the guys that we really are watching carefully: Derek Hill (SS/CF), by many accounts the Tigers top prospect as soon as he was signed, .180/.296/.230.
Third Baseman Zach Shepherd (who mashed rookie ball at 18), .248/.297/.347. 3B Joey Pankake, .222/.316/.273. C Arvicent Perez, .239/.234/.283. Austin Schotts, .222/.243/.250. The only position player “of note” who is hitting is RF Michael Gerber who will definitely join the official ranks of “prospects” if he can keep this up. Hill is the big, big guy to watch (not to diminish Shepherd) and so far – very disappointing. Not a disappointment that a pleasant surprise from Gerber can make up for. On the ‘Caps pitching staff we’re definitely watching Spencer Turnbull, but so far he has been uncomfortably wild. Jeff Thompson has been knocked around a bit, but he’s apparently health and still missing bats – which is big.
If he can just keep the peripherals going without quite so many hits falling we’re going to be very pleased with his season. Ross Seaton has been their best starter thus far, but he’s a non-prospect still. I’m not so comfortable giving credit to dominating relievers in low A but the Whitecaps have a couple of guys “worth watching” in Joe Jimenez and Gape Speier who have both been getting outs and missing bats as well. However, almost top to bottom the West Michigan bullpen has solid numbers. If they can keep it up in Lakeland or Erie then I’ll admit that I notice.
In short… The Tigers have much less than the average “prospect density” down there in the minor leagues, with a lot of roles filled by, well, filler. They also have a number of “top prospects” that make the list but are either hurt, on the big league roster or both (Bruce Rondon, Drew VerHagen, etc…) That means that they’re leaning harder on a smaller number of guys to generate at least a few trading chips if not big league contributors.
The overall quality of the system is set to take another hit in the midseason reviews if the organization’s #1 and #2 in Hill and Moya can’t quickly turn things around. At least the Tigers top 3 starting pitching prospects (Farmer, Ziomek and Kubitza) are progressing as expected if not startlingly well.
An organization like this one desperately needs a stream of guys that no one really paid much attention to suddenly vaulting to top-10 team status and even top-100 national status like a Devon Travis. So far this year…. there doesn’t seem to be much hope for that at the moment beyond Michael Gerber, though at least a couple of others like Dean Green and Confesor Lara look like they just might earn a cup of coffee this summer.
Let’s hope for a few hot streaks between now and July…