Detroit Tigers Farm System Overview: Turning a Corner in 2021

Five of the Detroit Tigers' six draft picks in the 2020 MLB draft participated in instructional league play in Lakeland, Florida.
Five of the Detroit Tigers' six draft picks in the 2020 MLB draft participated in instructional league play in Lakeland, Florida. /

Another new feature for Motor City Bengals in 2021 is that we are kicking off our first-ever Detroit Tigers Prospect Week that will run from March 8 to March 14. The official schedule of articles will be dropping on Monday morning.

We will also be rolling out the Tigers Minor League Report podcast, which will be hosted by MCB co-contributors Kellen Gove and Jake Boes, among others, with the occasional special guest.

Today, we will look at the Detroit Tigers farm system and how it is shaping up as we head towards Opening Day on April 1.  Our thanks to Around The Foghorn for the inspiration behind this idea.

General Manager Al Avila has now overseen the Tigers farm system for five seasons. When he inherited the system from David Dombrowski, it lacked depth and positional players who could come up and help. Since then, the Tigers have taken advantage of good draft positions (1st, 5th, and 1st in the last three years) and they have the 3rd pick coming up this year.

With that, as Chris Brown discussed in his article on Al Avila’s drafts, the Tigers are tied with the Padres and the Twins for the most drafted players (5) landing on either Baseball America or MLB Pipeline top-100 lists. For anyone who has followed the farm system in close detail for a long time, these types of headlines are new.

Detroit Tigers Farm System Concern:  Top Heavy?

It’s fair to celebrate in the progress of the Tigers farm system, but before we do, let’s take a look at a few weaknesses, beginning with starting pitching. Detroit does have some good arms who are ready for the majors, namely Casey Mize, Matt Manning, and Tarik Skubal.

And before I dive deeper into that, credit to the Tigers front office for taking a chance on Tarik Skubal, who was selected in the 9th round in the 2018 draft. The Tigers traditionally have not had much luck drafting in the lower rounds, and seeing Skubal progress so quickly is a good nod to the farm system.

But getting back to the pitching depth, three trades helped Detroit build some depth: the additions of Franklin Perez, Paul Richan, and Joey Wentz. While Perez and Wentz have the higher ceilings, we will get to see a full season of what Richan can do this year.

Beyond that, the depth is thin. The 2019 draft class focused on positional players in the later rounds, and in last year’s shortened draft, the Tigers did not draft a pitcher at all.

Outside of the arms above, Logan Shore, Elvin Rodriguez (also acquired in a trade), Hugh Smith, and Carlos Guzman are interesting, but Guzman, Rodriguez, and Smith have not pitched above A-ball.

The reliever front looks solid, with Jason Foley, Alex Lange, Gerson Moreno, and Zack Hess, to name a few interesting pitchers.

On the non-player side, it’s been encouraging to see the hire of Dan Hubbs, who is the Director of Pitching Development and Strategies, and the focus on analytics with Jay Sartori and Sam Menzin on that front.

A lack of infield prospects used to be a sore subject, but Detroit has addressed that with the latest drafts, and Zack Short, who came over for Chicago, maybe a quick call up from Toledo this season. Kody Clemens could see some time if he can hit on a consistent basis, and having Bryan Packard move to first could be huge, considering Detroit has been plugging the system with minor league free agents. And of course Spencer Torkelson has a chance to be a cornerstone for the Tigers for years to come.

We haven’t seen 2017 2nd round draft pick, Rey Rivera, in quite some time, but at this point he’s likely just an organizational player. Detroit will have to wait and see what these two draft classes can provide in the rebuilding effort.

State of the Detroit Tigers Farm System: Stars vs Starters

Michael Fulmer, Matthew Boyd, and Jeimer Candelario were all once considered top prospects and are starters currently, but if you look at the big picture, the Tigers have not had a drafted position player come turn into a starter over the last four seasons.

You have to go back to James McCann and Nick Castellanos to find regular positional players from the draft, and they were taken in the early part of the last decade. Derek Hill made his debut last season, but his role looks to be off the bench.

For pitchers, the 2016 draft class has the highly touted Manning, and last season we saw Kyle Funkhouser and Bryan Garcia get some regular innings out of the bullpen, along with 2015 draftees Beau Burrows and Tyler Alexander.

For the better part of the last decade, the Tigers have been able to churn out relievers who have been effective in some shape or form. Joe Jimenez did make the All-Star team once, and Buck Farmer, who is the longest tenured Tiger outside of Miguel Cabrera, has also been a solid contribution from the farm system.

Still, on the international side of things, Detroit really needs a hit who isn’t named Eugenio Suarez on the position front. Ramon Santiago and Omar Infante are the only two international players the Tigers have developed who became regulars for the team over the the last two decades.

The top international players currently in the system who have actually played are Wenceel Perez, who has hitting potential but has been inconsistent, and Ulrick Bojarski out of Australia, who has a lot of power potential but he has not been above High-A. Jose Azocar left in 2020 and signed with the Padres, but until we see Jose De La Cruz, Adinso Reyes, and Roberto Campos on a regular basis, Detroit still has ways to go.

Detroit Tigers Farm System Stock: Up

Al Avila deserved some credit for his more recent trades, as he was able to get a few contributors back to make up for some lackluster draft classes and poor returns on the international signings.

This is a pivotal year for some prospects who are graduating out of the system, as well as the younger players from more recent draft classes. I am encouraged by where the Tigers are ranked in terms of farm systems, which looks like this:

Baseball America: 4

MLB Pipeline: 2

Keith Law from the Athletic: 12

Prospect rankings are fun, and while they don’t win you games, but considering how far Detroit has come in the last decade in terms of pitching development, it is progress.

Going back to my youth, the Tigers teams of the 1990’s barely had any type of pitching or positional talent.

The game has changed a lot since, but the last two draft classes point to a shift away from the Dombrowski era, when they only seemed to target pitchers who threw hard and position players who could be used for trade bait.

The Detroit Tigers are taking a different approach, and it could really pay off in a few years.