The Detroit Tigers’ farm system is one of those in a constant state of change, due to their aggressive approach in virtually all aspects of player development.
The Tigers are aggressive over-spenders in the draft, a strategy which has landed them Rick Porcello, and most recently, Jacob Turner. They are also aggressive when it comes to trading prospects, not afraid to unload potential for proven veterans, having unloaded the likes of Cameron Maybin and Francisco Martinez in recent years to bolster the major league roster. Lastly, they are aggressive in promoting their pitching through their system, not afraid to skip levels and use young players in the majors.
The result, at least at the moment, is a system that has some intriguing talent, but not a ton of depth.
On the mound, the Tigers’ stable of arms is impressive, especially from the left side, and fans got a good look at many of them this spring, as the team essentially held a month-long tryout for the final spot in its major league rotation with six of the system’s top pitching prospects.
Turner entered the spring as the front-runner, both because of his record and talent. Turner, the team’s top pick in 2009, is an example of the Tigers’ big spending, as he fell to them at the ninth spot in the draft despite being the consensus top high school pitcher, and the Tigers grabbed him for the price of $4.7 million. His spring did not go as planned, however; he experienced a dead arm in the middle of March, taking him out of consideration for a major league spot on Opening Day.
It might be a blessing for the Tigers, however, since Turner has only three starts in Triple-A and three rough starts in the majors to his resume above Double-A. Once he’s healthy, a half-season in Triple-A certainly couldn’t hurt Turner, and despite the success the Tigers have had at promoting their pitching prospects aggressively, Turner’s 8.53 ERA in the majors last season might suggest that he could use a little more time in the minors.
The other five prospects competing this spring were all southpaws, and the group ranks among the best of any organization in baseball. Adam Wilk parlayed a strong minor league career into five long-relief appearances in the majors last fall, though his success didn’t translate as well as the team had hoped. He’s a soft-tossing lefty with average stuff that plays up because of impeccable control. He won’t miss too many bats, but he also won’t give up any additional base runners either. He could be back and forth from the minors to the majors a number of times this season, and once in the majors for good, could be a swing man between the rotation and bullpen.
Also a possibility for that role on the Tigers roster over the next few years is Duane Below, who almost won the job as the fifth starter before being a late cut this spring, but then was recalled a day later to fill the team’s long-reliever role when an injury produced a vacancy opened up due to injury. Below throws a little harder that Wilk but with less control. Primarily a starter in the minors, he’ll likely end up being a bullpen pitcher or spot starter in the majors, and could spend the entire season in the Tigers’ bullpen this season.
Andy Oliver has spent parts of the past two seasons in the majors, but hasn’t been able to stick. In seven career starts, he has an ERA over 7.00 and hasn’t missed bats in Detroit the way he did in the minors. His control has also escaped him. Oliver will lose his prospect status and will likely take the train between Toledo and Detroit a few times this season and fill in if the Tigers need an additional starter.
Casey Crosby was taken in the same draft as fellow prep pitcher Porcello, which is a testament to Porcello, who enters his fourth season in the majors. Crosby hasn’t progressed as quickly, partially due to some elbow issues that caused him to miss a season and a half. When he’s out there, he’s battled moderate-to-severe control issues. If he gets his command, he could be a starter. If not, he could end up being a power reliever where his lack of control won’t be exploited as easily and his mid-90s velocity can play up.
The issues of each of the above pitchers led to the selection of Drew Smyly for the final spot in the Tigers’ big league rotation this spring. He is the most polished of the healthy lefties this spring, which makes him the safest choice for the team, despite having far and away the least experience of the group.
A second-round pick out of college in 2010, he has just one pro season, in which he made 21 strong starts between High-A and Double-A. Unlike the others, he has good command and struck out more than a batter an inning last season. He profiles as a starter, with four potential above-average pitches that give him a chance against batters on both sides of the plate.
Outside of the mound, the Tigers are quite barren. Their 2010 supplement first-rounder, Nick Castellanos, had a strong first full season while playing third base full time for Low-A West Michigan. The good news is he batted .312 with 36 doubles, a sign of future power to come, but his 130-to-45 strikeout-to-walk ratio brings reason for concern. He has a pro frame that he’ll grow into, and the Tigers hope he’ll grow into some plate discipline at the same time.
Others to watch
—Rob Brantly and James Mccann
The Tigers have taken catchers high in the past two drafts, with Brantley going in the third round in 2010 and McCann in the second round in 2011. Both are college picks, and should progress at the same pace, with Brantley jumping to Double-A despite struggles in 39 games in the Florida State League after a midseason promotion last year, and McCann making his full-season debut in the FSL this season. Brantley, a left-handed hitter, had a strong season in Low-A ball in 2011 and is has the better offense of the two, while McCann will need his bat to develop if he wants to be a big league starter.
A big boy with a big bat, Westlake must hit to have value. A first base-only option, he was taken in the third round last season with a reputation as a hitter. The 6-foot-4 Westlake appeared in just 32 games last season after signing. He should develop plus-power. Of course, as a first baseman, he won’t be doing it for the Tigers in the majors, with Prince Fielder there, but if he hits, he could turn into a valuable trade chip for the team to use in the near future.
Taking him in the 15th round, the Tigers paid way over-slot ($550,000) to sign him before the August deadline, only to watch him go 2-for-14 with nine strikeouts in the Gulf Coast League soon thereafter. He’s a toolsy player who will need a lot of work, but could be a solid center fielder when it’s all said and done. He’s sticking around in extended spring training for the time being, and should spend the year in short-season Connecticut.