Surveying the Tigers Farm: Lower Level Pitchers

We'll try to remind ourselves that not every successful pitcher has to be 6'3" and over 190 pounds. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

After completing a series of posts looking at the Tigers' depth at the various every day positions, I've turned my attention to their pitchers. In my last post, I looked at the pitchers who were selected in the 2010 draft. Now we'll move on to the pitchers of interest who spent more time at one of the three lower level teams (GCL, Connecticut or West Michigan) than anywhere else.

The players include anybody who was in the Tigers' Instructional League this fall as well as others who I consider interesting for one reason or another. After reviewing their 2010 seasons and their standing as a prospect, I'll finish each profile with very broad stroke thoughts on where they might be in 2011.

GCL Tigers

Casey Crosby, 22, Throws: Left
GCL Tigers, 12.1 IP, 21 H, 1 HR, 4 BB, 10 K

Crosby obviously had injury problems in 2010. He wasn't on the Lakeland roster to start the season and the word was he had a deep shoulder bruise. When he finally had what looked like a rehab assignment in the GCL, things still didn't seem quite right and we've since heard he couldn't throw without discomfort. The Tigers are keeping a close eye on him since he had Tommy John surgery back in 2007, but they're currently hoping he'll be ready to go this spring. When healthy, his electric arm may have him second only to Turner in potential. 2011 Outlook: First, he has to make sure he's healthy. If he is, Lakeland would be the level we'd expect to see him.

Wilsen Palacios, 21, Throws: Right
GCL Tigers/Connecticut/Lakeland, 74 IP, 57 H, 1 HR, 13 BB, 67 K

Well, Palacios has already blown his Hall of Fame chances since he was suspended for performance enhancing drugs back in September of 2008. Oh wait, we don't care when relievers do that stuff, do we? I can never keep track of when I should be outraged. Anyway, Palacios is the latest in the Tigers' line of live-armed Latino relief pitchers. He can bring it, and it's good to see him do so without a lot of walks in the GCL this year. Of course, we've seen it before where pitchers get GCL hitters to swing at stuff Midwest Leaguers will let go. It'll be interesting to see how Palacios handles the more advanced opponents. He was a starter in the GCL, but I suspect that was only to build his endurance in preparation for a full season workload. 2011 Outlook: Three years in the complex leagues and most of a season lost to suspension leave him as a 21-year-old with 2.1 innings of full season experience. That's certainly not insurmountable, but I'd be surprised if the Tigers didn't want to see what he could do in West Michigan or Lakeland this year.

Bruce Rondon, 20, Throws: Right
GCL Tigers/Lakeland, 32.1 IP, 13 H, 2 HR, 16 BB, 33 K

Rondon has had an interesting path to this point, making a rare split in 2009 between the GCL and the Venezuelan Summer League. But last season he was in the States to stay and pitched well in the GCL. He gave up just 11 hits in 25.2 innings, showing his stuff can be hard to handle, but also walked 14 to show he has things to work on. If he can get a fastball that can get up around 95 mph to do what he wants, the Tigers could have another pitcher in the major league bullpen pipeline. 2011 Outlook: Rondon is just 20, so if he continues to struggle with control, the Tigers may have him stay in extended spring training and see what he does in Connecticut. If they like his progress, West Michigan or Lakeland is probably well within his reach.

Connecticut

Josue Carreno, 19, Throws: Right
Connecticut, 64.1 IP, 64 H, 5 HR, 33 BB, 59 K

Carreno made his domestic debut in Connecticut last year and must have impressed because Baseball America named him the 19th best prospect in the NY-Penn League. Despite being just 6'1" tall and 170 pounds, he can dial his fastball up into the low 90s. That slight frame means he'll either have to fill out as he matures or prove he can keep a starter's workload. One thing working in his favor toward that end is that in addition to a two-seamer and four-seamer, he's throwing a curveball with good potential and a developing changeup. There's still a lot of work to do with this young right-hander, but if he can prove he can start, he could soon be bolstering the Tigers' depth in starters. 2011 Outlook: West Michigan will be a challenge for Carreno, but I think it's one the Tigers will try to let him work through.

West Michigan

Antonio Cruz, 19, Throws: Left
GCL Tigers/Connecticut/W. Michigan, 37.1 IP, 34 H, 0 HR, 20 BB, 28 K

I have to admit to not having heard much about Cruz before 2010. I don't feel too bad about it, though. He spent just one season in the Dominican Summer League as a 17-year-old before coming stateside. Last season, he jumped around between three levels, spent no more than 19.1 innings at any of them (West Michigan), and didn't exactly put up impressive numbers. He's a hard thrower, though, who Jon Matlack says goes 92-94 mph with his fastball and also possesses a promising curveball. There's apparently going to be some stiff competition for bullpen innings in the coming years, and if Cruz can get his stuff under control he could be right in the midst of it. 2011 Outlook: I'd look for him to get a bullpen role with West Michigan, Lakeland or both.

Kenny Faulk, 23, Throws: Left
W. Michigan, 58.1 IP, 52 H, 0 HR, 30 BB, 78 K

Faulk played the somewhat irregular role of the lefty closer for the Whitecaps last season, turning in a notable 12.0 strikeouts per nine innings (or 30 percent of the batters he faced, if you prefer). It's true he'll need to cut down on the walks, and he also may find future ballparks (and batters) less forgiving to his flyballs than the Midwest League. He doesn't get a lot of talk as a future big leaguer, but I wouldn't be surprised if he provided a solid minor league bullpen arm for the next few years. 2011 Outlook: He seems to be taking a methodical march through the minors, and that would land him in Lakeland next year.

Ramon Lebron, 21, Throws: Right
GCL Tigers/Connecticut/W. Michigan, 85.2 IP, 78 H, 6 HR, 58 BB, 118 K

Lebron started in West Michigan as a member of that squad's rotation and that went less than swimmingly as he had a 6.85 ERA and 40 walks in 47.1 innings when he was sent down to the GCL to regroup. He tore through that level, but that can be expected from a fireballing 21-year-old. The Tigers tried to let him build on that success by bumping him up to Connecticut but while the strikeouts were still there, that level mostly bought different types of implosions. 2011 Outlook: Time is starting to press a little bit for Lebron. He seems like a young, unrefined fireballer but he'll be 22 next season and he needs to start piecing together some success. That's going to take improved control and command and there's little evidence that will come. He'll likely be given another chance to find it in either West Michigan or Lakeland.

Melvin Mercedes, 20, Throws: Right
W. Michigan, 19.2 IP, 16 H, 0 HR, 19 BB, 12 K

Mercedes came into the 2010 season as the proud member of a few top Tiger prospect lists. Those honors came on the strength of a live arm and that arm caused the Tigers to challenge him with a shot in the Midwest League. It did not go well as he was plagued by control problems, which led to general ineffectiveness. The next thing you know, he's sent back to Florida, placed on the disabled list, and undergoing Tommy John surgery. It's a fleeting business, no? Having undergone TJS, he'll likely be on the shelf until midseason and will probably be handled gently afterward. The only good news here is the elbow problems could have played a part in the on-field struggles. 2011 Outlook: He may not have a 2011 season, but if he does it probably won't start until July or so.

Jose Ortega, 22, Throws: Right
W. Michigan/Lakeland/Erie, 68.1 IP, 64 H, 3 HR, 31 BB, 61 K

Ortega is another whose name I had not taken much stock of before 2010. After two seasons in the Venezuelan Summer League, he came to the States to pitch for Oneonta in 2009. His results there weren't exactly stunning, but come 2010 he climbs all the way up to Erie and we find out he pumps fastballs that can touch the high 90s. Of course, when I hear that he fires the ball in the mid to high 90s, I can't help but wonder how he's giving up a lot of hits and striking out less than a batter per inning. Baseball America says his short stature (5'11") and arm slot leave his heater straight and flat. He's also reported to rely too much on the fastball, and those are both things he'll need to work out to succeed at the higher levels. 2011 Outlook: Erie seems a little aggressive even though he handled himself fairly well in his short 2010 stint. Lakeland is probably more likely, but I've been saying that about a lot of these relievers. I'm pretty sure somebody is going to have to pitch relief in Erie.

Jade Todd, 20, Throws: Left
GCL Tigers/W. Michigan, 92.2 IP, 97 H, 7 HR, 29 BB, 78 K

Todd missed time to shoulder problems for the second straight season. He was put on the disabled list in the middle of June, pitched to one batter in his return a couple weeks later, and then was finished until August. He wrapped up the season with five starts for the GCL Tigers. You might see Todd's 0-8 record and 5.11 ERA with the Caps and think his season was a disaster before he lost time to injury. His peripherals were closer to average than terrible, though, and we also don't know how his injury impacted his performance. Right now, Todd's biggest issue is he has been a pro pitcher for three years, is soon to be 21, and has thrown a grand total of 156 innings. 2011 Outlook: It obviously depends on his shoulder, which needs to hold up for an entire season so the Tigers can see where injuries have left his stuff. Will we see him at West Michigan for a third straight season?

Summary

This list is alarmingly short on starting pitchers and high end talent. I'm probably more dismissive of relievers than your average fan, but I doubt I'm alone in thinking it's difficult to get excited about relievers at these lower levels. What's worse, the starters that are listed have pretty significant obstacles to them making the majors as starters.

Crosby's health is a major concern, to the point where some are wondering if he'll have to move to the bullpen to hold up as a pitcher. I don't know how much of that is people just talking to say something and how much it is a valid concern. I like Carreno, too, but when you're as small as he is, about the only thing you can do to prove you can be a starter in the bigs is throw 180 innings there one season.

There are a couple things to keep in mind if you find this group of pitchers is distressing at all. I separated out the 2010 draftees, so that distorts the feel of who was at these lower levels a bit. We'll also see more starters as we move up to Lakeland, Erie and Toledo.  

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