Spring can also be a time to worry for Tiger prospects (Part 1)

I recently finished a piece in which I took a look at the 83 players who had jobs in the Tiger organization heading into the 2010 spring training, but did not when the 2011 spring training rolled around. There were a wide array of reasons for their departures, but the one that probably strikes the most fear into the players' hearts is the dreaded cut.

Today, I'm going to take a look at the players who are most likely to be worried about not having a job with the Tigers - or anybody else - when the 2012 spring training rolls around. After all, of the 83 players who were in the 2010 media guide, but not 2011's version, 34 of them never broke camp last season.

Is it possible to look through the system and make a logical guess as to who some of these players might be? I think it's actually fairly easy. You see, I think there is something of a baseline expectation of where you should be in the minors based on the "class" with which you were drafted or signed. If you've fallen behind that simple expectation, you either have a good reason - such as injury - or you better be trying to accentuate your positives this spring.

The baseline is pretty simple to establish. For example, if you were drafted in 2009 and didn't spend the better portion of your 2010 season in full season ball, you have some catching up to do. The baseline pretty much jumps up a level for each year you go further back. For example, 2008 draftees should have been at least in Lakeland. The 2007 draftees should be in Erie or better and so on.

The draft is responsible for less than half of the players in the organization, though. Is there a similar baseline for the non-drafted signees? Now, when I say that, I'm not talking about the guys who don't get drafted and are then signed to fill out the short season rosters. Those guys are always a trip to the office from being cut. I'm talking about the mostly Latino players who aren't subject to the draft.

One thing that stood out to me was the sharp dropoff in players who were in the Latin American leagues last season when you move from players signed in 2008 to those signed in 2007. Of the non-drafted free agents in system, 19 were signed in 2008. Of those 19 players, 12 spent their 2010 season in either the VSL or DSL. When you go to the players who signed in 2007, there are 18 and only four spent their 2010 season somewhere besides the States.

I would suggest that makes our first baseline. A player who was signed in 2008 and is not going to be coming stateside for the 2011 season is beginning to enter shaky ground. From there, I expect the line to move up gradually as it does for the drafted players. The players signed in 2007 won't want to be repeating in a short season squad and those signed in 2006 should look to be in Lakeland to start the season, and so on.

Again, these rules are only intended to be a baseline. Players who are ahead of the line aren't necessarily free of concern and those behind it may not be anywhere near the chopping block. Age obviously has a lot to do with where you might be and having been setback by a major injury explains a lot of the tagalongs as well. With the general idea established, though, let's take a look through the system. 

I'm skipping the 2010 draftees because I don't want to ruin the fresh sheen that is still on their dewy professional baseball careers. That said, if you're a college player, drafted in 2010, who spent a sizable part of last season with the GCL Tigers, you better hope that degree wasn't just for show.

2009 Draftees

This group has just completed their first full professional season. For the most part, they're going to want to have had an assignment with a full season squad. So let's start with the guys from this draft class who spent the season with the GCL squad. They were Edwin Gomez and Edgar Corcino.

I wouldn't worry too much about Gomez, yet. He was a fourth round pick, so the Tigers like him. He was also just 18 last season, and one more thing working in his favor was he had switched from shortstop to the outfield, center field mostly. He needs to start showing some progress, but I'd say him getting a chance to prove himself is a lock.

Corcino doesn't have all the same things in his favor Gomez does. He wasn't an early round pick (26th) and he was at the same position. What may work in his favor, though, is the fact that he's young. He turned 18 just before the GCL season started, which means he pretty much got drafted for his 17th birthday. I'm not as sure about him lasting through extended spring training, but I'd be a little surprised if he was let go.

The other three from this class who spent a good deal of their 2010 season below West Michigan were Kevan Hess, Matt Mansilla and Eric Roof. Hess was the earliest pick of the three (14th), but after doing well in Connecticut didn't show well once he was in West Michigan. Matt Mansilla also started in Connecticut, and then received the dreaded pinball assignment. He went to Lakeland a little more than a month into the season, and then was sent to Erie a month later. His results were nothing close to anything that would suggest such a meteoric rise was warranted.

Finally, there's Eric Roof. He was with West Michigan for the first two months of their season before being sent back down to Connecticut. That's the wrong direction and certainly concerning for him considering he turned 24 in the offseason.

2008 Draftees

This group has two full seasons under their belts on top of whatever time they got in for their draft year. This is the first class who has fellow draftees in the majors (Avila and Perry), but the expectation we're setting is only to either have started or spent significant time in Lakeland - with the Flying Tigers, not the games with free attendance.

The two guys who stick out from this class by where they spent the season were Jade Todd and Scott Green, who were the only members of the class who spent time with the GCL squad. It's only marginally good news that both seemed to be related to injuries. Green's rehab in GCL was definitely injury related. He tore his labrum in 2009 and after surgery and rehab, got in a couple weeks of a rehab assignment.

Todd, on the other hand, started the season in West Michigan. After 14 starts at that level, he was 0-8 with a 5.11 ERA despite peripherals that suggested he should be doing much better. The hits were falling, though, and he was letting baserunners get in for runs once they were on. Matters got worse when he missed over a month with an injury and was back in the GCL when he returned. Predictably, he did well at that level but nagging injury problems and middling results when he's healthy aren't encouraging.

Infielder Brett Anderson is another one who stands out because he's the only member of this class to be assigned to Connecticut. After two seasons of misery in the GCL, he moved up to try his hand at both the NY-Penn League and shortstop. You could argue neither went too well. He batted .199, struck out in a quarter of his plate appearances and made 23 errors in 38 games at short.

One level higher we have Trevor Feeney. He's an interesting case because he was actually well above the "baseline" in 2009, pitching for Lakeland. He gave up 117 hits in just 79 innings, though, and thus you had him in West Michigan for 2010. The results weren't too bad if you ignored the 215 hits in 184.2 innings, but he's now 24 and either the victim of just awful infields or quite hittable.

The last player I'll point out from this class is Jordan Lennerton. When I saw he started 2010 by repeating at West Michigan, I wondered if he'd last the season. He not only lasted, he didn't do too badly in West Michigan before getting a call-up to Lakeland. I think the call-up may have had to do more with filling in for a vacating Rawley Bishop than rewarding Lennerton, though. He may have hit well enough (.301/.393/.505 in 239 PA) to earn another shot in 2011, but he's now a 25-year old first baseman who's yet to see Double-A pitching.

2007 Draftees

This is the last class I'm going to talk about in-depth. For this group, we're looking at the guys who couldn't call Erie home for the 2010 season. I suppose I'll start with a player who I'm not certain where he called home in 2010, Brandon Hamilton. The Tigers' second pick in the 2007 draft didn't throw a pitch in 2010. He spent the entire season on the restricted list and I never heard a single explanation for the absence that wasn't emphatically denied. I'm not here to speculate, either, but even if the reason was simple and convincing Hamilton has still never had success at even West Michigan. That may be as big a problem as his 2010 no-show.

Another player who pitched only a little more than Hamilton in 2010 was one of the most disappointing stories for Tiger fans. Casey Crosby missed all but a few innings of 2010 because he couldn't throw without feeling pain in his elbow. They tried to wait it out, but it just didn't happen. Injury problems aside, Crosby isn't going anywhere.

Given his last name, you might think the next player's problem is injuries as well. But while Richard Zumaya doesn't have his brother's injury problems, he also doesn't have his fastball. That led to him spending three seasons in the GCL before getting the call up to West Michigan last season. Given that two full seasons in the GCL are cause for concern and he's never been able to put together what you'd call a successful season, the younger Zumaya may have to dazzle this spring to stay in the organization.

A level higher than West Michigan, you could find the other four players whose 2010 placement sends up red flags. Sure, Luke Putkonen and Kyle Peter get some leniency because of their respective struggles with injuries. However, Putkonen is 24 with no time at Double-A and Peter is 25 and has 244 plate appearances in the last two seasons. I don't think either will be cut before spring training lets out, but I'd say both are facing crucial seasons and need healthy, productive 2011 seasons.

That leaves us with Jon Kibler and Kody Kaiser. Kibler actually started at Erie for a second straight season, but fared worse in 2010 than he did in 2009. (Things didn't go too well in 2009, either.) That lead to a mid-season demotion to Lakeland, where he was successful but no doubt discouraged. Kibler's spent 240 innings pitching for Erie and has given up 262 hits, 99 walks and struck out just 126 batters. It seems as though that may be his ceiling.

Kaiser is probably hoping 2011 will allow him to show he's not running up against his highest level at Erie. He raked in Lakeland for the second straight season, but still had to wait until the end of the Florida State League's first half before getting a call-up to Erie. Once that call finally came, he flubbed it a bit. A high strikeout rate and a power outage made his inability to draw walks as he had in previous seasons that much more damaging. As a result, he hit just .247/.307/.379 while in Erie.

Personally, I hope the quality time he's turned in for his three-and-a-half pro seasons earn him another shot in 2011, but the fact is he'll be 26 this year and a corner outfield spot in the upper minors can be a tough gig to hold.

2006 Draftees and Prior

For the rest of the players in the system, those drafted in 2006 or earlier, they pretty much need to be in the mix for the major league roster to remain relevant. So while you can give a guy like Duane Below a bit of a pass since he lost most of 2009 to injury, anybody from these draft classes is probably on notice.

That means the pitchers who were drafted in 2006 or earlier, L.J. Gagnier (2006), Brendan Wise (2005) and Josh Rainwater (2003), who still haven't made the majors are in serious danger of being career minor leaguers. Rainwater is already a minor league free agent, so he may already have come to terms with that fate.

On the position player side, Mike Bertram and Deik Scram (both 2006 draftees) are probably either coming to terms with their roles as career minor leaguers or hoping to make one more convincing argument to be given a shot as major leaguers. Considering the rungs above them on the ladder are filled with players higher on the depth chart, it's not going to be easy.

That leaves Max Leon (2004) and Jeff Kunkel (2005) as the last two position players who are in the system and not meeting what I've established as the baseline. I'm fairly confident these two have come to terms with their roles as organizational players, and at this point are playing for the love of the game and perhaps a cup of coffee in the majors if the cards fall right.

Conclusion

As I've done my best to make clear, these are just rough baselines. There's no way all these players are getting cut. Even if you remove all the players who I said won't get cut, I doubt all the players left over will get cut before the short season teams begin. At the same time, a few of the players who appear to be safe by this method - who weren't even mentioned - may end the spring on the outside looking in.

To be honest, I was a little uncomfortable with the tone of this entire piece. I try to focus on the positive and a story that talks about players who are in danger of being cut is much more negative than my usual approach to covering the minors. However, at this point in the season, a lot of people are wondering about who will be assigned where and one way to start that task is to talk about who might not be around. How about this? When sculpting the 2011 Tiger organization, begin by removing the parts that don't look like a Tiger.

I apologize to the sculptor whose quote inspired that awful paraphrase, and will try to avoid similar butchery in part two. That's when I'll do the same exercise for the non-drafted free agent signees.

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