This is the fourth installment in a series of posts where I guess at the Tigers' minor league starters at each position at each of their four full season squads. So far, I've marched through the catchers, first basemen and second basemen. If there was any big drama as to which would come next, well the title kind of spoiled it I suppose. I used to keep book on days I wasn't pitching, and anybody who scores a game knows third base comes before shortstop.
I think as we go through the four levels, we'll find third base is a little more cut and dry than some of the other positions. Of course, the Tigers have a way of making me feel silly just when I start to feel comfortable.
Nick Castellanos, Born: 3/4/92, Bats: R
I guess it's kind of funny to feel so dead certain a 19-year-old kid is going to start the season in the Midwest League. But the way I see it, Avisail Garcia was here when he was 17 and the Tigers threw quite a few teenagers at the Midwest League wall last year to see who might stick. After all that, they're not going to challenge the kid who they just gave a $3.45 million bonus? I don't think so.
The would be challengers for the position don't put up much of a road block either. Josh Ashenbrenner was the primary third baseman in Connecticut last season. In the GCL, you had Javier Azcona and Edgar Corcino. Azcona is talented, but he doesn't have to play third base. No, the Tigers are going to put Castellanos where they think he should be and the bonus will be nobody losing a job as a result.
Wade Gaynor, Born: 4/19/88, Bats: R
Gaynor hit well in the Midwest League (.286/.354/.436), well enough to earn the team's Player of the Year. Reports on his defense don't seem to be glowing, but I don't think he embarrasses himself there and I assume the Tigers will leave him at the position until he's forced off. That could come either by his lack of ability there or the position being taken - presumably by Castellanos or Francisco Martinez.
Martinez is actually the biggest variable in trying to figure out where Gaynor might go. There has been some talk that the Tigers might leave Martinez in Lakeland for another season. If they did that, would the Tigers try having Gaynor skip Lakeland and go right to Erie? They've certainly done it before with position players (Avila and Mike Hollimon jump to mind) but it's an awfully big step. Would they rather just move him off the position now so he's at a level that's a better fit? I suppose we'll find out in about three weeks.
One thing we don't have to think too much about are the other candidates for the Lakeland job. Other than the guys we've already discussed, that list pretty much starts and ends with Bryan Pounds. I hesitate to even mention him for this level since he was promoted to Erie last season and hit better there than he did in Lakeland. He's also 25 years old, so a trip back to Lakeland just doesn't seem likely.
Francisco Martinez, Born: 9/1/90, Bats: R
If this happens, you're going to read more about the Tigers rushing their prospects and some hand-wringing about how this is crazy. That may be, but Martinez was a league average hitter in the Florida State League last season at 19 years old. That's impressive, even if the .271/.330/.353 line doesn't look it. I'll admit it wasn't so impressive for me to think the promotion to Erie was a slam dunk.
So I looked up his numbers to try to find some deeper indicators and was reminded he spent time in the Arizona Fall League this past offseason. The records at MiLB.com go back to 2005 for that league, and I looked up all the Tiger position players who had received that assignment. Of all the position players to go to the AFL from 2005 through 2009, do you know how many were assigned to a level below Double A the next season?
I was actually hoping the number was zero, but it was one. Scott Sizemore was sent there in 2007 and then went to Lakeland to start the 2008 season. Sizemore, though, had been at West Michigan in 2007. So, because it makes these assignments so neat and orderly and because it will make Martinez a very interesting prospect for 2011, I think he will get the Erie assignment.
If he doesn't, there's the outside shot of Gaynor as I mentioned previously. There's also the possibility that the Tigers could just leave Pounds there until they think Martinez is ready. As I said before, Pounds hit well in Erie and I don't see him earning the Toledo job.
Audy Ciriaco, Born: 6/16/87, Bats: R
Ciriaco has to move up to Toledo. If he doesn't, he stays in Erie. Martinez stays in Lakeland and Gaynor has to find a position. Not only that, Toledo would likely have to piece together some combination of guys like Justin Henry, Danny Worth, Brandon Douglas, et al to fill out the third base position. If Ciriaco doesn't go to Toledo, things just get messy all around. So if the Tigers have any consideration for us folks who enjoy having interesting prospects to watch at as many spots as possible, I don't see how they can make any other choice.
Seriously, though, I think Ciriaco's biggest priority in 2011 is going to be showing the wrist that landed him on the disabled list three separate times last season is ready to go. I have to believe things are looking good since he's been playing in the spring training games. Having said that, I don't know that Ciriaco would warrant a mention in the mainstream media if he was having problems. With the way the wrist went last year, though, if he gets a month into the season without it bothering him it will be progress.
If and when he shows he's put the wrist problems behind him, he'll need to shift his focus. He'll need to show he can hit for enough of an average, display enough power and play good enough defense to make us overlook the fact that he's been a pro for six years now and still hasn't drawn 100 walks - for his career.
As for alternatives, I honestly think if Ciriaco isn't on the Mud Hens, the Mud Hens won't have an every day third baseman. Just like I said above, I think you'll see a mix of three or four players. We'll get to find out if Phil Nevin is as good at keeping his players active and juggling a roster as Larry Parrish was.
This is a very intriguing position for the Tigers this season. It has their top hitting prospect. It also has a few more players who will hope to replace Brandon Inge if Castellanos isn't ready for the 2013 season. If the assignments shake out like I've listed them above, the Tigers will have the rare instance of an intriguing player in the same position at each level of the system. Two years ago - when there really weren't any intriguing third basemen in the system - who would have thought that was possible?
The other thing I find interesting about this position is the relatively small number of alternatives. If you cut out Brandon Inge and the guys who were in either Venezuela or the Dominican last year, the Tigers only have eight players listed as third basemen. It makes an exercise like this easier, but I also wonder if it shows some confidence in the players they view as the future at the position.
(Note: This was written up over the weekend when Ciriaco's assignment to Toledo was somewhat less of a certainty.)