I'm going to be looking over each of the Tigers' four full season minor league rosters this week and have already completed a perusal of Toledo's roster. As you move further down into the system, it's typically more difficult to get a feel for how the team is going to do overall. The rosters are just as volatile and the players manning them have shorter track records. The positive in this is in the Tigers' system, you're typically going to run into the better prospects once you get past Toledo. That certainly rings true this year, as Erie has four of five of the Tigers top dozen or so big league hopefuls.
The two that stick out here in terms of talent are Crosby and Turner. Turner is obviously getting all the attention - and rightfully so - as the Tigers' consensus top prospect, but Crosby has a special arm when he's healthy. There won't be another team in the Tigers' system who will be able to garner as much national attention as this 1-2 punch.
If they can both handle Double A hitters, there will be discussions among fans about the likelihood of either making the Tigers' roster in 2012. Actually, Turner will likely start those discussions late this season if he seems like he can handle advanced hitters. It's more difficult for Crosby because he'll be on a limited pitch count this season as the Tigers try to make sure his arm can hold up to a full season. That would likely leave him unprepared for a major league workload next season. This is all very premature, though. Double A isn't going to be a piece of cake for either pitcher.
If we're going to keep pairing pitchers, it certainly makes sense to couple Luke Putkonen and Mark Sorensen. They're close in age, right-handed, pitched for Lakeland last season and are similarly dependent on the defenses behind them. Putkonen's traditional numbers, 9-7 with a 3.18 ERA look better than Sorensen's, 10-12 with an ERA of 4.03. However, Sorensen struck out 113 batters and walked just 29 for a strikeout-to-walk ratio approaching four in 147.1 innings. Compare that with Putkonen's 87 strikeouts and 44 walks in 152.2 innings.
Knowing that strikeouts and walks comprise a large portion of what pitchers can control in a ball game, it might be tempting to say Sorensen had the better 2010. If we look even closer, though, we have more reason to pause. Sorensen gave up 160 hits in his 147.1 innings and 57 of them went for extra bases - including 11 homers. Putkonen gave up just 144 hits - better luck than Sorensen, perhaps - and 45 were for extra bases (8 HR). Part of that is Putkonen's higher ground ball percentage (50% to 48%) but I'm also curious as to whether his pitches are more difficult for hitters to square up on. We may find out in 2011, though I'm not optimistic about how either will fare.
Finally, we come to L.J. Gagnier. As Toledo's Pitcher of the Year in 2010, he would seem to have a legitimate beef about landing with Erie this season. However, it's the Mud Hens are staffed with pitchers the Tigers feel have higher ceilings. His loss is likely to be Erie's gain. Gagnier made six starts in Erie last season and was 3-0 with a 2.83 ERA. His 28 strikeouts and eight walks in 35 innings look good, but Gagnier gave up five homers in that time and 15 more in 120.2 innings with Toledo. If you're wondering why he's in Erie for 2011, that could be a big part of it. His being 26 is likely another.
Most of these guys will be familiar to Erie fans who were paying attention last season. Gayhart, Hamilton, Hoffman, Oliveros and Waite each threw for the SeaWolves last year with varying degrees of success. On the plus side of the ledger, there's Waite (20.1 IP, 16 H, 1 HR, 7 BB, 14 K) and....no, just Waite. Everybody else got tuned up in one way or another while in Erie. Ironically, Waite is only on the staff because of Jose Ortega opening the season on the DL. That prompted a promotion for Zach Simons, thereby leaving an open spot. So let's look at the guys who were supposed to be here.
If we go in an ascending order of...let's call them struggles... it goes Oliveros (25.1 IP, 20 H, 3 HR, 21 BB, 36 K), who mostly just walked too many, to Gayhart (32.2 IP, 30 H, 3 HR, 20 BB, 28 K), to Hamilton (37 IP, 34 H, 2 HR, 31 BB, 26 K), to Hoffman (26.2 IP, 36 H, 3 HR, 20 BB, 22 K). We've yet to see if another go at Double A hitters will yield better results, but Erie is in big trouble if it doesn't. I know in terms of talent, the highest hopes should be held out for Oliveros and Hoffman. Both can bring the heat and can be included among the system's intriguing relief prospects.
Of course, neither measures up to Chance Ruffin in that regard. The second of the Tigers' supplemental first round picks from the 2010 draft made his professional debut in the Arizona Fall League, just like Andrew Oliver. The Erie assignment also follows in Oliver's footsteps and it would be good news for the Tigers if Ruffin was able to handle it as well as Oliver did in 2010. He doesn't have a huge fastball, but he's a well-developed pitcher with what Baseball America called the best slider in the system. Also like Oliver, not too many would be surprised if success in Erie eventually brought him some action in Detroit at some point this season.
The last arm in the bullpen is Austin Wood. Wood was the Tigers' fifth round pick in the 2009 draft after he famously threw 13 innings and 169 pitches in one game for Texas (despite being a reliever) in a marathon college game. Many would blame that game for the fact that he's since thrown 7.1 professional innings and missed most of last season to shoulder surgery. Before the surgery, he was known for having excellent control, a fastball with perhaps a touch below average velocity and a good changeup. Post-surgery and with almost no pro track record, we'll just have to see how that holds up. If nothing else, this assignment shows faith in him on the Tigers' part.
There's a world of talent in Turner and Crosby and it's reasonable to expect Gagnier to succeed. I'm a little anxious about how Sorensen and Putkonen pitching to contact will play in the hitter friendly Eastern League, and the 2010 results for the bullpen are a little harrowing as well. The Wolves really need a few of those guys in the pen to figure it out, though, because Crosby's pitch count will usually leave them covering four or five innings even on his best days. That's in addition to the two or three innings they'll have to pick up on the other starters' normal outings. It'll be interesting to see if two or three of the guys in the pen can put it together and carry that load.
Holaday's assignment is very interesting. I assume the thought process is that his defense will play at the Double A level and the Tigers don't feel like struggling against this level's pitchers will hurt his development as a hitter. I assume he's going to struggle because between his scouting reports and his time in Lakeland, there's no reason to expect otherwise. As for Kunkel, his situation with the Tigers is getting precarious. When Omir Santos comes off the disabled list, somebody will probably be released. Kunkel would seem to be the most likely between him, St. Pierre and Santos.
This infield makeup is a pretty strange mix. You have four apparent starters in Bishop, Douglas, Martinez and Ciriaco. Then the players I expect to make up the bench are Bertram, Henry and Pounds. Bertram and Pounds are corner infielders for the most part, with minimal time in the outfield as professionals. With just three outfielders, that leaves Henry as quite a supersub. He can serve as a backup around the infield and appears to be the only other option in the outfield as well.
That may seem to leave the team without a lot of versatility. However, that problem is alleviated by Ciriaco and Douglas being able to move around the infield. It's a bit unconventional, but for each infield position the team has multiple options. The trick now might be finding a combination that can help the team put runs on the board.
Douglas has always hit when he's been healthy, but Bishop struggled at this level last year. Ciriaco can't be counted on for offense and it's unfair to expect Martinez to contribute a whole lot as he adjusts to Double A at the tender age of 20. Of the reserves, Pounds and Bertram have had bouts of success in Double A but Henry won't be counted on for much more than a good on-base percentage.
This group could go a long way toward addressing offensive deficiencies if they can flash the leather enough to help their pitchers. I don't know much about Bishop's defense at first, but I assume Douglas can handle the glove at second since he's dabbled at shortstop. Also up the middle, they'll have Ciriaco most games. There's not reason to believe he's not still a plus defensively, and filling Ciriaco's third base spot from last year will be Martinez. It sounds as if Martinez has the tools to play the position soundly. He probably just needs to get the time and experience to get comfortable with things like positioning, footwork and not rushing his throws across the diamond.
That leaves us with the outfielders. Guez was bounced all over the organization last season, and it's encouraging for this team that he spent the most time in Toledo and hit well. After a bout of overaggressiveness in 2009, he seems to have remembered the value of complementing decent power and good speed with some walks. It's actually a skillset Guez seems to share with another third of the team's outfield, Deik Scram. Scram strikes out a good deal more than Guez, but even with middling batting averages can use extra base power, walks and good speed to stay productive.
The final outfielder, Johnson, is quite a different animal. He has the speed to cover center field like Guez and Scram. He also draws walks (98 BB in 2010), but much more frequently than Guez or even Scram, who both draw their share. In fact, one of the biggest departures from his outfield mates is the fact that he's walked more than he's struck out as a pro. Scram and Guez have never even come close to that accomplishment and it'll be interesting to see how that discipline holds up at this level. I did a small study over the offseason that showed slappy hitters who draw a lot of walks in the lower levels have a spotty success rate as they progress.
If he does keep up a good on-base percentage, though, the team could have some fun with him batting ahead of bats like Douglas, Guez and Scram. It would seem another thing that could be fun about this outfield trio is watching them play defense. All three are speedy and all three have spent over 100 pro games at center field. That should allow them to give their pitchers good coverage of the outfield. As for their alignment, I would expect the most common one to be Scram in left, Johnson in center and Guez in right.
Position Players Summary:
Putting these players together, it's difficult to get a read on how they will be offensively. There is no clear masher, and there really isn't a lot in the way of home run hitters. I believe Scram is the only player on the team with a 20-homer season under his belt. That means when this team is scoring runs, it's going to be a team effort.
It will more often be a string of guys getting on being cleared with extra base hits than the big blast. That's exciting when it's working, but it can also be inconsistent. It's usually a formula that makes me uneasy, but I think something that might help is on any given day five or six hitters in the lineup will have good walk rates. Throw in some good baserunning and they might surprise me with how many runs they put on the board.
I think when it works, that type of ball the Angels have been known for can be quite a crowd pleaser. I think another key to this team's success is going to be something the crowd simultaneously loves and takes for granted - good defense. When it's crisp, the routine execution is appreciated but I think can eventually be taken for granted. That's why it's good to mix in a bit of the flashy glovework, which can create as much buzz in the stadium as a monster home run. On a team with an uncertain source of offensive production, they'll need the crisp defense most days, periodic appearances of the flashy stuff, and a very concentrated effort to limit the kind of sloppy play that can just make you want to break stuff.
The SeaWolves will be the most important team in the system just because they have Turner and Crosby. It's true Chance Ruffin and Francisco Martinez are also top prospects with a lot of promise and a lot to offer. Turner and Crosby making steps toward their respective ceilings, though, will put the Tigers closer to a 2012 or 2013 rotation teams would kill to have and Tiger fans can drool over.
I'm just not sure how well their talent - even their success - will translate to team wins. As I said above, the bullpen makes me anxious. There is nothing I hate more than seeing a reliever come in the game and start walking people. That is a major weakness this group is going to have to overcome, probably while covering a relatively high number of innings.
On the plus side, though, I expect Gagnier to be solid and what could be good team defense could really help Sorensen and Putkonen. If all those things combine to make this team good at run prevention, I think they could be a good team for scratching out one and two run innings. So even with my hesitation about the bullpen, two-fifths of the rotation and the offense's reliability, I can't shake the feeling that at some point we'll check in on the progress of guys like Turner, Crosby, Martinez and Ruffin and say, "Hey, Erie's pretty good."