Tiger prospects hone their skills in winter ball

Denny Medley-US PRESSWIRE

For many prospects, baseball is a year round business. A look at Tiger prospects in the Arizona fall league, Venezuelan and Dominican winter leagues.

Nick Castellanos is the Tigers’ top prospect. He’s currently playing for the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall league. Bruce Rondon is a highly touted relief pitcher, and he’s currently playing in the Venezuelan Winter league. Audy Ciriaco is playing in the Dominican winter league. Young outfielder Danry Vasquez began his season in Connecticut, finished up his minor league season with the West Michigan Whitecaps, and was then sent to the Florida Instructional league for... well, further instruction.

Most minor league seasons are wrapped up in early September. Unless a minor league team advances to their league’s playoffs, they’re generally done by Labor day weekend. Playoffs could stretch their season out another week. But for many prospects, the end of the minor league season doesn’t necessarily mean no more baseball for the year. Not yet.

The Arizona Fall League is played each year for about six weeks, from early October through mid November. Participating clubs send six or seven players each, and they are assigned to one of six clubs in Arizona. This year, Tiger players are assigned to the Mesa Solar Sox, along with players from the Cubs, Dodgers, and Astros.

The players in the AFL are generally fairly advanced in terms of skill level, even if they haven’t been in the minor leagues very long. They have an opportunity to play at a higher level than Triple-A, but it’s not quite major league ball. All the teams are based in the Phoenix area, within an hour’s bus ride of each other. AFL rosters include baseball's brightest future stars.

This year, the Tigers’ Arizona contingent includes Castellanos, along with their two top draft choices from the 2011 draft, catcher James McCann and first baseman Aaron Westlake. Joining them are pitchers Tyler Clark, Matt Hoffman, Michael Morrison, and Luke Putkonen, who appeared in a dozen games with the Detroit Tigers this year.

Putkonen is the veteran of the group. A third round pick in the 2007 draft, he was sidelined by injuries in his first season, and has climbed his way up to Toledo, with underwhelming stats along the way. He does have a four pitch repertoire and a fastball in the 92-95 mph range. At 26, his time as a prospect is running out.

Tyler Clark was a 24th-round pick from Missouri in the 2010 draft. The 23-year-old reliever began the 2011 season in the rookie league with the Gulf Coast Tigers, who play in Lakeland, and finished up strong in West Michigan. In 2012, he was promoted to Lakeland where he settled in as the closer for the Flying Tigers, posting an 0.62 ERA and a 0.84 WHIP for the Florida State League champions. He finished up the season in Erie, and appears to be one to watch.

Michael Morrison is another late round pick, taken in the 29th round of the 2009 draft out of Cal State Fullerton. The right handed reliever spent 2010 and 2011 in Lakeland, where a 2.72 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings in 43 innings pitched earned him a promotion to Double-A Erie in 2012. With the SeaWolves, Morrison pitched 63 innings of relief with a 3.14 ERA, allowed more walks, but still had a solid 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings ratio.

Matt Hoffman is yet another late round pick, taken in the 26th round of the 2007 MLB draft from Owasso High school in Oklahoma. The 23-year-old lefty has hit all the stops on the Tigers organization chart from West Michigan up to Toledo. He seems to struggle after each promotion, and then settles down. Hoffman has a spot on the 40-man roster, so the organization wants to keep him, but he will have to reduce his walk and hit rate if he hopes to have an impact in the major leagues.

The AFL will continue play through Nov. 15. There isn't much point in posting stats from the league after pitchers have thrown just three innings or hitters have made 20- 30 plate appearances, but suffice it to say that Castellanos continues to rake, and is playing the outfield. McCann had a big day going 3-for-5 on Saturday, and Westlake can’t seem to find the baseball to hit it just yet.

The VWL, DWL, and LMP all play from mid-October through the end of the year, and then the Carribean series is played in February. Andy Dirks was the hero for the Dominican Republic team last winter. The Florida instructional league has just finished playing its schedule, and you’ve probably read by now that the Tigers have called up some of the players to keep the World Series bound Tigers fresh. Some players go to Lakeland to fill in the time between the end of the minor league season and the start of the AFL.

The Fall Instructional League ("Instrux") is an off-season league typically comprised of short-season, rookie-level, A-level, and recently-drafted players. The objective of the instructional league is to hone the skills of young players under the close instruction of minor league coaches and coordinators.

The instructional league operates in Florida annually from mid-September to late-October. Rosters typically include the most highly-regarded prospects from the lower levels of the system, including Lakeland, the GCL, and Connecticut rookie leagues. Games are usually played in the morning at 10 am.

About 40- 45 players are invited to participate each year. Since the coaches' time is valuable, the organization would not waste time on a player if they didn’t think he had a chance to succeed. Others players who are commonly invited include players who missed significant time in the recently completed season, players who are rehabbing from injuries, players who are prepping for the Arizona Fall League, players with raw skills who are learning a new position or focusing on the development of a specific skill.

The Tigers’ instructional league team plays in Lakeland. For DSL and VSL players, an invitation often means that the player is "coming stateside" and will play in the USA the following season. Players do not receive a salary, just room and board. Participation is contractually required with an invitation. On days off, players take part in fundamental drills and workouts. A significant number of the coaches and scouts in the organization are in Lakeland each year to evaluate the prospects.

All the statistics are here, for the Tiger prospects playing in the AFL, the Venezuelan Winter League, the Dominican Winter League, and the Liga Mexicana del Pacifico.

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