The cat came back -- he couldn't stay away! -- Kurt
When people think of the minor leagues, it's only natural they first look to Triple A. In the Tigers' case, it's the closest thing to the Tigers not only organizationally but geographically. I don't know how many times the Tigers have had a weakness on the 25-man roster and somebody has asked me whether there was anybody in Toledo who might offer a solution. A little digging usually reveals they actually use "Toledo" as a representation of the entire minor league system.
In the Tiger system, Lakeland is as far as it gets from Detroit and Toledo but what we're seeing down there right now should be getting a lot of our attention. You can be forgiven for not noticing. After all, Toledo had the advantage this year of getting all those pitchers who were fighting for the Tigers' final rotation spot. It's only natural we'd want to know what was happening there. If you checked in, you'd notice none of those pitchers was doing a particularly good job of standing out as a future Tiger. But you also would have noticed the Mud Hens lineup - Brad Eldred in particular - was putting up on quite a show in the International League.
That's fun for us Mud Hens fans, but all that production in Toledo means almost nothing for the Tigers' future. It is a gaggle of minor league free agents and players who are clutching on to hopes of collecting just one major league paychecks. That's not the case in Lakeland. The Flying Tigers are second in the league in runs per game. They also are among the tops in the league in doubles (41, 3rd), stolen bases (29, 2nd), batting average (.275, 1st), on-base percentage (2nd) and slugging percentage (2nd). Leading the way in posting those numbers are three players who count themselves among the Tigers' most promising position prospects.
Just look at the league's batting average leaderboard. Tops in the league is Nick Castellanos, who's hitting .398 after Sunday's game. Right on his heels is the talented outfielder, Avisail Garcia, laying out hits at a .395 pace. Fourth in the league in hitting, you have Tyler Collins, hitting .342. How do you pace a team batting average 12 points higher than the next closest team? Placing three hitters in the league's top four certainly helps. It's especially nice when each of those three players showed up on a lot of preseason prospect lists.
Now I would hope just anybody reading this realizes a few things about those averages. First of all, and most importantly, they're not sustainable. Castellanos has a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .476. Garcia is right there with him with a BABIP of .475. Collins' isn't quite as ridiculous, but his .400 BABIP should also be expected to level out by year's end. For these reasons, we would be foolish not to remember there is a lot more to hitting than slapping out hits.
You need some of those hits to be between or over the outfielders instead of between or over the middle infielders. You also need these guys to either draw walks so they can sustain some production when the hits aren't falling, or to control the strike zone so they won't get eaten up by more advanced pitchers. These are known as secondary skills and they are the ticket to legitimate stardom as opposed to just being a fantasy league darling.
How do these three measure up? Let's take them one at a time. Nick Castellanos has a slash line of .398/.435/.554. Nobody's going to mistake him for Frank Thomas when he's drawn just six walks in his 92 trips to the plate. We're also not going to set aside a spot for his statue at Comerica when he has nearly three times as many strikeouts (17) as walks. I don't know what direction his walk totals are going to go, but I know we shouldn't be too alarmed by their relation to his strikeouts. Castellanos, after all, is one of the youngest players in the Florida State League and his strikeout rate so far is almost exactly league average.
I've heard questions about his power as well, and I'm not sure what the concern is. Again, he's young and his isolated power (SLG - AVG) of .156 outpaces the league average (.108) by a good deal. He looks to me like a kid who's hitting the ball hard and making reasonably good contact. Certainly not a bad start to his final season as a teenager.
What about Avisail Garcia? He's checking in at .395/.437/.531 with three walks and 17 strikeouts in 87 plate appearances. This may be Garcia's second turn in the FSL, but he doesn't turn 21 until June and still checks in as one of the league's youngest hitters. So while we'd like to see more than six of his 32 hits go for extra bases, especially considering his large frame (6'4", 240), we'll give him the benefit of the doubt. We'll just have to wait and see if the power he shows during batting practice ever turns around on pitches that count. If that doesn't assure you, I'll point out that just like Castellanos, his ISO (.136) is ahead of the league's average.
The plate discipline issue is one we should worry about more for Garcia. The last two seasons, one in West Michigan, one in Lakeland, he has struck out 245 times against just 38 walks. It's tough to keep a job when you strike out more than six times as often as you walk, and he's not made much progress on that ratio early this season. The good news is early returns have him striking out less. That will be important if he's going to tie a lot of his value to batting average.
Finally, we have Tyler Collins. "Whereever he goes, he hits." I don't know how many times I've heard that line or a slight variation tied to Collins. But he's doing a good job of making it hold up. In the beginning of his first full season as a pro - he was the Tigers' 6th round pick last year - he's hitting .342/.411/.430 with seven walks and 11 strikeouts in 90 plate appearances. In relation to Castellanos and Garcia, you may notice a couple of things. While his walk rate is nothing special, it's better than those two and he's also done much better at putting the bat on the ball.
The lack of strikeouts is encouraging because if you look at hitters who have been successful despite not drawing many walks, they tend to succeed by making good contact. Collins' issue early in the season has been with what happens after he makes contact. The hits are falling, but of 27 hits, all but seven have been singles and each of those seven were doubles. He did show good power in Connecticut last season, so we'll have to wait and see if he can make an adjustment to allow him to pepper the outfield gaps.
So there's a quick look at three players who are making the Flying Tigers the Tigers' most exciting farm team to watch. As somebody who has been watching the Tigers' farm for about ten years and writing about it for five, this article was a nice change of pace. First, it's about three promising position players. Another difference from pieces about Tiger position propects in recent years is we're looking to temper excitement instead of desperately looking for signs of hope.