A lot of the attention the Tigers' farm system has received in past year has been to discuss their handling of their prospects. There was talk they rushed players like Alex Avila, Daniel Fields, Andy Oliver, and even Jacob Turner. I tend to stay out of these conversations because I believe issues like poise and maturity probably play a bigger part in these decisions than the variables we see. Having said that, I thought that if we're going to continue a discussion about whether the Tigers handle their prospects properly, we should probably take a look at how they handle them.
I'm going to do that by looking at each of the six domestic levels in the Tigers' farm system. I want to look into and share what levels the Tigers view as most important in their young players' development. How does concern over continuing player development contracts with say, West Michigan, affect their assignments? Does it have an affect at all?
To try to dig into these questions, I’m going to look at three things. But before we get into what I’m going to look at I should point out that I’m going to concentrate on the Dombrowski years. Since he came to the Tigers just prior to the 2002 season and wasn’t the team’s GM when he was first hired, I’m going to consider the first year of his tenure as 2003. I think that’s the first year the Tigers would have started to have his fingerprint and besides, there are only a handful of current Tigers who were even in the system prior to 2003.
So from 2003 to present, I’m going to look at the records of each of the Tigers’ domestic farm teams. Since you can put up a great record as a minor league squad and be completely bereft of prospects, I’m going to look at two other things as well. I’m going to see how many (home-grown) players who played for the Tigers from 2008 to 2010 played at each level. I’m also going to see who of the Tigers’ top ten prospects (as judged by Baseball America) played for each level. I feel like looking at these things should be a pretty good jumping off point for a discussion on which levels the Tigers view as most important to a player’s development.
For the first installment of this series, I’m going to start at the bottom with the Gulf Coast League (GCL) Tigers. Their history is certainly not the most storied of the Tigers’ farm teams. From 2003 to 2010, they have finished the season with a winning record just twice. Their best season over this time, by far, was 2006 when they made it to the postseason with a 32-18 record. The only other time they finished with a winning record was 2010. They went 30-28 and that was only accomplished by winning the last five games of the season. On the field performance shows the Tigers either aren’t too interested in, or can’t, field GCL squads that are consistently good. Do they stock these teams with good players, though? I think we all have a gut feeling on the answer here, but let’s be thorough.
Between 2008 and 2010, the Tigers had 35 players I would call home-grown who played for the big league club. You might be surprised to find out 18 of those 35 players spent some of their time in the minors with the GCL squad. That’s a little deceiving, though, since the GCL is commonly a stop on the rehab trail for injured minor leaguers. Looking more closely at time spent in the GCL, 11 of those 18 seemed to actually be assigned to the GCL. These 11 are, for the most part, exactly the type of players you’d expect to get a GCL assignment. Five were drafted as high schoolers. Five were international players stationed there as they tried to make the transition to living in the US. The other was Casper Wells. He was coming out of Towson State and was stationed in the GCL despite being a 14th round draft pick.
This gives us a feel for how the GCL Tigers would come to have a true prospect in their ranks. It’s most likely either a high school pick joining the squad right after being drafted, or an international player coming to the States. If you know the Tigers’ farm system from the past few years, you know they don’t spend a lot of their picks on high school kids. They also avoid the big ticket international players, for the most part. This would suggest the GCL Tigers see a relatively small number of the system’s top prospects.
Let’s look at the Tigers top ten prospects since 2003 and see how many received assignments (as opposed to rehab stops) in the GCL. If you go back and look at the Tigers’ Top 10 Prospects -- as judged by Baseball America -- since 2003, you will see you have 54 different players. Admittedly, this way of looking at the importance of the GCL is a little flawed because these lists include prospects the Tigers received in trades. Typically, teams don’t trade for players who are so undeveloped they would be assigned to the GCL. That’s something to keep in mind as we run through these numbers.
Only 16 of the 54 different players to appear on Baseball America’s Top Ten Tiger Prospects lists from 2003 to 2010 spent a significant amount of time in the GCL. Again, with very few exceptions, these 16 were either high school draft picks or international players just starting off their careers.
I think this further reaffirms that you can be a top prospect destined for the majors and make a stop in the GCL. It also gives further evidence, however, that if you’re in the GCL and you aren’t a kid right out of high school or the Latin American leagues, the odds are against your major league career. That’s because the GCL is a league that’s about development more than performance. If you have big league hopes and you’re at this low level, you’re either very young and very raw, rehabbing from an injury, or probably kidding yourself.