This is the final installment in a series of posts looking at how the Tigers use each of their minor league affiliates.
Part 1: GCL Tigers
Part 2: Connecticut Tigers
Part 3: West Michigan Whitecaps
Part 4: Lakeland Flying Tigers
Part 5: Erie SeaWolves
In Toledo, it’s pretty safe to say there is a situation that is quite distinct from any of the Tigers’ other affiliates. All you have to do to discover this is look at some of the key players’ on the Mud Hens’ successful teams of late. Take 2006, for example. The Mud Hens won the league championship that season and the squad was full of players who were minor league free agents.
If you look at the six players with the most plate appearances, four (Ryan Ludwick, Kevin Hooper, Josh Phelps and Mike Hessman) came to the organization as minor league free agents. On the pitching side of things, the team’s top two innings leaders (Chad Durbin and Colby Lewis) were not Tiger prospects. Durbin was signed as a free agent and Lewis was snatched off waivers.
Moreso than with any other level in the system, you cannot tie the Mud Hens’ success to their being equipped with the organization’s best prospects. It’s true Lakeland and Erie get a few free agents, but you never see anything like what the Hens had in 2006 - or in just about any given season, actually. So when you see that Toledo has had five winnings seasons from 2003 to 2010 - including two Governor’s Cups - you can’t automatically assume they are flush with top prospects.
This is further affirmed by the numbers when you look at whether the Tigers on the major league squad come through Toledo. From 2008 to 2010, I identified 35 players I would call home-grown who played for Detroit in some capacity. Of those 35, 27 spent most of a season in Toledo. That’s the highest percentage of any of the Tigers’ affiliates, but it’s misleading because only 11 of the 27 spent a full season at that level. If you dig deeper, you see that nearly all of those 11 are players who are either what you would call 4-A players or bench players at the major league level.
While this tells us that only the players who blow through the minor leagues avoid significant stays in Toledo, it also seems to indicate being allowed to get comfortable down there isn’t a great indicator of big league success. So what about the Tigers’ top prospects from the last eight years, which we’re calling the Dombrowski era?
Baseball America tabbed 54 different players as Top Ten Tiger Prospects from 2003 to 2010. Of those 54, only 22 spent most of a season in Toledo. Only 12 of those 22 spent the equivalent of a full season at the Triple A level. Those are the lowest numbers of any of the Tigers’ full season affiliates. Once again, when you look at the 12 who spent a full season in Toledo, it’s not exactly the cornerstones of the organization.
I don’t think this is going to be surprising to many people. The Tigers have shown a willingness to promote their top prospects quickly. If their top prospects stop in Toledo at all - something Dombrowski has made clear he doesn’t see as a necessity - they are pulled up to Detroit readily when the opportunity presents itself. This unique relationship sets up the interesting dynamic where the Mud Hens can enjoy their best success when they have minor league veterans who are players not considered to be eventual major leaguers. In the seasons when they’re stocked with some of the Tigers’ top organizational talent, they can have their legs cut out from under them by injuries or ineptitude an hour to the north.
Toledo’s role in prospect development can be summed up pretty succinctly. Its most important role is its function as a place to park the players the Tigers may need at a moment’s notice. When Toledo has the system’s top prospects, it typically means they’re either blocked by a player at the major league level or the Tigers want to see just that last bit of polish on a prospect. The players who are a step down from being top prospects find themselves playing in Toledo as well.
These are the guys who may receive a call up to Detroit, but are expendable enough to be removed from the 40-man roster once the player they are temporarily replacing is ready to play again. Once you get past those two groups, you’re mostly left with minor league veterans. These players are usually either free agents trying to prove they warrant a shot (or another shot) in the bigs or career minor leaguers likely taking advantage of the fact that somebody is still willing to let them play baseball for a living.
After all, people make fun of Toledo but it has one of the best stadiums in the minors. Not only that, there are few places where you can be closer to being a major leaguer, both figuratively and literally. Just ask guys like Kevin Hooper and Max St. Pierre.