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Looking at the Tigers' Farm and the Importance of Lakeland (4 of 6)

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I am marching through the Tigers’ system in an attempt to see how the Tigers use each of their affiliates. The first post looked at the GCL; the second, the NY-Penn; the third, West Michigan. I put forth the theory that the Tigers made overtures to take care of West Michigan as an affiliate because the relationship is mutually beneficial.

The way I saw it, Detroit sends good players and teams Grand Rapids’ way. West Michigan gets big gates and their fans, who are probably Tiger fans anyway, get a little more interest vested in the eventual big leaguers. Detroit, in addition to the expanded fan base, gets an added option for rehab assignments within driving distance of Comerica Park.

This was all just theorizing on my part, though. There was evidence, but before we looked at the higher level full season squads we wouldn’t know whether the Caps were enjoying the fruits of being the Tigers’ golden boy affiliate. Well, today we may get a better idea as we look at the Tigers’ Florida State League affiliate, the Flying Tigers.

The first indicator I’ve been looking at is the team’s record during the Dombrowski era. With the GCL and NY-Penn squads, we saw fairly random variation from year to year and no clear pattern of success. With West Michigan, we saw teams that make the playoffs nearly every year and have won three championships since 2003. Does that success trickle up to Lakeland? Frankly, no.

From 2003 to 2010, the Lakeland squad has been awful half the time - twenty games or more under .500 in 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2009. Three of the other years - 2007, 2009 and 2010 - they hovered around .500. Their only truly successful season in this span was 2005, when they were an exceptional 85-48. That was a playoff team with Brent Clevlen as the league MVP and a pitching staff led by Jordan Tata and Justin Verlander. That’s clearly the exception, though. Overall, their record in this span is 505-574 with just two winning seasons.

So what gives? Are the Tigers short-changing their oldest affiliate in favor of wooing Grand Rapids fans? Let’s see if we can tell by looking at who’s getting assigned to the FSL. The Tigers have had 35 players I have called home-grown play for the big league club from 2008 to 2010. Of those 35, 25 have played most of a season in the FSL. You might recall that’s exactly the same number of players who fit the same category for West Michigan.

What about the Tigers’ top prospects? From 2003 to 2010, Baseball America has put 54 different Tiger prospects in its Top Ten Tiger Prospect Lists. Of those 54 players, 34 played most of a season for the Lakeland Tigers/Flying Tigers. Compare that with 31 of the same group making a substantial stop in West Michigan.

If Lakeland is seeing as many future big leaguers and more of the Tigers’ top prospects, how can we explain the polar opposite results for the two teams? My first theory, which I’m ashamed to admit I did not test, is that since we’re talking about a lot of the same players we should expect that they’d be more successful in West Michigan than Lakeland.

After all, if you took a team of exceptional baseball players and moved them through the various levels of competition, you wouldn’t be surprised if their record in the majors was much worse than it was in the GCL, right? To me, this seemed like a possible explanation for only a (very) small portion of the difference. We’re talking about two clubs with nearly mirror image results in this period.

Unsatisfied, I dug deeper. I mentioned before that players who roll through West Michigan are typically allowed to play a full season there. Of the 25 home-grown Tigers (who played for Detroit between 2008 and 2010) who played most of a season in West Michigan, 21 were left there for an entire season. If we put the Lakeland group to the same test - again, 25 players - we see that only 15 were allowed to play out a full campaign in the Florida sun (and a lot of rain).

It’s a similar story when we move on to the top prospects. We saw that 34 of the group of 54 we’re calling the Tigers’ top prospects from 2003 to 2010 played most of a season in Lakeland. For 19 of those 34, it was most of a season but not all of one. For West Michigan the total group was 31 players and 23 of the 31 were left in Grand Rapids for an entire season. So we see in both instances players - top prospects and future big leaguers - are more commonly allowed to play out the season in West Michigan. In Lakeland, they’re just as likely to play most of a season there, but they’re much more likely to get plucked away at the Tigers’ whim.

Again, I can only guess at the Tigers’ logic in handling these two affiliates in this way. If you want to know what that guess is though, I’ll fill you in. I think the Tigers use West Michigan as a testing ground to allow promising players to prove their mettle. In most cases, if they’re successful, they are left alone to build on that success and get used to the grind of a long season.

Players who are in Lakeland, however, have either already been through the learning experience of West Michigan or have been put on a fast track by skipping the lower levels altogether. In either instance, their success in the FSL can get the front office talking. The Tigers aren’t all that hesitant to take a player who’s succeeding in Lakeland and bump them up to Erie. Once they’re in Erie, we all know they are just a trip on the turnpike away from finding themselves in those shiny white uniforms.

Does this disparity in treatment between the two levels have anything to do with the difference in the attendance at their respective ballparks? I don’t really think so. I think the Tigers treat their prospects in a way they think is best for the prospects’ development and the organization’s success. I’d guess it’s largely coincidence that the development path tends to work out in the Caps’ favor and not the Flying Tigers’. I’m not quite finished hypothesizing yet, though.

One other difference between the two levels is how they are replenished after promotions or injuries. West Michigan is in the northern part of the country and therefore tends to get reinforcements from Oneonta and high level draft picks. The Flying Tigers share a complex with the GCL Tigers and therefore it’s more logical to supply them with replacements who are already in Lakeland.

That means they end up with a lot of kids and fringy prospects who may not have much business being at that higher level. The draft isn’t as much of an option because there aren’t a whole lot of players who are ready to go straight from the draft to the FSL. What you end up with, is West Michigan being able to retool on the fly to some extent and Lakeland being completely broken down when they are hit with the usual injuries and a few promotions of key players.

If you add up all these factors - you might be able to stir up a few more - I think we might have most of the explanations for the difference in success between West Michigan and Lakeland. Does this mean the Tigers take Lakeland for granted? Frankly, they probably do a bit since they own the team, but I really think Lakeland is a victim of being stuck "in between".

You have the factors I mention above, the theory that they’re close enough to the majors to where players can get plucked away to see if they’re "ready". On the other hand, they’re a low enough level that they are often assigned non-prospects who are completely overmatched. In Erie and Toledo, gaping holes in the roster might be filled with minor league free agents. You’re not really going to have much of that in Lakeland because it’s a) still low level, b) the fan base is tiny and c) there’s no danger of losing your affiliate because the Tigers own the team.

So how would I summarize Lakeland’s place in the Tigers’ development process? If West Michigan is the proving ground for the Tigers’ prospects, Lakeland is the first step on the fast track. If you handle yourself well in Lakeland, it’s not uncommon to find yourself in Detroit within a calendar year of doing so. While that’s certainly exciting for the prospects, it’s been tough on Lakeland’s record over the years.