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Looking at the Tigers' Farm and the Importance of Erie (5 of 6)

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Part 1: GCL Tigers
Part 2: Connecticut Tigers
Part 3: West Michigan Whitecaps
Part 4: Lakeland Flying Tigers

As you can probably guess from what you see above, this is the fifth in a series of posts where I am looking at how the Tigers use each of their six domestic affiliates. After spending the last two posts looking at the wildly successful Whitecaps and the often dreadful Flying Tigers, we have an Erie club that falls pretty much in-between.

In the last eight years, what I've been calling the Dombrowski era, they've had four winning seasons and four losing seasons. The winning seasons resulted in two playoff berths - 2004 and 2007 - but each was met with first-round exits. Those playoff seasons are pretty much cancelled out by a couple of grim seasons - 2005 and 2006 - and beyond that it's been very close to a win for every loss. Over the full eight years, they are 561-571 (.496). Clearly, there are no trends here that would make you think the Tigers are particularly fond or disdainful of their Eastern League affiliate.

Let's move on to another of the indicators I've been using and look at who's had to look for apartments in the Erie area over the past few years. From 2008 to 2010, there have been 35 players I would call home-grown who have suited up for the big league squad. A full 26 of these 35 players played most of a season for Erie. That's the highest percentage we've seen of any of the Tigers' affiliates. Granted, it's not a decisive victory since the Caps and Lakeland both had 25 among the same group.

However, that should be a nice talent base to provide Erie with some good clubs, right? Looking closer, though, we see a similar case as what we had in Lakeland. While it's true a vast majority of players who play in Comerica have to spend most of a season in "the Uht", only half (13 of 26) spent a full season there. That would suggest that maybe it's a little too effective as a pipeline to the majors for the Erie fans' tastes.

But let's take a look at how integral a stop Erie is for the Tigers' top prospects. If we look a the Tigers' top ten prospects from 2003 until 2010, Baseball America says that list is made up of 54 different players. Of those 54, only 29 spent most of a season in Erie. That's the lowest number we've seen of the full season squads. It seems like a bit of a paradox to me, though, that a fairly high number (21 of 29) of the players who spent most of a season in Erie played at least a full season there.

I can't reconcile that with the fact that only half of the home-grown group who played for the Tigers between 2008 and 2010 stayed there for a full season. One would suggest Erie is a stop for most big league players, but a relatively brief one. The other seems to say a lot of the top prospects either skip Erie or aren't there for long, but the ones who stay do so for at least a full season. Maybe there's a thread of logic to be pulled from that data, but it's escaping me if it's there.

One thing that did jump out at me about Erie is the Tigers' number one prospect has very rarely spent much time there. The last prospect to rate as a number one and spend most of a season in Erie was Kyle Sleeth. We'll see if Jacob Turner bucks that trend, but when you combine all this data with the Wolves' mediocre record during the Dombrowski era, it leaves me with the impression that Erie isn't nearly as significant a part of the developmental path as I expected. I expected to find that the so-so records were due to the fact that their best players jumped from Erie to Detroit and then didn't come back even when they were assigned back to the minors. That's happened, certainly, but not enough to cause a great shift in their record over the past eight years.

I think in Erie I have found my first real surprise as to how an affiliate is used. I'm surprised at how many players skipped it or spent hardly any time there. I also expected it to be a much more mature level in that it would have a much closer tie to the majors than what we saw in Lakeland. With the indicators I'm using, the trends really aren't all that much different from what we saw in Lakeland.

I thought for sure the ties between Erie and Detroit would be much stronger and clearer than those with Lakeland. I thought more of the top players would have spent more time in Erie and that time spent in Erie would be much more indicative of a future in Detroit. In both cases, though, Lakeland and Erie were pretty comparable. That held true when I looked deeper into the indicators, too.

For example, of the Tigers' 54 players who were called top ten prospects by Baseball America, we know 21 spent a full season in Erie and 19 spent a full season in Lakeland. I saw that 14 of the 21 who spent a full season in Erie eventually made it to the majors and wondered if maybe that was a good indicator of Erie's close ties to the majors. When I checked the Lakeland group, though, I found that 12 of the 19 - roughly the same ratio - eventually landed in the majors.

As I've said, this is all very surprising to me. I'm fully prepared to admit that could show a flaw in the indicators I've been using, but I think they've been fairly informative for looking at the other affiliates. Having thought about this for a while now, I believe what's surprising is the lack of a clear pattern. I expected that outside of the real anomalies - the phenoms, for example - that there would be a fairly consistent path through the Tigers' system.

The fact that such a path didn't materialize as expected is frustrating as I try to complete this exercise, but it could be a good sign as a fan of the organization. It could mean the Tigers are letting the players' performances dictate how they will advance and not forcing them through some prescribed path that may not be the best fit. Of course, a cynic might say the lack of a clear pattern shows the Tigers are sacrificing the prospects' development in order to fill holes at the big league level. There could be some truth to both theories, but we should probably take a look at how Toledo fits into all this before we put much stock in either.