To this point, I've been a little bit doom and gloom about the Tigers' system. Knocking on Tiger prospects isn't really my style, but I also try to be realistic. When looking at the Tigers' catching, first base and second base prospects, I have a hard time seeing a lot of guys who we can expect to have big league futures. True, I may get an email from their college roommate who thinks I need to get out and watch the games if I don't think his boy isn't going to play for the Tigers some day. But my job, as I see it, is to take the information available and make honest assessments. I don't feel bad about doing that as long as I don't take cheap shots at others' expense.
I admit, though, that it gets a little old to try to make honest guesses at what level of the minors various players will find is their ceiling. After all, we don't watch prospects in order to be there when they run into harsh reality. We do it in the hopes that they will break through the barrier between the minors and majors and establish themselves as useful big leaguers. For those of us who root for specific teams, we like the thought of knowing a star "back when".
That's why I'm kind of glad to have come to the Tigers' third base prospects. Going over this group, I don't know that the Tigers have a star but it's a lot easier to see that potential. That's especially exciting when you consider there was quite a long spell where the Tigers' most exciting third base prospect was chasing down minor league home run records.
The Mud Hens' most common third basemen in 2010 were Jeff Larish and Danny Worth. Both players are out of position at the hot corner and Jeff Larish isn't even in the system anymore. I'm not going to cover Worth in this piece either because when you add in his time with the Tigers, he actually played more shortstop than third base in 2010.
Audy Ciriaco, .241/.264/.419, 251 PA, 8 BB, 49 K; Ciriaco's season was cut short by a bothersome wrist injury that didn't seem to allow him to stay in the lineup for more than a few weeks at a time. I did a bit of a contrarian piece pointing out a pattern of him playing pretty well for a couple weeks before tailing off and going back on the DL. It could just be a bit of a Rorschach test, though. Ciriaco's .264 on-base percentage was pretty well in line with his career mark of .271. Still, the power was real and though it seems like he's been around forever, he's still just 23. 2011 Outlook: Ciriaco is in an interesting place. He could probably be Erie's starting shortstop, but the Tigers seem to think he'll outgrow the position. Nobody's really blocking him at third in Toledo, but is he ready for Triple A? In a season where he desperately needs to show growth and good health, Ciriaco isn't going to be an easy man to place. My guess is a sink or swim assignment in Toledo.
Bryan Pounds, .281/.359/.438, 210 PA, 21 BB, 52 K; Pounds seemed like he was promoted to Erie more because options were limited than performance. After all, he went on the DL in May, rehabbed for a couple games in the GCL, and then spent just four more games in Lakeland before getting the call up to the Wolves. Interestingly, he hit better in Erie than he had in Lakeland. It was mostly due to a big uptick in power. He also continued to draw walks in one of ten trips to the plate, helping boost production even further and taking off some of the sting of striking out another quarter of the time. 2011 Outlook: At 25, it's hard to argue for Pounds as a prospect but he also seems like too good of a hitter to just let walk. He could give Erie some good at bats, and probably even push for Toledo if the Tigers aren't ready to challenge Ciriaco. I don't envy the Tigers when they have to divvy up the third base assignments next spring.
Francisco Martinez, .271/.330/.353, 374 PA, 28 BB, 71 K; Martinez provided another wonderful example why you shouldn't worry too much about GCL stats. He was dreadful there in 2009, but still drew a Lakeland assignment in 2010 when the Flying Tigers lost Bryan Pounds. At just 19, he held his own at Hi-A, putting up numbers that were right about league average. He wasn't exactly Frank Thomas, but he showed a pretty decent touch with the strike zone and also mixed in some speed. Baseball America had him as the Tigers' top position prospect behind only Nick Castellanos, and hopefully the push to be the Tigers' next starting third baseman will be a positive for both players. 2011 Outlook: A move to Erie would seem to be very aggressive, but the Tigers did send him to the Arizona Fall League. They seem to view that as somewhere between Lakeland and Erie, and that would clear the way for Gaynor in Lakeland and Castellanos in West Michigan.
Wade Gaynor, .286/.354/.436, 574 PA, 46 BB, 111 K; When the Tigers drafted Gaynor third in the 2009 draft and he fell on his face in Oneonta, I couldn't help but be reminded of Ronnie Bourquin. So it was good to see Gaynor recover nicely in West Michigan in 2010. He hit the ball very well, showing average, some power, and willingness to watch ball four. His OBP is a little deceptive considering he was plunked ten times, but I suppose that can be a skill, too, as long as you're catching them in the meat of your back. He also showed good speed, which may have to serve him well - along with a third baseman's arm - if guys like Martinez and Castellanos force him off third and into a corner outfield spot. 2011 Outlook: The natural choice would be to just bump him up to Lakeland, but that may depend on what happens with Martinez. If Martinez is in Lakeland, does Gaynor's time at third end already?
Josh Ashenbrenner, .260/.327/.339, 255 PA, 18 BB, 19 K; Ashenbrenner made a lot of contact in Connecticut but usually didn't get to go past first when it fell in for a hit. That left him as a touch below average in the NY-Penn, but a little better luck with BABIP could make him a serviceable hitter. Ashenbrenner was the Tigers' 18th round pick out of Lewis-Clark State, which may sound familiar if you're a fan of Brent Wyatt. 2011 Outlook: He was called out as a second baseman on draft day, and he might have to try his hand as a utility player if he wants to crack a full season roster in 2010. You may have noticed it will be crowded at third in the system's upper levels and Nick Castellanos would be a good bet to man third in West Michigan.
Javier Azcona, .256/.296/.403, 189 PA, 7 BB, 51 K; Azcona is a 19-year-old Dominican who had been a shortstop in the DSL. He was coming to the States at the same time as another shortstop import, Dixon Machado, so I was curious to see who would stay and who would go from the position. Azcona was the one to move, but since he's already 6'1" and 185 pounds, that could just be the Tigers trying to find him a new position before his maturation forces their hand. 2011 Outlook: Extended spring training seems like a possibility, but Azcona spent nearly as much time as a middle infielder (when you combine time at short and second) as he did at third. Machado may have moved him off shortstop, but could Azcona team up with his Venezuelan counterpart to form West Michigan's middle infield (even if not to start the season) next year?
Nick Castellanos, .333/.414/.417, 29 PA, 4 BB, 5 K; The numbers are only shown because they exist. The number that is more important when you think of Castellanos is the $3.45 million bonus the Tigers were comfortable giving their first round supplemental pick - a record for that round. It shows they likely viewed him as one of the top ten players in last year's draft and I'm sure they hope he'll provide some star power that is desperately needed from the system's position players. Thoughts on his defensive aptitude seem to vary, but there seems to be more consensus that he should be a plus hitter with doubles power and a chance to peak somewhere in the 20s in terms of home runs. 2011 Outlook: I've had him penciled in as the Whitecaps' third baseman in 2011 since August 15th.
I hope it doesn't seem like I was gushing too much about these players. I don't want to oversell the potential here. The truth is I'm not sure how many people who watch the minors as a whole are thinking much about any of these players besides Castellanos. It's hard to deny, though, that there is some potential in guys like Martinez and Gaynor. The scout types even get pretty excited about Ciriaco, and those are all thing you just haven't heard about this position in the past few years. If I'm a little overzealous, it's probably because this position has very quickly gone from being the Tigers' worst source of talent to its most promising.