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Surveying the Tiger Farm: Center Fielders

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As I work my way through this series looking at the Tigers' prospects at each position, we come to the center fielders. Since I'm going in scorebook order (starting with the position players), that means I've already covered catchers, first basemen, second basemen, third basemen, shortstops and left fielders.

In center field, we have probably come to another position where guys will have to prove they can cut it as major leaguers playing another position. If Austin Jackson continues to show the range he did in 2010 and improves on coming in on the ball, it's going to be difficult to take his spot in center field. Luckily for Tiger prospects, the corners aren't nearly as solidified and having center field range will be a welcome skill for anybody who has to help patrol Comerica's outfield.

Toledo

Casper Wells , .233/.309/.483, 430 PA, 34 BB, 111 K; The numbers in Toledo weren't too encouraging, but when necessity brought Wells up to Detroit he answered the call well. He hit .323/.364/.538 and only struck out 19 times in 99 trips to the plate. That batting average is a bit inflated when you consider he's been a .250 hitter in the minors, but if he can fix contact issues he's shown in the past an uptick could be in his future. Considering he's more than willing to watch ball four and has good power, that could make him a good bat off the bench for the Tigers. His ability to play good defense may eventually allow him to push for a starting job. 2011 Outlook: He'll fight for the fourth outfielder's spot, but it could be a tough sell since he's right-handed (just like Raburn, Jackson and Ordonez).

Erie

Kyle Peter, .185/.267/.222, 31 PA, 2 BB, 10 K; Erie wasn't where Peter had the most appearances but the SeaWolves' primary center fielders were Wilkin Ramirez and Andy Dirks. Dirks was profiled with the left fielders and Ramirez was traded to Atlanta. So I figured I'd toss Peter in this spot. Losing two seasons to injury has left him on the fringes of prospectdom, but his speed was his ticket to the big leagues anyway. Hopefully, the shoulder injury that's cost him the better part of the last two seasons won't affect that. The speed allowed him to steal 75 bases in the equivalent of less than two seasons as a pro. It's also allowed him to be one of the system's premier defensive outfielders. If he can stay healthy, keep taking walks, and get on base any way possible, he might be able to keep a job. 2011 Outlook: Assuming he's healthy, a return to Erie seems possible.

Lakeland

Daniel Fields, .240/.343/.371, 438 PA, 55 BB, 119 K; Reviews of Daniel Fields' 2010 seem a little incongruous to me. There seems to be a universal cluck of the tongue and tsk tsking at the Tigers placing him in Lakeland, essentially right out of high school. The next step in this vein, then, seems to be to use this aggressive assignment as an explanation for his less than impressive showing. The assignment may have been aggressive but in my opinion, it also means the showing was impressive. It was above average for the league, in fact, and the major obstacle for it being more so was the strikeouts. Those are strikeouts we'll be able to live with if he continues to walk anywhere near his 2010 rate. Those walks and the fact that his athleticism should lead to further development in terms of power lead me to believe Fields is certainly one of the Tigers' top five position prospects. 2011 Outlook: It's been said he'll return to Lakeland, and that seems rational. It'll be interesting to see if the same people who criticized the Tigers putting him in the FSL pooh-pooh his progress by pointing out that he's repeating a level.

West Michigan

Jamie Johnson, .284/.413/.388, 555 PA, 98 BB, 76 K; Looking at his numbers, it's not too difficult to figure out how Johnson will work his way through the minors. He'll need to make solid enough contact to keep his average up and continue to take as many walks as opposing pitchers will give him. We'll see how far that gets him because he hasn't shown all that much power and he was pushed off center field late last season. If he's not going to hit for power and he's not a center fielder, he'll need to continue to be an on-base machine. 2011 Outlook: It would seem to be a waste to put him back in West Michigan, so perhaps the Tigers will give him a shot as the left fielder in Lakeland. If Fields doesn't repeat, that could open up the center field job for Johnson.

Jeff Rowland, .281/.383/.367, 252 PA, 34 BB, 51 K; Rowland was taken by the Tigers in the 19th round last season, and ended up taking over as the primary center fielder for the Whitecaps late in the season. Draft day reports applauded his defense, so I'll assume that's a compliment to Rowland and not a mark against Johnson. If it's speed that allows him to play a good center field, it looks like he'll need to pick his spots better since he was thrown out six times in 15 attempts. Having said that, he seems to understand he needs to get on base to use his speed and is willing to use bases on balls to get there. As we've already seen with a number of the Tigers' center field crop, that is going to be important because his bat isn't going to get him past first base all that often. 2011 Outlook: The guys who get the midseason promotions and handle them well are tough to call. He played less than half a season in West Michigan, but he'll be 23 next season and handled the Midwest League well already. If Fields isn't promoted, the Lakeland outfield could be crowded if you assume Johnson gets a promotion alongside Avisail Garcia. Still, I expect to see him spend most of the season in Lakeland.

Connecticut

P.J. Polk, .267/.343/.356, 270 PA, 24 BB, 52 K; You should be noticing a pattern by this point. The Tigers seem to be stocking up on burners who get on base and then run once they're there. Polk can probably make an argument for being the fastest of the bunch, too. That allowed him to steal 29 bases in 35 attempts over the course of just 64 games last season. You can really tell he's got the Jimmy legs when you realize he was probably on base and in position to run less than 100 times over the course of the short season. I don't know how high Polk's ceiling is, but I bet he'll be a fun player to watch in 2011. 2011 Outlook: I'd look for him to be a blur in the West Michigan outfield next season.

GCL Tigers

Edwin Gomez, .226/.273/.262, 183 PA, 11 BB, 49 K; Gomez is the type of raw player who forces you to remind yourself GCL numbers don't mean a thing. You just hope that he's able to turn the skills that caused the Tigers to draft him in the fourth round into something that pays off. If you focus on the physical side, there's plenty to like. He's already 6'3" and the Tigers must expect him to fill out because they moved him off shortstop after just one season. Whatever power may come is a ways off, though. He's yet to hit a dinger and in 353 GCL plate appearances, he has just eight extra base hits. He's still just 19, though, so remember that mantra about numbers at the GCL level. 2011 Outlook: GCL numbers may not mean much, but playing at that level for three seasons is an ominous sign. I'd look for Gomez in Connecticut next season.

Positional Outlook

I've already alluded to the overlying trend with this group of center fielders. There is lots of speedy slap hitters who will take a walk if it lets them put their legs to use. The problem for the majority of these guys is that's not really a profile you litter a major league club with. You're more likely to have just one of those guys. For that reason, a caravan of fourth outfielders between Toledo and Detroit in two or three years wouldn't be all that surprising to me. That may be the Tigers' method of choice in seeing who can handle a reserve job among Johnson, Polk, Peter and Rowland.

The only player who looks like a good bet to rise above an annual fight for big league employment is Daniel Fields. Coming out of the draft, he was touted as an athletic player who needed to develop but had first round skills. That leaves me even more impressed after the way he handled himself in Lakeland last season. I get the feeling Fields will soon be getting talked about for a lot more than the way the Tigers are handling him.

Overall, I think this is a pretty solid group. Wells isn't a center fielder in the majors, but he could be a solid bench player. Fields is at least a couple of years away, but could be an eventual starter (though probably not in center, either). The rest of the group should provide at least a bench specialist or two. I'd say any position where you likely have three players who will crack the majors is in pretty good shape.