After a brief break to talk about things like the Galarraga trade and the TigerFest, I've returned my attention to the series in which I make my way through a look at the Tigers' farm system. I broke the hitters down by position and for the pitchers, looked at the 2010 draftees and the pitchers in the lower part of the system.
Today, I'm looking at some of the top pitching prospects who spent most of their 2010 season in Lakeland. These are brief profiles that talk a bit about where the players have been and where their careers might be headed. Just to keep it interesting for the pragmatists, I throw very premature thoughts in about where I think they'll be in 2011.
Charlie Furbush, 24, Throws: Left
Lakeland/Erie/Toledo, 159 IP, 158 H, 21 HR, 40 BB, 183 K
It was a little surprising to see Furbush back in Lakeland at the start of the season, but after letting help the Flying Tigers to a first half playoff push that fell short, he was promoted to Erie. His numbers in Lakeland were fantastic (109 K, 14 BB), and it was clear he was ready to be challenged further.
He didn't slow down much in Double A, as in five starts he struck out 37 and walked only 10 in 33.1 innings. His home run problem did start to rear its head, and came out full force once he was promoted to Toledo. Triple A hitters roughed him up and in nine starts in the International League, he threw only 48.2 innings and gave up 59 hits, including 9 more homers.
The numbers Furbush put up overall in 2010 turned a lot of heads, as he led the minor leagues in strikeouts at one point. He throws right around 90 mph with his fastball with some movement. By mixing that up with a slow curve, he's able to keep hitters off-balance. His next step will be not only putting those pitches in the zone, but hitting his spots as well. 2011 Outlook: The fact that his stuff means he has to hit his spots consistently, as well as the drubbing he took in Triple A, leaves many questioning his ultimate role with the Tigers. He will start the season in Toledo and is expected to be in the mix as a sixth or seventh starter.
Luke Putkonen, 24, Throws: Right
Lakeland, 152.2 IP, 144 H, 8 HR, 44 BB, 87 K
Putkonen was taken in the third round of the 2007 draft as a talented college pitcher who needed some work. Injuries, though, left him throwing just over 30 innings in his first two seasons as a pro. After coming back from Tommy John surgery, he's thrown two full seasons' worth of innings. He's done well by hitting the strike zone, and keeping the ball in the yard and on the ground. That profile is a little surprising considering he originally seemed like a hard thrower who couldn't seem to put his stuff to work properly. 2011 Outlook: It will be interesting to see how his formula translates to Double A. He could have a better infield behind him, but more advanced hitters typically turn some of those lower level grounders into line drives. He'll also be in a hitter's league for the first time as a pro.
Mark Sorensen, 24, Throws: Right
Lakeland, 147.1 IP, 160 H, 11 HR, 29 BB, 113 K
Sorensen had his first taste of Lakeland in 2009, after pitching well in West Michigan earned him a midseason promotion. That first taste was pretty bitter, though, as he was cuffed around for 57 hits, seven for homers, in just 34 innings. The Tigers put him back for a second go-around in 2010 and the results were much more favorable. Despite giving up 160 hits, he was able to keep the ball on the right side of the fence, didn't walk hardly anybody, and struck out enough to stay effective. 2011 Outlook: Sorensen is much like Putkonen in that it's going to be interesting to see how he handles his next transition. He's been hit hard in Hi A in terms of hits per inning, but will better defense help him or will more advanced hitters just take him to the woodshed? We should find out as he seems destined for Erie.
Michael Torrealba, 21, Throws: Right
Connecticut/Lakeland, 41.2 IP, 36 H, 2 HR, 11 BB, 44 K
Torrealba is a hard-throwing but diminutive (5'11", 150 lbs) Venezuelan who finally cracked a full season squad last season. He was held back for extended spring training and then opened the season with Connecticut. After spending about a month in the NY-Penn, he was promoted to Lakeland to help fill out that staff. Seeing his ERA in Connecticut was 1.83 and in Lakeland it was 5.32, it's easy to assume he was overmatched in the Florida State League.
That didn't seem to be the case, though. Yes, hits fell in and his runners tended to score once they reached base, but in terms of walks, strikeouts, and homers, his numbers were very similar. Combine those results with what Jon Matlack called a mid-90s fastball and you might have a breakout candidate for 2011. 2011 Outlook: Torrealba should avoid extended spring training this year. It's easy to assume he'll go back to Lakeland, but that assignment could have been a mix of seeing where he needed to improve and necessity. He has a live arm and where he's at in terms of control and command will dictate whether he's in Grand Rapids, Lakeland, or Erie. As a reliever, it's a fair bet he will be at more than one regardless of where he starts.
Jacob Turner, 19, Throws: Right
W. Michigan/Lakeland, 118.1 IP, 108 H, 7 HR, 23 BB, 102 K
A lot of the talk about Turner in 2010 focused on the fact that he was promoted midway through the season despite what many saw as a less than dominant line. Early returns after his promotion may have made the promotion seem too aggressive, but Turner righted the ship in a big way. He ended up pitching nearly as well in Lakeland as he had in West Michigan, and that's very impressive for a teenager.
He throws in the mid-90s and says he needs to work on his secondary pitches. Be that as it may, he is said to have better command of them than Porcello did at the same point in his development. He's already shown excellent control, as he never walked more than two batters all season. If he keeps pumping those fastballs with that kind of control and mixes in improved command of his curve and changeup, the Tigers will be tempted to give him a big league look this season. The fact that his poise and maturity are some of the first things people notice only supports that idea further. 2011 Outlook: Dombrowski said at the TigerFest he should be in Erie this year. He didn't say he'd start there, but barring a step back, he'll be there. As I believe I've said before, I'd also look for a spot start or two in Detroit later in the season.
Brayan Villarreal, 23, Throws: Right
Lakeland/Erie, 129.1 IP, 110 H, 14 HR, 39 BB, 136 K
Villarreal got to the States in 2007, but didn't get to a full season squad for good until 2009, when he was a swingman for West Michigan. After throwing 103.1 innings that season, the Tigers stretched him out a little more in 2010 where he got as high as Double A. Still, he threw barely more than five innings per start as the Tigers were careful not to increase his innings too much. Careful of his arm or not, he pitched lights out in Lakeland. Before his promotion, he threw 85.2 innings there, walked just 23 and struck out 90. In Erie, he kept up the strikeouts, but walked a few more and started giving up the long ball (6 in 43.2 innings).
To this point, he's earned his living with a good fastball that he commands well, and a slider that has potential. Considering his size has most seeing him as a reliever eventually, refining those two pitches as much as possible may be all he needs to do to find his way to Detroit. 2011 Outlook: He should return to Erie for the start of the season. His name wasn't brought up as somebody in the mix for starts in Detroit when they need him, but if he puts up numbers in Erie, we all know that will get him noticed in Detroit quickly.
Robert Waite, 24, Throws: Right
Lakeland/Erie, 62.1 IP, 51 H, 3 HR, 20 BB, 53 K
Waite was the 17th round pick in the draft of a 1,000 relievers. Since then, he's been one of the more successful members of the class just by staying relatively healthy. He didn't have a full season spot to open 2010, but once he landed in Lakeland he did pretty well as a long reliever. He did well enough, in fact, that he was called up to Erie in August. He did reasonably well there, too, despite striking out just 14 in 20.1 innings.
It's not easy to find anything about what Waite throws, and that is probably telling. When they have great scouting reports, you tend to be able to find them. Nonetheless, he seems to have made good progress over the last two seasons. 2011 Outlook: I don't know that Waite has a big league future, but he certainly looks as if he could at least be a useful reliever in the upper levels of the minors. I'd look for him in Erie again in 2011, and a shot in Toledo wouldn't be out of the question since he's a reliever.
Adam Wilk, 23, Throws: Left
Lakeland/Erie, 167.1 IP, 149 H, 9 HR, 24 BB, 114 K
You certainly have to give it to Wilk. He keeps moving up and he keeps doing his thing. So far, that's been mix his pitches, throw them for strikes, and be very effective at it despite working in the mid-80s with his fastball. It was easy to view him as another lefty product of West Michigan after 2009, but he was just about as good last season in Lakeland. That earned him a brief turn in Erie and even there, he put up a 1.14 ERA in three starts.
He may not have the eye-popping fastball, but he's used his pitches and control for great results so far in his young career. In 241 pro innings, he's allowed just 11 homers and 31 walks. The question going forward will be what happens in the higher levels when all those pitches are in the strike zone. Hitters didn't miss a lot of his pitches in 2010. They just didn't do much with them. That's been his MO and that's evident from the fact that he's never had a BABIP over .284 in any of his pro stints. I don't think Wilk has the stuff to be a major league starter, but it will be fun to see where his skills take him. 2011 Outlook: I see no reason he wouldn't be in Erie to start the season after handling Lakeland very well in 2010.
Well, I feel very comfortable that we have some major leaguers in this group. Turner looked like a stud in 2010 and could really cement his reputation as one of the top right-handed prospects in baseball this season. Beyond him, there's likely to be two or three more eventual big leaguers but they would be in much less significant roles than what we ultimately expect from Turner. Of course, that's almost a given considering Turner could be a front of the rotation starter.