Now that the baseball season is over, I decided people might be hungry enough for some baseball to read about the Tigers' minor league season recaps. And since I expect people are most interested in the higher levels of the minors, I'm going to start low and work my way up. For the next few weeks, I'm going to work my way up through the system, recapping how the 2011 season went for each of the Tigers' six domestic minor league teams. Please understand; these are team recaps. So while I will talk about the prospects and how they impacted the team, the teams and the players who were key to the team's season will be the focus.
A 23-year-old kid out of college in the Gulf Coast League may not have a long future in baseball, but he might have been the star of the team. Similarly, an early round pick may be the Tigers' future shortstop but if he had 20 at bats at this level, he's not going to get much of a mention. So, while Brandon Loy, James McCann, Aaron Westlake and Tyler Gibson all made appearances with this squad, they weren't integral parts of the team and further discussion of their parts in the Tiger system will come in a more appropriate post later in the offseason. Now, how about we get down to business?
The 2011 Gulf Coast League Tigers finished 29-31, in third place and eight games out of first. In a 15-team league, their 4.35 runs per game were eighth best and their 4.42 runs allowed were seventh best. That's the kind of symmetry you'd expect from a team whose run differential (261 scored, 265 allowed) suggests they were very nearly the definition of average.
Of course, there are a lot of ways a team can mire themselves in mediocrity. They can mash at the plate while not getting anybody out. They can do just the opposite, kind of the San Francisco Giants approach. Or they can just be close to average both in the field and at the plate. That last option was this Tiger squad. The league's average runs scored per game was 4.6 and as you can see from above, they were within a stone's throw both in terms of runs scored and allowed.
Who can we look to as responsible for all this average output? What we can't really look to is the 2011 draft, which had a pretty light footprint on this team. The only regulars supplied by this year's draft were center fielder Patrick Smith (14th), relief pitchers Guido Knudson (28th) and Montreal Robertson (29th), left fielder Brandon Eckerle (32nd) and starting pitcher Jake Sabol (36th).
Sabol was second on the team in innings (65.2) and was able to work a high contact approach to a 3.43 ERA. Robertson (9 SV, 26.1 IP, 29 H, 14 BB, 22 K, 2.73 ERA) was the team's closer but Knudson (23 IP, 18 H, 4 BB, 22 K, 2.74 ERA) and Heckaman (23.2 IP, 16 H, 13 BB, 25 K, 1.14 ERA) both had better seasons from less prominent roles. On the position side, Smith was the highest draft selection of this group but had fairly pedestrian numbers (.232/.279/.367) despite being a middle of the order hitter and being second on the team in extra base hits (15). He ended up being outshined by his fellow draft classman, Eckerle. Eckerle used great leadoff skills to win the league batting crown (.355), lead the league in on-base percentage (.460) and nab 18 stolen bases in 22 tries. He didn't show much power and that doesn't bode well for a future at higher levels, but that production from the leadoff spot made him one of the team's key contributors.
Obviously, to get to some of the team's other key players we have to step outside of the 2011 draft class. Besides Sabol, the vast majority of the team's remaining starts came from Dominicans Edgar De La Rosa and Brenny Paulino, Venezuelan Endrys Briceno and 2010 draftee Jack Duffey. De La Rosa was the team's leader in innings pitched (67.2) and strikeouts (50) and was able to use good control to keep his ERA at 3.19 despite giving up 70 hits and 5 homers.
Paulino was the only pitcher on the team to be included in Baseball America's Gulf Coast League Top 20 Prospects and his peripherals show some of his talent. In 45.2 innings, he struck out 45, walked 18 and gave up just 34 hits and one homer, leaving him with an ERA of just 2.36. Briceno struggled (5.34 ERA and 72 hits in 59 IP) but for his second straight season in the GCL, his peripherals (3.66 FIP) were better than his results. Duffey, drafted last year but still just 19, was hittable (54 hits in 54.1 IP) but that's to be expected when his walks (17) and strikeouts (42) checked in at rates below the league average. All in all, the Tigers' starts seemed to be in good hands most nights but this group and Sabol had a combined record of just 16-18 and a 3.67 ERA (though not all their innings were from starts).
Overall, again close to average. When your starters are average, whether it's good or bad that starters at this level throw relatively few innings depends on your bullpen. We saw above that Heckaman and Knudson gave some solid innings, but what about some of the other prominent relievers? Well, joining those two in the good fight was Dominican pitcher, Bill Castillo. He actually led the relievers in innings (28.2) and they were usually in the form of quality outings. Castillo gave up just 18 hits, nine walks and two homers while sitting down 31 batters by way of the K. On the other side of the spectrum, you had his fellow countryman, Emmanuel Del Orbe. Del Orbe threw 24.1 innings, but on his way to a 5.18 ERA gave up 37 hits and ten walks while striking out 19. His struggles more than cancelled out Castillo's efforts, similarly to how Robertson's worked against Heckaman and Knudson. Throw them all together and we get a feel for how a team can tread at right around an average water level.
We see the recurring theme of push and pull again with the remaining position players. Behind the plate, you had Adolfo Reina (.211/.258/.422, 97 PA), Gabriel Purroy (.266/.352/.405, 92 PA) and free agent Wes Thigpen (.250/.303/.359, 102 PA) putting up respectable production considering their position and the league's low scoring environment. They were also getting good results at first base from GCL veteran, Juaner Aguasvivas. He put up a slash line of .315/.364/.567 and led the team or shared the lead in doubles (9), triples (3), homers (10) and RBIs (37). Even at shortstop, where Carlos De Los Santos (.192/.214/.263 in 175 PA) undercut them a bit with his bat, the Tigers got good production from Luis Cortez (.275/.339/.412 in 116 PA) and Eugenio Suarez (.341/.408/.636, 50 PA). Combine that with the previously mentioned Eckerle and you would seem to have a solid foundation for a productive offense.
Look at what was left, though. At second, their most common player to pencil in was another non-drafted free agent, Derrick Hudgins. Hudgins hit just .185/.226/.194 in 115 plate appearances and most of the games where he didn't start there, the previously mentioned De Los Santos did. At the hot corner, Edgar Corcino had a third go around in the GCL. While he had his best season, he still hit just .201/.296/.339 in 200 trips to the plate. Moving to the outfield, Danry Vasquez is far and away the team's best position prospect (and among the Tiger system's best) but the 17-year-old hit .272/.306/.350 in 224 plate appearances from a corner spot. That's not terrible, but when you consider most of the reserve outfield at bats were taken by a couple of 2011 draft picks, Chretien Matz (44th Rd, .242/.286/.273, 71 PA) and Ismael Salgado (16th Rd, .144/.167/.180, 115 PA), you realize they just didn't get the kind of production you need from that group of outfielders.
In the end, you take the good, take the bad and there you have...an average team. Some promising prospects and good performers cancelled out by roster filler and players trying to put results to their skills. That gives a good feel for how the GCL Tigers ended up where they did. So let's wrap this recap with some individual team awards.
Brenny Paulino, 4-3, 2.36 ERA, 45.2 IP, 34 H, 1 HR, 18 BB, 45 K
The team's biggest pitching talent put up some impressive numbers, thanks to a maturing arm that not only added velocity but continued to improve on control. Some will point out he's not always going to be able to count on a .268 BABIP, but this was an impressive campaign for an 18-year-old kid making his domestic debut.
Top Position Player
Brandon Eckerle, LF, .355/.460/.386, 28 BB, 16 K, 18/22 SB
Eckerle led the league in batting average and on-base percentage. He led the team in runs, hits, stolen bases and walks. Those aren't the categories that usually win players postseason honors, but his brand of contributing to the team struck me as more valuable than Juaner Aguasvivas, whose production came the more traditional way. I'd be fine with calling either player the team's MVP but Eckerle played a slightly tougher position and in prospect terms, is the underdog.