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Surveying the Tiger Farm: Erie Pitchers

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We're nearly at the end of my series in which I look position by position at the notable players in the Tigers' farm system. The posts about the pitchers have been broken down into those taken in the 2010 draft, pitchers in the lower reaches of the system, and those who spent the better part of their 2010 in Lakeland. I wasn't sure whether I was going to split a similar group from Erie into two posts or not, and then I realized I'd have it finished just in time for Snowpocalypse 2011. With so many Bless You Boys readers sitting home, either afraid or without reason to brave the elements, what better day to hit you with over 2,000 words of prospecty goodness?

No better day, I say. So what follows are eleven prospect profiles to keep you warm as you cuddle up with some hot cocoa or curse your employer for forcing you to come into work in these arctic conditions. "I'll show them. I'll read about prospects all day!" Enjoy.

Andrew Oliver, 23, Throws: Left
Erie/Toledo, 130.1 IP, 117 H, 13 HR, 50 BB, 119 K
Detroit, 22 IP, 26 H, 3 HR, 13 BB, 18 K

Oliver is one of the most common assumptions to be the Tigers' sixth starter. That may raise some eyebrows given the Detroit numbers you see above, but I wouldn't worry about that. He has the stuff to be a big league pitcher and hopefully that time in Detroit gave him a taste of what success at that level would require. I was encouraged by his time spent in Toledo after he was demoted. Walks continued to be a problem, but he handled himself well at Triple A considering he was just 22 and a year removed from Oklahoma State. 2011 Outlook: Oliver is going to be in the Toledo rotation. That's pretty clear. While I'm sure he'd love to get another crack at big league hitters, the best thing for Detroit would probably be if he were able to spend the full season in Toledo. It would mean their rotation stayed healthy and they didn't need to call him up.

Anthony Shawler, 23, Throws: Right
Lakeland/Erie, 121 IP, 124 H, 15 HR, 23 BB, 98 K

Shawler has put up impressive numbers in his minor league career, serving mostly as a reliever, but filling in for the rotation as needed. This season, he tore up Florida State League hitters for a month (0.96 ERA, 18.2 IP, 1 BB, 15 K) before getting the call to Erie. He excelled as a reliever in Erie (36.1 IP, 36 H, 3 HR, 7 BB, 30 K), but struggled when they needed him to step in as a starter (66 IP, 73 H, 12 HR, 15 BB, 53 K). Obviously, top prospects typically don't serve as swingmen in the minors.

Shawler shouldn't be disregarded, though. His fastball has about average velocity. Mark Anderson says he mixes in a cutter and his walk rate shows he is able to throw strikes. The Tigers know all too well having a guy with a decent arm who can pick up a start from time to time is a nice thing to have around. 2011 Outlook: His assignment may come down to a numbers game, but I'd look for him in the Erie bullpen to start the season.

Brooks Brown, 25, Throws: Right
Erie, 128 IP, 120 H, 8 HR, 39 BB, 85 K

The good news for Brooks Brown is he put up 129 quality innings for Erie in 2010. It would have been more, but he didn't move into the rotation until May 16th. The bad news is he spent most of 2009 in Toledo. After the Tigers picked him up in the James Skelton trade, he was placed in Erie and put up a pretty deceptive 2.21 ERA over 36.2 innings. The Tigers decided to try him in Toledo and he got roughed up as a result.

So, last season, with his prospect status limping along, he went back to Erie, bumped up his strikeouts - which had previously decreased every season as a pro - cut down on his walks, and used ground balls to get a very low homer rate. Brown was once a supplemental first round pick (2006) and has the kind of stuff that has had him mentioned as a possible major leaguer in the past, but after 2009 I suspect he'll have to prove himself in Triple A. 2011 Outlook: It might be tough for Brown to crack Toledo's rotation, but he could get a shot there as a long reliever/swingman.

Cory Hamilton, 22, Throws: Right
Michigan/Lakeland/Erie, 63.1 IP, 53 H, 3 HR, 38 BB, 41 K

Hamilton is another player who I haven't heard a lot about since the Tigers picked him in the 23rd round of the 2009 draft. He was at the Instructional League, though, and pitched pretty well last season when he was in West Michigan and Lakeland. His time in Erie was a different story, where he walked more than he struck out - 31 in 37 innings. His other peripherals weren't too bad and he still managed to get a ton of ground balls.

I don't think he's ever going to get mentioned as a top prospect or wow anybody with his numbers. If he gets those walks under control and keeps getting batters to put so many grounders in play, he might stick around as a useful reliever. 2011 Outlook: I think of Hamilton as an organizational arm who will go where the Tigers need him, and those guys are difficult to peg for assignments. He'll end up where he's needed more between Lakeland and Erie, though.

Duane Below, 25, Throws: Left
Erie, 126 IP, 137 H, 17 HR, 37 BB, 103 K

I spent a couple of years saying I was afraid Below was pitching around the best hitters in West Michigan and Lakeland. Then he lost time to Tommy John surgery before getting assigned to Erie last season. It was a challenge, but probably a necessary one given his age and he responded well. Yes, the hits and homers were high, but he went at the batters (career low walk rate) and still got a reasonable number of strikeouts. I don't look for Below to push himself into consideration for when the Tigers need a starter, but I think 2011 could be a big season for him. 2011 Outlook: I'd love to see Below get a shot at the Toledo rotation. He might have to beat out Brown to get it, but I'm sure the Tigers would like to know what they have for lefty options.

Jared Gayhart, 24, Throws: Right
Lakeland/Erie, 65 IP, 56 H, 4 HR, 31 BB, 61 K

In 2009, Gayhart looked good blowing through West Michigan and Lakeland with a good fastball with movement and respective BABIPs of .198 and .167. That all ended when he hit Erie. In 2010, the Tigers gave him a second shot against Double A hitters and you could argue it went worse. His ERA ballooned up over six and improvements in his strikeout and walk rates were more than matched by balls starting to find their way over the fence. By the end of June, he was sent down to Lakeland where he would stay. His numbers there were impressive, but the season as a whole seemed to show his success is going to take more than a good fastball with movement. 2011 Outlook: Gayhart should get a third go-around with Double A hitters. It's difficult to see the point of putting him any lower at this point.

Lester Oliveros, 22, Throws: Right
Lakeland/Erie, 44.1 IP, 33 H, 3 HR, 27 BB, 60 K

Oliveros had a hard time staying healthy early in the 2010 season due to some bicep problems and the Tigers seemed to have him handled carefully afterward. He only pitched more than an inning twice after he missed a couple weeks in May. He still got a late June promotion to Erie, and continued to show the potential in his right arm. He struck out 36 in just 25.1 innings, but unfortunately gave up three homers and 21 walks. A walk rate anywhere near that would be his biggest obstacle, but a fastball that can hit the mid-90s and a slider with potential should earn him a lot of looks. 2011 Outlook: I'd suspect the Tigers would need to see progress with him command to give him a promotion to Toledo. I'd bet on another turn - at least to start the season - in Erie.

Luis Marte, 24, Throws: Right
Erie/Toledo, 49 IP, 45 H, 5 HR, 27 BB, 53 K

Marte had a stretch in Lakeland in 2008 that was a thing of beauty. Since then, he's had a hard time duplicating anything even close to that level of success. He only threw 105 innings in 2009 when Double A hitters pounded him for 18 homers. In 2010, the Tigers made the predictable move of sliding him to the bullpen and the improvement in his results was marginal. The Tigers seemed to be careful with the move, pitching him without at least a day's rest only once all season. That may have helped him keep enough juice to strikeout 53 in 48 innings, but it didn't do much to rein in his walks or keep the ball in the yard. It seems as if Marte has lost something from when he was dominating in Lakeland almost three years ago, but maybe he's just hit his ceiling. 2011 Outlook: Marte has thrown over 200 innings in Erie now and while last season wasn't a triumph, it was the best of his three tries at that level. We'll see if that's enough to earn an assignment to Toledo.

Matt Hoffman, 22, Throws: Left
Lakeland/Erie/Toledo, 53.2 IP, 62 H, 5 HR, 26 BB, 44 K

Hoffman was one of the Tigers' bonus babies in 2007. In both 2009 and 2010, he started off great only to struggle with a promotion. In 2010, he was great in Lakeland but got bopped around a bit when he was bumped to Erie. Despite this, he was still in Toledo a couple weeks after being introduced to the Double A. I thought this was a sign of a kid whose status as a prospect was being written on the wall, and the theme was not nice. After that scary time in Toledo, though, he went back to Erie and had a forgettable final two-and-a-half months to the season.

Nothing too impressive, but it's also hard to miss the fact that the Tigers left him in Erie and sent him to the Arizona Fall League at just 22. So there are clearly some things the Tigers like about this young kid that may not be showing up in the numbers cited. How about these numbers? Take a look at his Pitch f/x numbers in the AFL and you'll see he was regularly flinging his four-seam fastball between 93 and 96 mph while mixing in what looked like a slider and a changeup. It's suddenly not so hard to see why the Tigers are curious to see what he can do against higher competition. 2011 Outlook: I'm not certain why the Tigers see him as a reliever - maybe that's when he started throwing in the mid-90s - but lefties who throw that hard get plenty of chances to show they have a breakout in them. Judging from how well he's done at the start of the past few seasons, maybe Hoffman just needs a full season at one level to find his.

Thad Weber, 26, Throws: Right
Erie/Toledo, 189.2 IP, 190 H, 19 HR, 44 BB, 130 K

Weber doesn't have great stuff. For example, his fastball sits around a pedestrian 90 mph. What he does have, good control and a good enough feel for pitching to throw a 10 strikeout no-hitter at Erie in 2009, has served him well as a pro. A 16th round pick in the 2008 draft, he's handled every assignment he's been given well. In 2010 that assignment was Erie and in 167.2 innings, he put up numbers very similar to what he did there in 75.1 innings there the year before.

The Tigers will have to hold out hope that is a sign of consistency and not him topping out at the Double A level. If anybody is thinking his three starts in Toledo are good evidence to the contrary, I'd be careful with that logic. The last few weeks of the Triple A season can be watered down as clubs fill out their rosters to make up for injuries and call-ups. 2011 Outlook: Weber has shown what he can do at Double A, so I have to believe they'll want to see if he can duplicate it at Toledo.

Zach Simons, 25, Throws: Right
Erie/Toledo, 70 IP, 54 H, 6 HR, 28 BB, 72 K

I have to admit Simons is the kind of player a stat-watcher like me finds frustrating. The Tigers have had him for the better part of three seasons since getting him in the Jason Grilli trade. He was solid in Lakeland in that first season, and better the following season in Erie. The Tigers seemed to notice, letting him spend most of the last month-and-a-half in Toledo. Homers were a bit of a problem, but not so much that he should have expected his removal from the 40-man roster during the 2009 offseason. A good fastball and solid results didn't get him claimed off waivers, though, and he went back to Erie for 2010. Comparing 2010 to 2009, his numbers would have been better across the board had it not been for his giving up five homers instead of just one. He still was promoted to Toledo for the final month of the season and in 16.2 innings, pitched well.

Add it all together and you have a pitcher with a solid fastball that gets him enough strikeouts to make his shaky control forgivable. It seems like the resume of a guy who'd be given his shot for at least a spot on the annual shuttle between Toledo and Erie. Then again, he wasn't claimed off waivers. It's possible he has a skill for getting outs on balls in play, but it's also possible he's been lucky (in Erie in 2010, his BABIP was .248). Finally, it's possible the Tigers are concerned his flyball tendencies (ground ball rates usually lower than 40%) will be exposed at levels higher than Double A. 2011 Outlook: If the Tigers don't give him a shot in Toledo this season, I'm honestly not sure why they'd keep him around.

Summary

As with the Tiger system as a whole, there are a lot of players who need a break or two to become big leaguers. Andy Oliver looks to me like somebody who could be a good member of a strong rotation. You might also get a solid reliever out of somebody like Lester Oliveros or Matt Hoffman.

For the most part, though, I see this group as players who will top out in Toledo (or a Triple A squad somewhere else) or will see their big league appearances limited to September. This would be fine except that I seem to remember saying similar things - often less optimistic - in a lot of this series' installments.