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Where to Plant Them: Tigers Upper Level Outfielders

We've come to the end of the line as far as the position players in this series. I've undertaken the task of guessing how the Tigers are going to stock each of their four full season minor league teams, and in this last post we'll look at contenders for the Erie and Toledo outfields.

The two are a bit of a contrast. With the players who are left in camp, Toledo's outfield seems to come together quite nicely. With Erie's, though, I am nearly at a loss as to who they're going to use to fill it out. Kody Kaiser, Chris White and minor league free agent Brandon Tripp all would've seemed like possibilities a short time ago but the Tigers have released all three. Let's take a look at who's left:

Erie

Ben Guez, Born: 1/24/87, Bats: R

I realize this would be a bit of a strange assignment for Guez after he spent the majority of his 2010 playing time in Toledo. It also would be a strange step backward because he hit pretty well when he was in Toledo, .251/.339/.439 in 259 plate appearances. I'm going this route because I think 2010 established Guez will be placed where he's the best fit after he started in Lakeland, jumped to Toledo, went back to Lakeland for less than three weeks, shuttled to Erie for less than two, went back to Lakeland for the equivalent of most people's Florida vacation, and the finished the last couple months of the season in Toledo. That seems like the definition of an organizational soldier.

Billy Nowlin, Born: 12/16/86, Bats: R

Admittedly, Nowlin is stuck in this spot for two reasons. He wasn't going to get mentioned if I didn't stick him in the outfield and I literally have no clue who the Tigers could pick as this team's fourth outfielder without backtracking on my picks for the Lakeland outfield. Don't get me wrong. Nowlin is a good hitter whose bat belongs in Erie and will probably anchor somewhere near the middle of their lineup. It's just that he's a bit out of place whenever he's wearing a glove that doesn't help him grip his bat.

Clay Timpner, Born: 5/13/83, Bats: L

Timpner is a career minor leaguer at this point, with his only major league action coming with the Giants back in 2008. He's been a center fielder for most of his career, but hasn't done much with the stick. In just over 1600 Triple A at bats, he's posted a line of .268/.322/.366 and after spending the better part of four seasons in Fresno, he was bumped down to the Giant's Double A affiliate, Richmond, in 2010. There was time when he played as if he had a ton of speed, 12 triples and 34 steals in 2005, but that time looks like it could be behind him at this point. He stole just six bases each of the last two seasons, his triples have trended downward and his double plays have gone up for four straight seasons.

Brent Wyatt, Born: 1/25/85, Bats: S

Wyatt has bounced around the field in his pro career, playing literally every position but catcher (he pitched an inning for Lakeland last season). He's spend the vast majority of his time in the outfield, though, and most of that time has come in left field. As a hitter, Wyatt has posted low batting averages, but has been able to compensate with good walk rates (149 BB in 1322 PA), a surprising zeal for taking one for the team (46 career HBP), and some success at nabbing bases (45/64 SB in three seasons). At 26, Wyatt is going to need to a bit of an unlikely breakthrough in some part of his game. With walks already being covered, and a power surge unlikely at this point, he might have to rely on the good fortune that could lift his batting average and buoy the rest of his numbers.

Others considered: When I filled out my NCAA brackets this year, I got to my Final Four and thought, "I don't think this is going to happen". Boy was I right. For the first time ever, I didn't guess a single Elite 8 team. I had a similar feeling when I looked at the players I had left to choose from for the Erie outfield. When looking at the leftovers, it seemed like everybody was getting cut or probably heading to Toledo.

This tells me I might have whiffed on my Lakeland selections. Will Daniel Fields get the bump up to Double A? Or will Jamie Johnson be this year's player to make the not unheard of leap from West Michigan to Erie? I didn't think so, but after looking at my choices above, I feel less certain. The only other player who I considered was Deik Scram. Despite the fact that an argument could be made for Guez in Toledo over Scram, I didn't have the heart to predict another Erie summer for Scram. You see, he's spent most of the last three seasons there and a fourth just seems...well, pointless.

Toledo

Andy Dirks, Born: 1/24/86, Bats: L

Dirks was a star of spring training and he almost was able to ride that and a scrappy attitude to a spot on the 25-man roster. The Tigers, though, opted for Casper Wells' defense and Brennan Boesch's power potential. Now Dirks will have to avoid the trap of letting any disappointment affect his game while he's in the minors. When he's on his game, he's able to hit for average (.287 career) by making good contact (13.7% career K%) and using his wheels (45/56 SB in 258 G).

Not surprisingly, his best results have come when he's been able to square the ball up for line drives because he doesn't really have a lot of power and walks at about an average clip. Overall, he's batting average dependent with good speed and good defensive ability. That sure sounds like a fourth outfielder, doesn't it?

Timo Perez, Born: 4/8/75, Bats: L

One thing I like about Perez is he's one of the few minor leaguers I'll talk about who's older than I am. Back in 2007, Perez hit well enough for the Hens to earn a late season call-up when the Tigers needed somebody to fill out their outfield. He proceeded to hit .389 with a .415 wOBA in Detroit. The next season, he went back to Toledo and hit .302/.374/.473. That was why in 2009, I couldn't believe it (pleasantly surprised, to be clear) when the Tigers let him go so they could "let the kids play". Those kids were Wilkin Ramirez and Brent Clevlen, so now that they've played their way out of the organization the Tigers must have felt okay about bringing Timo back. If he does indeed make the Toledo roster, let's hope the good fortune being a Hen has brought him in the past returns.

Deik Scram, Born: 2/1/84, Bats: L

As I mentioned above, I simply can't stomach the thought of Scram being sent to Erie again. So hopefully the Tigers share the idea that he has nothing more to learn there after having taken 1,378 Double A plate appearances. Having said that, Scram's career with the Tigers could be on its last legs. He's 27 and there would appear to be a ton of fourth outfielder types above him on the depth chart. That's a tough situation even before you consider he hit just .217 between Erie and Toledo in 2010. A big part of that was a career high strikeout rate (118 K in 432 PA between Erie and Toledo). When he was in Erie, he overcame the low average with a good walk rate and 28 of his 58 hits going for extra bases. In Toledo, the walks still came but the power went. If he doesn't want to go right out the door with it, he'll need to get his batting average back up around the league standard and let his secondary skills cover for him.

Clete Thomas, Born: 11/14/83, Bats: L

Thomas has to be a little nervous about his career with the Tigers at this point. After proving himself to be a useful player to have on the roster in 2008 and 2009, he was squeezed out of the 2010 picture by the signing of Johnny Damon, Ryan Raburn's bat, and Don Kelly's versatility. To make matters worse, a knee injury prevented him from showing he belonged back in Detroit. This season, he was bumped out by Wells' defense and power and Boesch's potential to do big things with his bat. Don't be surprised, though, if Wells' past contact problems or Boesch's free-swinging leaves the Tigers looking back to Clete for some reserve help.

Others considered: With both Wells and Boesch making the Tigers, the only other player I considered for Toledo was Ben Guez.

Summary

If constructed in this way - and I have my doubts - there isn't a lot here in terms of prospects or big league futures. Dirks is probably about the only player here most would still consider a prospect and even he probably has a fourth outfielder ceiling and is 25 years old. Other than him, I suspect Clete Thomas is the only other player in this group with much of a big league future before him. Considering he hasn't cracked the Opening Day roster the last two seasons, even he probably shouldn't get too comfortable with that idea.

This means the Tigers need for a few things to happen. They need Ryan Raburn and one of Wells and Boesch to prove they can be every day big league outfielders. At the very least, they need them to show they can handle a platoon role. That would allow them to avoid having to turn to free agency again in trying to fill a Magglio Ordonez vacancy. Barring a step up from at least two of those three, the Tigers need a lot of progress from players like Daniel Fields and Avisail Garcia. That would at least allow them to feel more confident in limiting their free agent search after this season to one- and two-year deals.

Long story short, though, system-wide and at every position, the Tigers' prospects need to start coming through. It's come to the point where developing a position player who might top out as a solid starter feels like a crowning achievement. Developing a legitimate star seems like something other organizations do and it's led to the Tigers having very expensive rosters with notable holes.

I like the Tigers' chances in 2011, but those chances are pinned almost entirely on runs being generated by hitters developed elsewhere. We'll all take the wins regardless of who's producing the runs, but I don't think it's a coincidence that over the last few years some of the most popular Tigers have been home-grown. Personally, I hope that when we look back on 2011, we not only talk about a playoff team but can point to a season when the Tigers' farm system took a big step forward.