There is no secret in the fact that the Tigers like to move their talented young prospects quickly. Teenagers aren't all that common in the Midwest League and over the past couple years the Whitecaps have had better than a dozen roster members in that category. Not only that, the teens in the organization have also found their way to both Lakeland and Erie.
To many, these aggressive promotions are no laughing matter. It's argued that many of these young players are being moved too quickly and having their development as prospects stunted. Instead of learning from success, it's argued, they are being beaten down by failure.
The opposing view is the players' eventual course is unlikely to have been affected by this strategy. Players who can't pick out a breaking ball or identify the strike zone wouldn't have learned the skills from a more gradual progression. Pitchers who can't find command of secondary pitches wouldn't have somehow found the knack facing opponents who they could have blown away with their fastball.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of this argument is unless you are a scout, you are forced to view it in the rear-view mirror. We have to wait and see and then look back at the story the numbers tell. Even then, we really have no idea if a player's downfall or success is owed to his progression through the minors. People can state that a player was rushed with as much confidence as they want, but unless they have some sort of window into alternate dimensions they're just working from theory.
Because this debate is one that is so closely associated with the Tiger system, I thought it would be worthwhile to keep an eye on the young players who are being aggressively promoted. So, as the season progresses, I will from time to time look in on Tiger prospects who are being forced to hone their craft against players two, three and four years their senior. I'll start with the team where the epidemic is most widespread. (Stats are from Baseball-Reference.com and through Tuesday's games.)
These players were all teenagers as of Opening Day, leaving them about two years younger than the average Midwest League player. I figured that would be my cutoff for inclusion in this series, but it's probably worth noting in addition to these players, catcher Luis Sanz and infielder Hernan Perez both turned 20 fairly recently.
Nick Castellanos: 3/4/92, 3B, Bats: Right
34 PA, .212/.235/.273, 1 BB, 11 K
This is the most important one on the position player side, without a doubt. I've said before Castellanos is probably one of the only prospects in the system with All Star potential, so they need to him to pan out for much bigger reasons than a big draft bonus. Let's hold off on panicking, though. He's hit okay since opening the season 0 for 9 and hasn't exactly played in baseball weather.
Edwin Gomez: 8/26/91, OF, Bats: Both
21 PA, .263/.333/.263, 1 BB, 6 K
I wondered where this former early round pick would end up and here he is after two lackluster seasons in the GCL. He's not performed yet in his young career but he's also had very challenging assignments so we'll just have to look for progress.
Dixon Machado: 2/22/92, SS, Bats: Right
18 PA, .313/.389/.313, 2 BB, 4 K
Machado is next in a line of promising Tiger shortstop prospects and we'll just have to hope he has an easier go with that title than his predecessors. The numbers above look nice, but he did go 4 for 5 in his first game and now sits at 5 for 16 on the young season.
Josue Carreno: 6/26/91, SP, Throws: Right
5.1 IP, 3 H, 0 HR, 5 BB, 1 K
The Caps' barrage of postponements in the early going has limited Carreno to just one start. As you can see, it wasn't pretty. As I said before, though, I'm not holding such early returns against these young players. Especially since they've hardly seen the thermometers crack fifty degrees so far.
Antonio Cruz: 10/7/91, SP, Throws: Left
3.1 IP, 4 H, 0 HR, 2 BB, 3 K
Another hard thrower, in addition to working against more advanced competition Cruz is also trying to transition to a starting role. Don't look for too many outings from him of more than four or five innings. He's going to be working against control issues and a pitch count.
Kyle Ryan: 9/25/91, SP, Throws: Left
10 IP, 11 H, 1 HR, 4 BB, 10 K
Ryan was a bit of a surprise as the Caps' Opening Day starter. That first start didn't go too well, but the honor might show some faith in the young lefty from the Tiger brass. His second start was much better, seeing him go 6.1 innings and allowing just one run on five hits that included a solo shot.
These two outfielders are both very familiar with the role of being among the youngest players in their league. Fields is still underage despite this being his second go-around in the Florida State League. Garcia, still just 19 until June, started his Midwest League career when he was only 17. That shows the Tigers have a lot of faith in their talent, but it also makes it difficult to expect too much from them in the way of production.
Daniel Fields: 1/23/91, OF, Bats: Left
58 PA, .217/.362/.348, 8 BB, 17 K
Fields hasn't cut down on his strikeouts but is still flashing a nice walk rate that balances out the whiffs. If the strikeouts keep coming, it'd be nice to see the power develop. If the power stays dormant, we'll just have to hope for better contact to make use of his speed.
Avisail Garcia: 6/12/91, OF, Bats: Right
53 PA, .184/.208/.204, 1 BB, 12 K
Still just 19, it's amazing that Garcia is not only in the Florida State League but also starting his third campaign of full season ball. I think most expected some struggles and things have been rough in the early going. He had to go 2 for 5 Tuesday to get up to the numbers you see.
The SeaWolves have two extreme youngsters, just like the Flying Tigers. Francisco Martinez is the older of the two, but I doubt anybody expects Jacob Turner to struggle as much as the young third baseman. I said before the season I expect Turner to emerge from 2011 among the top handful of pitching prospects in the minors. A strong season with Erie will put him right there. Martinez, on the other hand, will probably be just holding on for dear life.
Francisco Martinez: 9/1/90, 3B, Bats: Right
45 PA, .122/.182/.122, 3 BB, 9 K
Martinez is having bad luck with balls in play, but with no extra base hits he's also not likely to be hitting the ball hard. I'm not saying that makes him a bum. Double A is typically no place for a 20-year-old. It's just impossible to look at those numbers and say he's doing anything but struggling, probably even more than expected.
Jacob Turner: 5/21/91, SP, Throws: Right
19.2 IP, 13 H, 1 HR, 3 BB, 20 K
Turner is simply amazing. Of his three starts, his "off night" saw him throw a quality start with just one walk allowed. Honestly, much more of this and the only thing that will keep him out of Detroit is the fact that workload limits would probably keep him out of the rotation for September and (hopefully) October.
We can't make any judgments this early on other than to say again that Turner is certifiably amazing. We do seem to be seeing the young hitters struggle out of the gate, but we all know any hitter in baseball can have a bad couple weeks. Let's see where things shake out once they have their bearings a little better.
It's certainly something to watch carefully if you're a fan of Tiger prospects. This group is small, but it's incredibly important to the the overall quality and depth of the Tigers' farm system. These ten players are generally considered to contain four or five of the Tigers' top ten prospects. Big seasons from those players could provide hope for cheap major league talent in the near future. It could prevent the Tigers from feeling they need to offer aging free agents risky multiple year deals. It could even boost these players' stock enough that they could net big ticket major leaguers in a trade.
Among the players not considered top prospects yet, progress could be crucial for the system. Yes, it could force them into the conversation of the top Tiger prospects. But they could also step up to provide insurance in case the higher tier prospects falter or suffer injuries. Having a strong second tier would also allow the Tigers a little more comfort if they entertain trading a top prospect.
I think if the Tigers' farm system is going to turn a corner - if they're going to show they're middle of the pack or better - this group will have to be instrumental in making that move. Obviously they're not all going to take huge steps forward in 2011. But where they stand as prospects in October will need to be a big net gain from how they are viewed right now.