Every year, when the Tigers' minor league rosters are first announced I run down the list of players. The intent is to talk a bit about the guys filling out the roster and to give some thoughts on the group might do. Of course, the latter part is often irrelevant quickly because minor league rosters are so fluid. Be that as it may, it's fun to look at where the Tigers' interesting prospects are so we can watch for their progress as the season begins. These tend to run a little long, so settle in and read about your 2011 Mud Hens.
If that is indeed the Mud Hens' rotation, it has to be one of the leftiest rotations in the team's history. That alignment would yield four lefties, with only Weber throwing from the right side. Aside from all the southpaws, it will also provide plenty of intrigue for prospect watchers. Oliver is widely considered the Tigers' most likely sixth starter and through the strength of his fastball, is the squad's most intriguing prospect. If he can continue to show the command he reportedly flashed this spring and improve his secondary offerings, the Tigers may not wait for something to go wrong in the rotation to get him to Detroit.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, there is Adam Wilk. I've heard varying reports on his fastball. I've seen it described as sitting in the high 80s. I've also seen it described as being more like 85 or 86 and occasionally touching a couple notches higher. Regardless, any success he has isn't going to come from muscling up and blowing hitters away. He'll need to change speeds and continue to show the command and control of all his pitches that his brought him this far.
The remaining lefties are Duane Below and Charlie Furbush. Below's numbers aren't great at first glance, but if he can get the long ball under control and catch a little better luck with runners on base he could be a pleasant surprise for many. As for Furbush, if Oliver is the sixth starting option, it's possible Furbush is seventh. The Tigers seem to like a delivery commonly described as deceptive, and he's put up nice peripherals over the course of his career. Well, until you get to the home runs allowed. Against high level hitters, the long ball has been a serious issue (14 HR in 82 IP at Erie and Toledo) and not getting that problem under control would certainly affect his standing as a future Tiger.
Finally, we come to the sole right-hander, Thad Weber. Weber is the kind of non-descript minor leaguer you can easily lose sight of, but that doesn't mean he's not a good pitcher to have around. He doesn't have the kind of stuff that gets people riled up, but excellent control, K rates teetering on passable and an average home run rate have allowed him to serve as an above average minor league starter. To be clear, I'm not saying Weber is going to be an above average big leaguer or even that he's an above average prospect. Just that his way of going about his business has allowed him to post better than average pitcher in the leagues he's been in to this point.
Fu-Te Ni RP
Jose Ortega (DL)
I suspect this bullpen is going to be tinkered with a lot as the Tigers make this or that roster move. A good example is Zach Simons being brought in and Jose Ortega starting the season on the disabled list. That said, as listed I think it can be a strength for this team. You could make a strong case that Weinhardt should be in Detroit right now, but his time will come. The only red flag with Robbie is his dip in strikeouts that seems to correlate with a loss in velocity from what we saw him throwing in the Arizona Fall League in late 2009. He could just be backing off on the fastball, though, to get more movement, sink and the grounders the Tigers want from him.
Of course, if grounders are what the Tigers want, they could also look to Brendan Wise. He's not made a lot of noise as a prospect, but he's had ground ball rates well above 60% each of the last two seasons. He doesn't get a lot of strikeouts, but he keeps down the walks and the same thing that pitches that get all those ground balls also serve to keep the ball in the yard.
So far, this doesn't really seem like a discussion of Tiger relief prospects, does it? Where are the fireballers? Where are the big radar readings? Well, we can turn to Al Alburquerque and Jose Ortega (once he's off the DL) for those. Alburquerque will be making his first appearance above Double A with the Hens despite signing his first contract way back in 2003. Injuries played a big part in his slow progression, but even with all that time as a pro, he's still just 24. That young age, a mid- to high-90s fastball and a slider with potential coaxed the Tigers into giving him a big league contract during the offseason. His bugaboo at this point is his control, so as a Tiger relief prospect, he'll fit right in.
Ortega made a bit of a surprise appearance on Baseball America's Top Ten Tiger Prospects list. He accomplished that by riding a blazing fastball and a slider with potential through West Michigan, Lakeland and Erie in 2010. As you'd expect from a 22-year-old making that rapid rise last season, he has some things to work on. His control improved as 2010 progressed, and he'll need that to continue. He'll also need to improve his command of a fastball that, while sitting in the mid-90s, can inch up higher in velocity. BA said it can flatten out and his mechanics can be inconsistent and that could explain just 61 strikeouts in 69 innings last season.
That leaves us with Ramon Garcia, Fu-Te Ni and Chris Oxspring. I'm not giving much ink to Garcia or Oxspring. Garcia is 26 and hittable while Oxspring is 33 and hasn't played affiliated ball since 2007. They may contribute for the Hens, but you'll be forgiven for losing sight of their progress. Ni, on the other hand, I've always liked. He had a setback last season, but seemed to bounce back enough this spring for the Tigers to at least consider him for a spot in the bullpen. If Daniel Schlereth and Brad Thomas don't instill confidence against left-handed hitters, such a move may not be far off.
This staff is going to be throwing pitchers Tiger fans should take an interest in almost every day. Oliver has the potential to help fill out a 2012 rotation with fantastic potential (Verlander, Scherzer, Porcello, Turner and Oliver) and the other three lefty starters are all possible fits for either spot starts or middle relief roles in Detroit this season. Each could be just a pulled muscle from making the drive north, and the same goes for many of the relievers.
The Tigers likely have Weinhardt and Ni on alert right now, and impressive turns from Alburquerque, Ortega and Wise could land either of those three in Detroit sometime this season. Remember, the Tigers tend to fill-in for injured pitchers with the guy who is pitching best "right now". That makes guessing who will see time much more difficult.
Max St. Pierre
Omir Santos (DL)
Ryan Strieby 1B
Scott Thorman 1B/(3B?)
Scott Sizemore 2B
Argenis Diaz UT
Cale Iorg SS
Danny Worth UT
I'm curious about the team's catching situation, which is linked closely with Erie's. Toledo gets St. Pierre, the injured Santos and Murrian. Erie gets Jeff Kunkel and Bryan Holaday. If and when Santos is healthy, how does that arrangement change? Will the Tigers just release Santos when he comes off the DL or will that fate fall to St. Pierre or Kunkel? That's an intriguing question, but the only name you really need to remember here is Murrian.
He's the prospect of the group and he's already in Toledo despite being drafted in 2009. I suppose it's possible he could be bumped down to Erie when Santos comes back, but I would think Kunkel would have received the call if it were just a substitution gig. In any event, Murrian is a good defensive backstop who has shown some potential at the plate in the form of decent plate discipline and a little power. The Toledo assignment came as a bit of a surprise since he had just 63 plate appearances in Erie last year and hit .217/.226/.367 with one walk and 15 strikeouts.
I assume Ryan Strieby will hold down the starting first base gig, but don't be surprised if he pulls occasional duty at DH or even left field. The outfield experiment seems to be waning or perhaps even dead, but wherever they put him it's not his glove that will get him to Detroit. He has a big league bat when he's healthy, and he really needs to prove his wrist is healthy enough to let people remember that. As for Thorman, he's a lefty minor league vet who I'm sure the Hens are hoping will provide some middle of the order pop. He did slug .491 with 22 homers in Omaha last season, but while those numbers don't excite us from a first base/DH type, they should help in a lineup that could be a little short on pop.
In the middle of the infield, Cale Iorg and Scott Sizemore figure to be the every day talents. Iorg garners attention from even the national prospect watchers for his defense, but hasn't hit a lick since his first pro season in Lakeland (and even there was just average). Sizemore will be battling to prove he deserves a second go-around as the Tigers' starting second baseman. I wouldn't be surprised if there is a shuttle with Sizemore and Rhymes similar to what we saw a while back when the Tigers would try to ride the hot hand with outfielders like Ryan Raburn, Clete Thomas and Matt Joyce. I still think Sizemore has the potential to be a solid big leaguer, but the fact that he could be the second best hitter on this Hens team may not bode well for Toledo's offensive output.
Backing those two up in the middle will be Argenis Diaz. He looks to be a pretty standard light-hitting middle infielder. His OPS hasn't cracked .600 the past two seasons, if you want a little support for that statement. I almost had Worth as a second backup infielder, but that was before I realized the team doesn't have a real third baseman. Thorman and Sizemore have both played some at the hot corner and will probably both pull the duties from time to time, but I'd expect Worth to be penciled in most days. I expect that call was made in order to allow him to brush up his defense there, but it's an interesting approach. He's certainly not a prototypical third baseman with his career isolated power under .100.
That brings us to the outfield. It doesn't look like this quartet is going to give the Hens the kind of offensive output you typically expect from an outfield. You know, the big boppers on the corners and the speed demon up the middle. None of the four show up as having big production in terms of power. Clete has been known to clear the fences, but in terms of the numbers, Dirks and Perez have shown to have just as much in-game power as Thomas. Dirks and Perez have also shown a better ability to hit for average than Thomas, but Clete walks more.
I suspect those three will pull the most time in the outfield, as Timpner doesn't really seem to have a real strength at the plate. He hit .290 in Double A Richmond last season, but it was a bit of an empty average since he doesn't have much power and is the kind of contact hitter who doesn't walk a lot. So if I had to guess, I'd put the most common outfield alignment as Perez in left, Dirks in center and Thomas in right.
It's hard to see where the runs are going to come from in this lineup. If Strieby can find the power he showed when his wrists were healthy, that will be a huge help. Sizemore and Thorman will probably help to anchor the lineup, but as a whole the team is going to have to string its hits together well. They don't figure to draw a ton of walks and unless somebody gets hot, there doesn't seem to be a lot of power either. Hopefully, they can compensate by offering solid defense. They should get good defense in the outfield as long as they keep Strieby out of it, and Iorg should go a long way in shoring up an infield that could be just average at the other three spots.
Team Summary: I could definitely see this team struggling to compete in 2011. I think the offense will prove to be lacking, and the rotation could easily turn out to be more interesting as prospects than productive as Triple A pitchers. I'm sure Oliver will be fine, but I could see the good times and bad settling in at about average for the other four. While I expect solid defense and a strong effort from the bullpen, that could only serve to balance out the lineup. Don't be surprised if Toledo is once again fighting for a .500 record as opposed to fighting for the division crown.