This is the second installment in a series of midseason looks at each of the Tigers' four full season minor league teams. The first piece was on the Toledo Mud Hens.
Erie hasn't dug themselves into quite as big a hole as the Mud Hens, but they're still going to have to get down to business if they want these prospects to see some postseason experience in 2011. With a win on Thursday, the Wolves are sitting at 40-39 and are six games out of first in fourth place. As you'd expect for a team so close to .500, their run differential is very close to zero (-3 after Thursday).
Their offense has been a hair above average in terms of scoring runs and their run prevention has been a touch below the league mark. The offense is interesting because it hasn't really had a standout performer. Ben Guez and Deik Scram have hit well when they were in Erie, but both have also spent a lot of time in Toledo. Justin Henry has been great, but with an on-base percentage higher than his slugging percentage he's not a typical anchor to the lineup. They owe what success they've had to a big chunk of the lineup hitting maybe a little over average as opposed to a few players hitting great. That could be good news for the team's chance of consistent production, but to be honest, it's not great news from the perspective of prospect watching. Personally, as a Tiger fan first, I'd prefer to see a few players break out as opposed to seeing a team in lockstep as they take turns chipping in. Of course, players can sometimes break out even without setting the league on fire but I'll come back to that in the player profiles.
On the pitching side of things, you can't really claim the same phenomenon as what's been driving the offense. It's been quite the opposite, actually. The Wolves have had one half of their rotation pulling their weight quite well, but the back part has struggled badly at times. Then of course, you have the usual problems caused by promotions. Of course, that hasn't worked out too badly since Jay Voss has stepped up quite well as he's filled in for the departed L.J. Gagnier. I would also look for Brooks Brown to improve over the results seen from Luke Putkonen. The Wolves' bullpen has been quite successful when you look at the guys carrying the heaviest workloads and being called on for the high leverage innings.
That's a quick run through the team from a large scale view. Let's zoom in a bit and look at the individual players. (Stats are from Fangraphs.com and were taken from that site on Thursday night)
Casey Crosby, LHP, 9/17/88
Crosby is going to have to work through this season and another to ease a lot of people's concerns about his durability. As it is, I think a lot of people have trouble seeing him in anything but a bullpen role. The fact that he just lost time to what was initially called a strained rotator's cuff isn't going to help those concerns. However, the prognosis seems to have turned out to be something less severe and after almost two weeks off he had one of his better games of the season on Tuesday.
Chance Ruffin, RHP, 9/8/88
The Tigers took the Andy Oliver, throw him in the deep end approach with Ruffin and he's responded well. As the team's closer, he's proven hard to hit for Double A batters. Even the apparent control problems suggested by that walk rate probably aren't quite the issue you'd expect. Six of his 16 walks on the season came in a three game stretch at the end of May and early June. Since then, he's walked three of the 45 batters he's faced and just one of his last 28.
Jacob Turner, RHP, 5/21/91
I can't say it enough that I think this kid is going to be special. Just two of his 14 starts haven't been quality starts and he gave up four runs in both of those. He's still never walked four batters in a game and as a 20-year-old in Double A, he's striking out more than three times the batters he's walking and he's coming close to averaging seven innings per start. He may be barely a man, but he's a baaaad man.
Austin Wood, LHP, 11/2/86
I have to say I'm impressed by Wood so far. He's best known for his 13-inning, 170-pitch relief outing with Texas in the College World Series a couple of years ago and since then, everybody has rolled their eyes in mock surprise as he's struggled through shoulder problems. Well, in his first real season as a pro he's been an excellent contributor to the Erie bullpen. Judging from his scouting reports, I'm a little surprised his control hasn't been better. Maybe I shouldn't be, though, since he hasn't thrown in real games a whole lot the past couple years.
Bryan Holaday, C, 11/19/87, Bats: Right
Holaday came to the pros with a reputation as a defense-first catcher with good marks in his makeup and leadership skills. As this point, we can affirm that he's hitting like a defense-first catcher with good makeup and leadership skills.
John Murrian, C, 6/15/88, Bats: Right
The good news is the numbers you see are only part of his season totals as he started the year in Toledo. The bad news is his numbers with the Mud Hens were much worse. To be fair, he spent most of last season in Lakeland and has been challenged with tough assignments since. Still, in his time between Erie and Toledo he's walked just five times compared to 51 strikeouts in 187 plate appearances. That's an ominous sign for his future.
Francisco Martinez, 3B, 9/1/90, Bats: Right
When can a prospect have a breakout season without it really looking like he's having a breakout season? When he's 20 years old and more than holding his own in Double A he can. He's cooled recently, but even after an off week that saw him go 7 for 31 with just one walk and 7 Ks he's producing at just about league average. If the Tigers put a big X over Castellanos as a trade possibility, don't be surprised if this name comes up over the next month.
Gustavo Nunez, SS, 2/8/88, Bats: Both
Disastrous numbers, right? Not really. Nunez has only been with Erie for ten games and he's always going to be the kind of hitter who's susceptible to cold streaks. Anybody who's almost completely dependent on putting balls in play and having them fall in is going to wow and frustrate us with their hot and cold act. The good news here is he played well enough in Lakeland to get his shot in Erie in the first place.
Jamie Johnson, OF, 4/26/87, Bats: Left
Lumping Johnson in with the prospects may be a bit rose-tinted but I'm pulling for him. If he ever makes it to the majors, it will be as one of those guys who was and always will be written off as a fourth outfielder at best. It's almost certainly accurate, but with guys like this whose game is sneaky productive, I always like to see where they can take their talents.
Other Key Players
Having looked at the better prospects on the Erie squad, let's now move on to some of the other players who will be important in the story of Erie's 2011 season.
Jared Gayhart, RHP, 10/29/86
He's had a big improvement over his time spent in Erie last season. He's also not been quite as wild as that walk rate might suggest (just two walks in 13.2 June innings) but homers have been a problem. The six homers he's allowed almost negate the progress he's made in terms of strikeouts and walks. This is the first year they've been a problem, though, so let's see how it plays out.
Luis Marte, RHP, 8/26/86
Those strikeout numbers since Marte has come back are just stupid. I thought Lester Oliveros was getting it done when he was in Erie, but Marte has been something else. I kind of doubt he'll ever regain the prospect status he had back in 2008. That was when he was starting in Lakeland and pitching every bit as well as Rick Porcello. Injuries have dragged him down since, but he's come out of the gates blazing after getting a late start.
Mark Sorensen, RHP, 2/21/86
I wonder if it's a refreshing challenge for the Tigers to see one of their pitchers struggle in a different way than they're used to. It's usually walks that sink Tiger prospects, but those aren't too much of an issue for Sorensen. He can limit his walks, but he's susceptible to severe drubbings. That's in evidence as you see that between wins on June 12th and June 29th, he gave up nine earned runs in consecutive starts.
Jay Voss, LHP, 4/22/87
The return in the Nate Robertson trade had a horrific time in Erie last season. This season, he started in Lakeland before earning a promotion back in May. Things are going much better for him now as seven starts into his second go-around in Erie, he's been a fairly reliable arm every five days.
Robert Waite, RHP, 1/9/87
I almost put Waite in with the prospects on a hunch, but decided to stick him down here because he's 24 and still struggling with walks. He also seems as if he's been hittable, but overall he's one of the arms the Wolves look to regularly and hasn't hurt them too bad yet.
Robbie Weinhardt, RHP, 12/8/85
Weinhardt's fall from grace this season has been precipitous. He was actually in Detroit for a brief spell, but was shipped back to Toledo and things seem to have gone downhill since. In Toledo, he probably had his biggest problems with the timing of the hits he allowed since he had a left on-base percentage in the low 40s. But bad luck or not, it got him removed from the 40-man and eventually landed him in Erie. In Double A, he's started giving up homers and that's always been a strong point for him - keeping the ball in play. He's a long way from the guy who last season - and even this spring - seemed like he could be a reasonable fit in a big league bullpen.
Rawley Bishop, 1B, 11/19/85, Bats: Right
Bishop is a pretty typical minor leaguer as somebody who can really help his team without getting much consideration as a prospect. He plays first base, after all, and has just never hit for a lot power. It might be the only hole in his game at this level, but at that position in this organization, it's a sizable one. I love his proficiency with stolen bases, though.
Audy Ciriaco, SS, 6/16/87, Bats: Right
Ciriaco has been out of action since June 19th and it looks as if he could be bumped off shortstop by Nunez when he returns. Between that news, his lack of progress at the plate and the fact that Detroit was comfortable moving him off their 40-man roster, Ciriaco could be running out of chances.
Brandon Douglas, 2B, 8/27/85, Bats: Right
Douglas has always been a player who's tough to get a bead on because he's moved around in-season on top of injury shortened seasons. That's made for good numbers we couldn't put a lot of faith in. This season, he's finally getting full-time duties and staying injury free and he seems to be fumbling the opportunity. It's enough to make me wonder if Ciriaco might move to second base instead of third when he comes off the DL.
Shawn Roof, IF, 8/3/84, Bats: Right
With just over one hundred plate appearances, Roof is obviously playing a part time role as a utility man. He's playing it well, though, and making the most of his time. Certainly well enough to be included in a piece that's trying to show the story of the Wolves' 2011 season.
Justin Henry, OF, 4/26/87, Bats: Left
Henry's age and having been moved off second base leave me skeptical of his ability to regain prospect status. He's playing the outfield most games now and his track record just doesn't suggest he can hit well enough to play that position. None of this, however, should take away from the fact that he's been the team's best regular hitter in 2011. He still has almost no power, but hits falling and a great walk rate have him producing at a career best level*.
*Note Eastern League averages:
Second Half Outlook
I look for the SeaWolves to take baby steps forward from the .500 team they currently are, assuming promotions and injuries don't decimate their roster. With Putkonen having been replaced, I'm hoping their rotation will take a step forward and Marte could really solidify a bullpen that's already getting good innings from guys like Ruffin (Note: saw he was promoted to Toledo immediately before posting this), Waite and Wood.
As I said before, the way their lineup is balanced may protect them from prolonged dry patches or getting submarined by one player hitting a slump. The downside to that balance is it's probably just as unlikely for a sea change in the offense in a positive way. For example, I could see Rawley Bishop heating up but that could easily be offset by Henry and Roof cooling off.
What's probably worse for the team than a lineup with limited start potential is the fact that late season promotions and roster shuffling is almost certain to leave them with a net loss in talent (such as losing Ruffin). That's not something they'll be able to withstand if they're going to make a push to overcome their current six game deficit in the standings.
Just like with the Hens' Review, these are mostly so this information can be found on the website. I threw in some editorial comments just to reward those who bother reading to the bottom.
Activated Luis Marte (RHP) from disabled list (sent Zach Samuels to Lakeland)
Shoulder issues were responsible for Marte's late start to the season. His results suggest he was ready to come back, though.
Activated Brooks Brown (RHP) from disabled list (sent Luke Putkonen to Lakeland)
Assigned Zach Samuels (RHP) to Erie from Lakeland (Ramon Garcia promoted to Toledo)
Placed Zach Simons (RHP) on the disabled list
Assigned Ramon Garcia (LHP) to Erie from Toledo
Assigned Robbie Weinhardt (RHP) to Erie from Toledo
Something I never would have expected at the beginning of the season. He's even struggled in Erie, though.
Placed Justin Henry (UT) on the disabled list
Signed C.J. Retherford (UT)
Assigned Zach Samuels (RHP) to Lakeland
It certainly looks like Samuels was moved to make room for Weinhardt but I don't know that for sure.
Placed Casey Crosby (LHP) on the disabled list
Activated Zach Simons (RHP) from the disabled list
Assigned Jeff Kunkel (C) to Erie from Lakeland
Activated Justin Henry (UT) from disabled list (sent C.J. Retherford to Lakeland)
Assigned Gustavo Nunez (SS) to Erie from Lakeland
Placed Audy Ciriaco (SS) on the disabled list
The good news here, in addition to Henry returning, is Ciriaco's not going on the DL for his wrist.
Released Adam Calderone (OF)
Assigned Bryan Pounds (3B) to Erie from Toledo
Assigned Deik Scram (OF) to Erie from Toledo (sent Michael Rockett to Lakeland)
Terrible news for Scram, but good for Erie. Scram should boost the offense over time.
Released Zach Simons (RHP)
Activated Casey Crosby (LHP) from disabled list
I imagine this upset a lot of people who wondered why Simons never seem to get much of a shot in the system. I'd listen to that argument, but he certainly didn't make much of a case to get it in 2011. As for Crosby, I can't think of better news for the system that he went from a damaged rotator's cuff to missing just a couple rounds in the rotation.