A funny thing happened while I was in Chicago taking the Illinois Bar exam: prospects went to division rivals, shortstops got more athletic (way more athletic), even the Pistons made a big trade! While the trades were done out of necessity, the Tigers farm system took a substantial hit, one that place them dead last on just about every system ranking for next season. Now, I have mixed feelings about the trades themselves, but I'll admit I have a very strong pro-prospect bias. I don't expect anyone to share that bias, and the analysis has been done well enough that I won't repeat that work. Instead, let's analyze what's in the system and the projected position battles to come. This should give us a sense of who will be contributing to future Tiger squads, and how they'll do it.
Catcher (2 spots). Depth Grade: C
Incumbents: Alex Avila, Brayan Pena
Prospects: Bryan Holaday, James McCann, Ramon Cabrera
Starting with one of the more volatile spots, the Tigers could keep the MLB guys around for another 6 years each, or dump both of them. Avila has been more than acceptable at the plate since his DL stint (.257/.342/.443 line), but his hit tool is low enough that I think future stretches of awful production are inevitable. The Tigers will give Avila every chance in the world and then some to stick, but multiple .625 OPS seasons could force their hand. Barring that, he seems to be a lock to stick around at least until he hits free agency after the 2015 season. Backup roles are pretty much impossible to project, so I'll just note Pena's deal expires after this season.
McCann is the clear priority prospect here, ranking 13th in our midseason series. The interesting thing here is that, like Rob Brantly before him, McCann is too talented to be a backup. He offers some platoon potential that LHB Brantly did not, but either way, the Tigers MO is to trade a guy instead of limit their value in house. McCann will likely spend the full season in AAA for 2014, and his future in the organization will largely depend on which direction Avila goes. Holaday and Cabrera are no more than serviceable backups, which gives the Tigers the luxury of keeping both around as long as possible. They afford solid injury depth, and the better defensive catcher will be the one more likely to stay.
First Base. Depth Grade: A+
Incumbent: Prince Fielder, or alternatively, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez.
"Prospects": Jordan Lennerton, Dean Green.
The depth grade refers to the fact that, if Prince Fielder moves to DH or is injured, the Tigers have the option of putting Miguel Cabrera at his old position. In fact, this may be a necessity before long. Miguel Cabrera has acquitted himself fairly nicely at 3rd, but at age 30, it's hard to see how long he could retain enough athleticism to defend at 3rd. Given that Prince isn't much of a fielder himself, shifting Miggy to 1st and Prince to DH seems inevitable. But either way, you can rest assured that 1st base will not be a problem spot.
Jordan Lennerton will probably make the big leagues some point, either as an injury fill-in should something happen to Martinez, or perhaps as a September pinch-hitter, or some rebuilding team's filler in a year or two (looking at you, White Sox). His lack of significant MLB projection means that the Tigers won't be opening a spot for him anywhere. Dean Green has hit in the low minors, but he's really old for the A-levels, and he's missed a lot of the season from injury. He'll need a monster 2014 to be on anyone's radar. Neither player is much of a prospect, but it's hardly a cause of concern.
Shortstop/Second Base. Depth Grade: B+
Incumbent: Omar Infante, Jose Iglesias, Ramon Santiago
Prospects: Hernan Perez, Dixon Machado, Eugenio Suarez, Devon Travis, Harold Castro
Iglesias was brought in to play short for the next five or six years, but second base is easily the position with the most drama. Infante is a free agent after this season, and he still has all the skills to deserve an extension. But, he'll be 32, and it's less of an imperative to sign him with a fixture at SS. An Infante extension would turn each middle infield prospect into trade bait or utility material, with the exception of Travis and Castro, who could easily hang around until after an extension expires.
Between Perez and Suarez, they shouldn't have any problem coming up with a backup to replace Santiago or injury fill-ins. There's enough talent to find at least one starter in the bunch, and even a pure SS like Machado could be an option now that SS is mostly occupied. Throw in Castro and Travis in the low minors, and this is probably the only place where the Tigers can operate from real depth anymore. Unfortunately, none of the options offer much upside beyond a league-average regular.
Third Base. Depth Grade: F
Incumbent: Miguel Cabrera
Prospects: Nick Castellanos (?), Francisco Martinez
It's a good thing Miguel Cabrera and Nick Castellanos could each hold down this position for the next couple years, because it's a wasteland beyond them. I still think Castellanos will play 3rd for the Tigers one day, but for right now, he's a left fielder, and beyond Cabrera, there is nothing. Certainly, Iglesias or another infielder might be able to pitch in in an emergency, but let's hope it never comes to that.
The total lack of 3Bs in the system was probably a catalyst towards the Tigers bringing back Francisco Martinez. Having bottomed out on Seattle's Double-A club, he's found some life in Lakeland, getting back to a .300 average. Unfortunately, he hasn't recovered any secondary skills, and any MLB projection at this point is a long shot at best.
Stay tuned for a look at the OF/DH spots, as well as the team's overall pitching depth.