The Vanderbilt-to-Detroit connection runs deep. The Tigers have three former Vanderbilt players on their 40-man roster and have drafted eight Commodores since 2011. The pipeline makes sense; Vanderbilt is a powerhouse baseball school and has turned out some of the best talent in baseball over the past couple decades. Pedro Alvarez, Sonny Gray, and Tigers pitcher David Price all went to school there, as did 159 other current and former MLB players.
Tigers prospect Kevin Ziomek might not be Vanderbilt big leaguer number 163, but he will be knocking on the door soon. A dominant season at Single-A West Michigan vaulted him into the upper echelon of Tigers prospect rankings after just missing our top 10 last year. He doesn't have ace potential, but his high floor and advanced makeup make him the top pitcher on our countdown.
Ziomek is yet another product of the Vanderbilt-to-Detroit pipeline, and was the Tigers' second round pick in the 2013 draft. Originally from Springfield, Massachusetts, Ziomek was a third-team All-American in his senior season with the Commodores. He led the team with an 11-3 record and 2.12 ERA in 119 innings in 2012-13, but took a loss in the Super Regionals against Louisville.
After being drafted, Ziomek allowed five runs (four earned) in eight innings at short-season Connecticut. Four of those runs came in his final start. He also walked more batters than he struck out. His first year of full-season ball went much better, though. Ziomek was part of a dominant West Michigan Whitecaps rotation. He led all Whitecaps starters with a 2.27 ERA and 152 strikeouts in 123 innings. He had the highest walk rate in the rotation as well, at 3.88 batters per nine innings.
A three-year starter in the SEC, Ziomek is already a fairly polished pitcher. He features a solid four-pitch arsenal, a fastball, slider, curveball, and changeup. The fastball is his best pitch; it sits in the low 90s but he can run it up to 94 miles per hour when needed. His changeup is considered his best off-speed pitch, and MLB.com cites that it even flashes plus at times. His slider is also good when he keeps it tight, but like most young pitchers, Ziomek will tend to let it flatten out at times. The curveball is Ziomek's worst offering, and probably won't ever be much more than a "show me" pitch.
Ziomek has a funky delivery which results in him throwing across his body. The deception can be an asset, such as in 2014 when he allowed just 89 hits in 123 innings. His hit rate was the lowest on the team, and tied for eighth-lowest in the Midwest League. There is a certain level of expectations here -- as an experienced SEC starter, Ziomek should dominate Single-A ball. However, there is also something to be said for going out and meeting those expectations. Jonathon Crawford couldn't do it, and seems increasingly likely to end up in a bullpen somewhere.
Ziomek touched on one of his biggest weaknesses in an interview with Fangraphs in November.
On mechanical adjustments and not speeding up: "There’s been nothing crazy, just trying to keep things slow. I kind of have a tendency to rush through my delivery a little bit. Sometimes I get a little excited out there. Coach Henneman has pointed that out to me. I’ll be rushing, maybe in tighter situations or early in the game. I’ll be a little more jacked up, so we focus on me staying slow and keeping things simple.
Ziomek's delivery is a bit unconventional, as he throws from a three-quarters arm slot and lets the ball travel across his body. The funky delivery can be a weapon if he repeats it consistently, but it has resulted in a lack of command so far in his career. He walked 53 batters in 123 innings last year, nearly four per nine innings. He also saw a momentary dip in fastball velocity in 2013, but reports from 2014 indicate that he has those issues sorted out.
Ziomek's lofty rating in our countdown also belies his upside. Like Drew Smyly, there are questions as to whether Ziomek will be able to get right-handed hitters out at the MLB level. Smyly has dealt with those issues throughout his career, and it is something that Ziomek will likely run into at some point in the upper minors. Right-handed batters have hit .207/.300/.275 against him in his brief minor league career, but as we touched on above, Ziomek is the big kid on the playground right now. The 2015 season will give us a better look into whether this was just one dominant year at a lower level or if the Tigers really have something here.
Video via Jordan Gorosh and MLB Farm
Projected team: Erie SeaWolves
From the moment he was drafted, Ziomek has drawn comparisons to former Tigers left-hander Drew Smyly. From his delivery -- Ziomek has a lower arm slot and goes across his body a touch more -- to his arsenal and pedigree, Ziomek has the potential to be a solid back-end starter like Smyly. Given his stuff, he has a relatively high floor as an effective left-handed reliever. Many evaluators think that he will be pushed to Double A in 2015, reuniting him with pitching coach Mike Henneman. The organization's sink-or-swim mentality has paid off in the past, and a successful season in Erie could position Ziomek into the conversation for a starting role in 2016.
New addition: Grayson Greiner, catcher
A massive catcher out of South Carolina -- think Joe Mauer tall -- Greiner's defense is his calling card. Normally, six-foot-six catchers are moved to other positions, but Greiner displays solid athleticism and good receiving skils, leading many to believe he will stick at the position. He doesn't have the bat to play elsewhere at the moment, but he may yet add some power onto his massive frame. He has a long swing, but a good approach at the plate. The bat will determine how high Greiner's stock rises, but an .839 OPS in 104 plate appearances at West Michigan in 2014 is a good start.