A lot of people were surprised when the Tigers selected high school outfielder Derek Hill in the first round of the 2014 draft. Known for spending most of their high draft picks on experienced college pitchers, the toolsy prep center fielder was a bit of a deviation from their normal style. This isn't the first time they had done so in the David Chadd era -- Rick Porcello, Jacob Turner, and Nick Castellanos are previous examples -- but the move still got some buzz and praise from analysts all around the country.
With their second pick, the Tigers returned to their comfort zone. Big, burly right-hander Spencer Turnbull was available, and the Tigers locked him up with the 63rd overall pick. Alabama's Friday night starter in 2014, Turnbull didn't get much of a chance to show off his stuff at the professional level due to an innings limit. The Tigers will likely turn him loose in 2015, and the Mississippi native could move quickly through the system. A nasty fastball-slider combination gives him bullpen potential if all goes wrong, but his excellent stamina and developing changeup should ensure he appears in a big league rotation at some point early in his career.
Turnbull was drafted in the second round by the Tigers in 2014. He made one start in the Gulf Coast League after signing, then pitched 28 1/3 innings for the Connecticut Tigers in the New York-Penn League. The team had him on an innings limit -- something commonly seen with pitchers the year they are drafted -- so Turnbull only pitched 28 1/3 innings in 11 starts in Connecticut. Turnbull allowed 49 baserunners in 31 1/3 total innings last season and finished the year with a 1.53 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
In college, Turnbull was Alabama's Friday night starter, or ace. He logged 93 1/3 innings for the Crimson Tide in 2014, allowing a 2.22 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. His strikeout totals were not very impressive for a pitcher who can touch 95 miles per hour with regularity, and he continued to demonstrate a high walk rate that plagued him throughout his three years in Tuscaloosa.
Bleacher Report's Adam Wells credited Alabama's coaching staff for refining Turnbull's delivery, which helped him go from undrafted out of high school to a second round pick.
Turnbull looks the part of a starting pitcher who can throw 180 innings per season; 6'3", 195 pounds and can hold a little more meat on his body; delivery is much easier now than it was before, when the release point was all over the place and the ball sailed on him.
Armed with a mid-90s fastball and power slider, Turnbull is probably closer to a top 10 prospect than our community rankings suggest. TigsTown has him ranked sixth on their list, Baseball Prospectus has him seventh, and MLB.com ranked him eighth. John Sickels of Minor League Ball is not sharing the love, neglecting to include him in his top 20. MLB.com details the strength of Turnbull's arsenal: the fastball and slider.
After peaking at 94 mph with his fastball in 2013, Turnbull now works at 92-94 and tops out at 98. The life on his fastball also has gotten better, and he uses his size and high-three-quarters delivery to throw it on a downhill plane. His slider has taken a step forward as well and shows signs of becoming a plus pitch.
While the pair of potential plus pitches did not result in a ton of strikeouts at any level he pitched at, Turnbull did induce a ton of weak contact during his brief stint in pro ball. MLB Farm credited him for 38 ground ball outs to 11 flyouts in 2014.
This batted ball distribution also helps explain Turnbull's low home run totals, which should continue if he can keep the ball down in the strike zone.
Turnbull's size is also a plus. As a big-bodied pitcher, he can withstand a starter's heavy workload at the MLB level. He demonstrates a fair amount of effort in his delivery in the video below, but reports -- including Turnbull himself ($) -- suggest that he is able to maintain his velocity deep into starts. You will hear the word "workhorse" thrown around as he moves closer to the majors, and the description fits. While he may not profile as a top-of-the-rotation starter, he should be able to capably eat innings in the back of an MLB rotation.
The one thing that may keep Turnbull from starting at the major league level is his limited arsenal. Both the fastball and slider project to be plus pitches if everything goes well, but his changeup lacks significantly behind. MLB.com called his changeup an "average" pitch in the making, but other reports are not so kind. Baseball Prospectus even hinted that Turnbull does not maintain his arm speed when throwing the changeup, a dead giveaway that advanced hitters will easily pick up on. If he fails to develop that third offering, a move to the bullpen may soon be in his future.
Turnbull's command is also an issue. He walked 4.5 batters per nine innings in college last season and wasn't much better in a limited stint in professional ball. As an aggressive pitcher who likes to attack, that walk total is far too high and indicates that he has moments where he's not sure where the ball is going. Inconsistencies with his secondary pitches feed into this wildness, but his fastball command is also lacking. His heater could be a true weapon if his command were more refined, as it has a fair amount of life and can result in a lot of weak contact. He has the stuff to be effective in the strike zone, so any improvements should be reflected in his overall numbers.
Projected team: West Michigan Whitecaps
Turnbull is the kind of pitcher that could move quickly through the farm system, but the Tigers have almost always sent their young starters to West Michigan for their first taste of full season ball. As an experienced pitcher from a big-time college program, Turnbull should be able to put up some excellent numbers at this level a la Kevin Ziomek, Austin Kubitza, and Buck Farmer did a year ago. While Turnbull will be putting in plenty of work to develop his secondary pitches, a season without a low ERA and gaudy strikeout totals will be seen as a disappointment. Turnbull likely won't be in the mix to break into the rotation next season, but he could be knocking on the door soon after.
New addition: Steven Fuentes, third baseman
Fuentes is a 20-year-old who broke out at the plate last season, hitting .295/.356/.475 in 222 plate appearances in the New York-Penn League last season. This caught the eye of John Sickels, who ranked him the Tigers' 13th best prospect on his top 20 rankings at Minor League Ball. A great athlete who tapped into some of his considerable potential last year, Fuentes is a bit of a lottery ticket. He won't be on the Tigers' radar for a long time, but another big season could see him rocket up the organizational rankings in 2016.