Last year at this time, Endrys Briceno was the darling of the Tigers' farm system. A raw, wiry right-handed pitcher armed with a mid-90s fastball, Briceno was coming off the best season of his professional career. He logged over 100 innings and lowered his ERA to under 5.00 for the first time. He still displayed the same control issues that have plagued him throughout his five minor league seasons, but there were signs that he was ready to take the next step.
Instead, Briceno suffered an elbow injury and underwent Tommy John surgery. A once-promising season has turned into two lost years of development. The ill-timed injury may lead the Tigers to shuttle Briceno to the bullpen. While he still has the potential to be an impactful player, he would be a far less valuable piece than his current mid-rotation starter ceiling.
A rotation spot was never guaranteed to Briceno. Even prior to 2014, he was still a high-risk prospect who only struck out 65 batters in 116 2/3 innings in Single-A ball. He was far behind the development curve of his more experienced peers, but his upside was -- and still is -- higher than any pitcher in the system. The 2015 season won't tell us much, though. We will have to wait until 2016 to see what, if anything, Briceno truly has to offer.
The Tigers signed Briceno out of Venezuela as an amateur free agent in 2009. He spent two years pitching in the Venezuelan Summer League, where he allowed a combined 4.73 ERA and 1.54 WHIP in 78 innings. He came stateside in 2011, where he allowed a 5.34 ERA in 59 innings. He posted the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career, fanning 49 batters to 19 walks. In 2012 he moved up to short-season Connecticut; he struggled with his command, striking out 30 batters to just 22 walks.
Briceno finally got his first taste of full season ball in 2013. He worked a career-high 116 2/3 innings while lowering his ERA to 4.47. His strikeout-to-walk ratio did not improve from the season prior, but scouts note that Briceno showed significant improvements in his off-speed pitches. Jordan noted those improvements in last year's profile of Briceno, our #4 prospect in the Tigers system.
The change up is his go-to off-speed offering at present, and it's well ahead of the curveball right now. It has excellent arm speed, some arm side fade, and the velocity is a nice separation from the fastball, typically clocking in the low 80's. He can throw it for a strike, too, and if used effectively, could give both right and left handed hitters fits. The curveball is below average at this point, but from what I saw a few weeks ago, it's improving. Last year, he hardly ever threw it in games, but he spun off quite a few on the backfields.
Briceno's fastball had scouts going gaga before he succumbed to Tommy John surgery last season. His thin, six-foot four-inch frame and long arms give him a whip-like delivery that spurts out fastballs in the mid-90s with seemingly effortless movement. Jordan Gorosh gave the heater a 60 grade (with potential for more) in an early May viewing.
Fastball is free, easy, and loose. Has some arm-side wiggle and two-seam dart at times. Plenty of life, both up and down in the zone.
This isn't the first time Jordan has praised Briceno, though. He ranked Endrys as the #4 prospect in the farm system last year, behind only Nick Castellanos, Robbie Ray, and Jake Thompson. Here's more on Briceno's fastball.
He was really, really impressive. I'm going to rank him #4 in the system and have no regrets. Arm action is the best in the system, and some of the best I've seen. His FB was 92-94 miles per hour (T 95), but it's definitely not straight.
There are plenty of issues with Briceno's off-speed pitches, but they largely stem from a lack of consistency in all areas. Reports indicate that he has developed a good feel for his changeup, and it shows excellent fading action. If he puts everything together, it could be a true swing-and-miss weapon for him, especially against left-handers.
John Sickels of Minor League Ball wasn't buying in as hard on Briceno as others were last year, ranking him 18th in the Tigers' farm system. While he didn't necessarily throw a cold bucket of ice water on Briceno's prospect status, he had reasons to be suspicious.
Poor K/IP and H/IP ratios do not match reports of plus stuff. Certainly a high-ceiling arm, but either the numbers will improve to match the reports, or the reports will eventually weaken to match the numbers. Some sources are making a full-court press predicting a massive leap forward, others are less enthusiastic. It will be interesting to see who is right.
Briceno's command has been a problem throughout his career. He has walked 3.37 batters per nine innings, and scouting reports indicate that opposing batters have had no issues making solid contact against Briceno due to his inability to locate his pitches.
In particular, Briceno has had trouble showing consistency with his off-speed pitches. Both his changeup and curveball lag significantly behind his fastball, and he has had trouble throwing both for strikes. John Verburg of Motor City Bengals detailed more on Briceno's off-speed pitches after the 2011 season. While he has made plenty of progress in the meantime, a lot of this evaluation still rings true.
Briceno also throws a curve, and at times he shows some ability to spin it pretty well, however, he rarely threatens the strike zone with the pitch. It’s so inconsistent that hitters can literally ignore it as an option for Briceno, and focus in on his fastball.
His change up lags behind as well, and isn’t a usable pitch at this point.
Video via MLB Farm
Projected team: Gulf Coast League (GCL) Tigers
Unfortunately, Briceno will be spending most of his 2015 season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. If he gets any game action, it will likely be with the Gulf Coast League Tigers in Lakeland. The interesting thing to watch for will be how aggressively the Tigers promote him in 2016, and whether they use him as a starter or reliever. Before his injury, Briceno was a raw 22-year-old pitching in Advanced-A ball. In 2016, he could potentially be a similarly raw 24-year-old pitching in Advanced-A ball. He still has the potential to be a mid-rotation starter if everything clicks -- assuming there are no problems bouncing back from surgery, of course -- but the overall projection is far less rosy than it was at this time last year.
New addition: Shane Zeile, catcher
The nephew of former MLB catcher Todd Zeile, Shane possesses the requisite high baseball IQ of a player with his baseball bloodlines. He was drafted by the Tigers in the 5th round of the 2014 draft out of UCLA, where he only played catcher for two years. He is a raw product defensively, but possesses a solid line-drive swing in the batter's box. A poor offensive showing in the Gulf Coast League nonwithstanding, Zeile should spend most of 2015 in extended spring training honing his craft before he suits up for the Connecticut Tigers. He's a bit of a lottery ticket, but could turn into a solid big league catcher if any of his uncle's talent has rubbed off on him.