The Tigers' farm system has taken a beating in the media this offseason. Already one of the thinner systems in the major leagues, the Tigers have traded away several valuable assets over the past 12 months. Robbie Ray, Jake Thompson, Corey Knebel, Jonathon Crawford, Eugenio Suarez, and Devon Travis were all ranked among our top 15 prospects last season. All six of them -- along with consensus top-100 prospect Willy Adames -- are now playing for other organizations. Suddenly devoid of its top talent, the Tigers' minor league contingent has been ranked dead last by just about every prospect analyst in the business.
While the Tigers will likely never make it to the top of anyone's farm system rankings during Dave Dombrowski's tenure as general manager, the building blocks are in place to replenish the lower levels. Derek Hill is a high-ceiling talent that was selected in last season's draft. The club has two of the top 34 picks in the draft in 2015. Supplementing that high round talent are some interesting prospects taken in the last couple drafts, many of which are already populating our top prospect countdown. One such player is Joey Pankake, a third baseman who has drawn positive reviews for his hitting ability. Pankake easily has the #1 ranked name in the system, and his talents still merit a top-20 ranking on our countdown.
The Tigers drafted Pankake out of the University of South Carolina in the seventh round of last year's amateur draft. Pankake appeared in 64 games for the Connecticut Tigers of the New York-Penn League, hitting .292/.345/.400 with 20 extra base hits in 267 plate appearances. He showed a good eye at the plate, walking 22 times. However, he more than doubled his strikeout rate from his college days, fanning 44 times. He appeared at both shortstop and third base, but his future appears to be at the hot corner (if not in the outfield).
Pankake was a three-year starter for the Gamecocks, collecting 204 hits in 186 career games. He hit .292/.378/.431 with 18 home runs and 100 RBI in 819 plate appearances, and held a batting average above .300 during his sophomore and junior seasons. Pankake played shortstop for his first two years at South Carolina, but moved to third base during the 2013-14 season where he became an All-SEC defender.
Pankake is considered a bat-first prospect who will rise as far as his offensive profile will take him. He is a right-handed hitter with a penchant for making solid line-drive contact thanks to above average bat speed. He also possesses decent pop that could push beyond what is typically described as "gap power." Pankake didn't hit a ton of home runs in college, but he was still able to hit nearly .300 with a .139 ISO in a depressed offensive environment. He picked up 20 extra-base hits in 267 plate appearances in his pro debut last season, a solid 7.5 percent extra base hit rate.
A safe college pick with average tools. He can run a little. He's a solid hitter and can hit for some power but won't be a star. He has a big arm though. Integral on some of the best college teams in recent memory and could outplay his tools.
Defensively, Pankake is a bit of a mystery. His hands and footwork are question marks, but he has the arm to play any position on the diamond. The Texas Rangers originally drafted Pankake as a pitcher in 2011, and he can reportedly hit as high as 94 miles per hour on the radar gun. While the Tigers don't seem inclined to use Pankake on the mound anytime soon, he should be able to put his above average arm strength to good use in the field.
Part of the reason for the discrepancy in Pankake's above ranking and his actual draft position (he was the 220th overall pick) could be a relative lack of recognition. Perfect Game notes that Pankake didn't participate in the Cape Cod League or any of the pre-draft showcases that promising college players take part in the year before they are draft-eligible. Garrioch's ranking is also higher than any other I have seen, and the designation of a "safe pick" doesn't always sit well with organization's looking to swing for the fences (no pun intended) early on.
As for Pankake's actual future, Prospect Digest's Joseph Werner isn't too optimistic that we will ever see much out of the 22-year-old infielder.
Pankake falls into same category as so many of his counterparts – a potential fringe everyday player. The power/plate discipline/hit tools are decent, average at best. He’s likely going to wind up as a solid role player down the road.
Pankake's defensive profile won't stop him from moving through the ranks if he hits well, but finding him a position might not be easy. He moved from shortstop to third base in college, and also played a few games in left field for the Gamecocks last season. While he received all-conference accolades at third base, there were questions surrounding his ability to stick at the hot corner at the professional level. Some scouts have suggested that he could move to second base -- his lateral quickness and hands will be scrutinized there as well -- or into the outfield.
Projected team: West Michigan Whitecaps
After putting up solid numbers at short-season Connecticut last year, Pankake will most likely be sent to West Michigan to start the 2015 season. This should represent a stern test for the 22-year-old right-hander, as he will be facing advanced college arms in a very pitcher-friendly environment. Full season ball at this level isn't necessarily a perfect barometer for future success, but an above average offensive output from him would be a great sign. Keep an eye on where he plays defensively, but ignore the error numbers. I'm interested to see if the Tigers try him at both second and third base, and how comfortable he looks at both positions.