Two weeks ago, it looked like Bryan Holaday's season was over. A collision at home plate with Atlanta Braves prospect Mallex Smith on August 17 left Holaday with an injured left thumb, though it was initially unclear whether the injury was a fracture or dislocation. Multiple outlets reported that Holaday would likely miss the rest of the season, ruining an all-but-official September call-up and potential audition for the backup catcher job in 2016.
Instead, Holaday's injury turned out to be a mild dislocation. He was activated from the disabled list nine days later and has played in three games since, with five hits in 10 plate appearances. These hitting streaks have been few and far between for the 27-year-old Texan, though. Holaday is batting just .229/.276/.322 with three home runs in 223 plate appearances for Triple-A Toledo this season, a much larger sample than his productive 16-game stint with the Tigers when Alex Avila went on the DL with a knee injury. He has a .562 OPS in 109 plate appearances since being demoted to the minors, though his July and August splits are as severe as you will ever see. Holaday is hitting .289/.349/.368 since August 1.
The poor offensive numbers won't have any bearing on Holaday's pending call-up, but they could impact his job prospects in 2016. With Avila heading for free agency, the Tigers have a big decision to make behind the dish. James McCann has handled himself capably in 90 games (and counting) already this season, and will probably handle a similar share of the workload in 2016. He can't play 162 games, though. Do the Tigers give Holaday the backup role again -- he was worth -0.2 WAR while performing those duties in 2014 -- or opt for a veteran counterpart for McCann? Depending on how much playing time he gets down the stretch, Holaday may be able to sway the verdict before the season is over.
Double-A Erie: Dominic Ficociello, 1B
Switch-hitting first baseman Dominic Ficociello isn't in the least enviable position in baseball, but he has to be close. With eventual Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera entrenched as the Tigers' first baseman for the next decade, Ficociello doesn't have much upward mobility at present. The University of Arkansas product has played a handful of games elsewhere on the diamond in previous seasons, but has been at first base or in the designated hitter slot for all 120 games he has played in 2015. Clearly, the team sees him as such going forward.
There's a reason we're having this conversation, though. After a nondescript 2014 season at Single-A West Michigan, Ficociello has taken a step forward in 2015. He hit .297/.364/.401 with 21 extra base hits in 365 plate appearances for offensively starved Advanced-A Lakeland before a midseason promotion to Double-A Erie. Since arriving in Pennsylvania, Ficociello has hit .300/.328/.485 in 35 games. His walk rate has taken a nosedive at the Double-A level, but everything else (aside from a .367 BABIP) seems to pass the sniff test in 137 plate appearances for the SeaWolves.
It's going to take a bit more power for Ficociello to prove he's more than organizational depth, though. A solid athlete who projects to be an excellent defender at first base, the 23-year-old Ficociello is still filling out his 6'4" frame. He only has five home runs this season, a very low total from a defensive position that demands above average offensive production. If he begins to tap into more of his raw power at the plate, he may ultimately force a trade to a club in greater need of a player with his skill set.
Photo Credit: Emily Waldon / Bless You Boys
Advanced-A Lakeland: Javier Betancourt, 2B
A flurry of trades over the past year depleted the Tigers' modest middle infield depth in the minor leagues, with shortstop Dixon Machado and Javier Betancourt the lone survivors. The 20-year-old Betancourt is the nephew of former New York Mets infielder Edgardo Alfonzo, and scouts have raved over the young infielder's "feel" for the game. Listed at a generous six feet tall and weighing 180 pounds, Betancourt fits the old school mold of what a middle infielder should look like. However, he has below average power compared to today's second basemen, and will have to maintain a high batting average if he is to be a productive hitter.
Betancourt's .264 batting average and .306 on-base percentage look ugly on the surface, but a bit of context hints that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. At 20 years old, Betancourt is one of the younger players in the Florida State League. He has just five plate appearances against pitchers younger than he is this season, and his .648 OPS is actually good enough for a 97 wRC+ in the pitcher-friendly FSL. Not only that, but he has upped his walk rate and cut his strikeout rate from 2014, when he put up similar numbers as one of the youngest players in the Single-A Midwest League.
Short-season Connecticut: Tyler Alexander, LHP
A lot of people scoffed when the Tigers selected left-handed pitcher Tyler Alexander with the 65th overall pick in the 2015 MLB draft. Alexander, a pitcher whose fastball tops out around 92 miles per hour, isn't going to wow you with his stuff. However, he has excellent command of three pitches already, a stark contrast from most of the pitchers the Tigers have drafted in recent years. There's something they really like about Alexander, though, as they also selected him out of high school in the 23rd round of the 2013 MLB draft.
Alexander is off to a blazing start in the minors so far, allowing just five runs (three earned) in 34 innings at short-season Connecticut. He has 30 strikeouts to five walks and is allowing 0.53 baserunners per inning. Don't let the dominant numbers fool you, though. A two-year starter at Texas Christian University, Alexander faced some advanced competition in his college days. He should be dominating short season ball, though maybe not quite to this extent.
The good news is that the sexy numbers should continue. Strike-throwing lefties often blaze through the minors only to meet resistance once they reach Double or Triple-A, where hitters finally start to recognize offspeed pitches with some regularity. Depending on how the Tigers view Alexander long-term, we could see him as early as late 2017 if he continues to develop his arsenal.