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FanGraphs ranks Matt Manning, Christin Stewart among Tigers top prospects

With the slow part of winter comes new prospect ratings, and FanGraphs has released theirs for the Detroit Tigers.

Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

We’re almost three months into the offseason, and fans are getting antsy. Not only has this been a very slow winter for the Detroit Tigers, it has been an unexciting winter game-wide. Outside of the MLB Winter Meetings themselves — in which two White Sox players, ace Chris Sale and notorious Tiger killer Adam Eaton, were traded — there hasn’t been much to write home about.

That makes now the perfect time to talk about prospects.

Fortunately for us, FanGraphs lead prospect writer, Eric Longenhagen, has aided in that conversation. He released his Top 19 Tigers’ Prospects list on Friday. While the list may not be as controversial as the one released by Baseball America in early November, there are a few surprising tidbits that can be found if one sifts though this list of names and scouting reports.

#1 Matt Manning

There are no surprises atop FanGraphs list of Tigers’ prospects. Matt Manning, Detroit’s first round pick in 2016, heads the crop as expected. The hard-throwing righthander’s fastball is already a pitch that projects to be plus, if not elite, in time. However, the more interesting parts of Longenhagen’s report refer to his breaking and offspeed pitches and their projection.

The curveball (genus: curveball, species: knuckle) is average, flashing above with inconsistent bite and depth. It’s raw and often slurvy but promising and, if you’re as liberal about its projection because of Manning’s athleticism and two-sport background as I am, you could argue it has a chance to be plus.

Manning doesn’t have the insane arm speed and explosive arm action associated with big changeup projection, but he has some feel for its release and armside location. It should be average with reps.

#4 Tyler Alexander

One of more interesting rankings is that of former TCU lefthander, Tyler Alexander. The Tigers pursued Alexander for a while, originally drafting him out of high school in 2013, before finally landing him in the third round of the 2015 draft. Many experts called it at a reach at the time, but Alexander has progressed well over the past year. While Alexander destroyed opposing batters in High-A and a limited stint in Double-A, he is likely to start the season with Erie again in the spring.

Interestingly, while Longenhagen grades Alexander’s tools as MLB average right now, he is not yet likely to spend any significant amount of time as a Tiger in 2017. That is because he still lacks a plus pitch to lean on, and his control/command is also only average. He will need either a pitch with better bite or develop sharper control. Fortunately for Tigers fans, Longenhagen projects his changeup to become above average and improvement in his control to an eventual plus status.

Alexander squeezes the most out of this stuff by consistently finding the strike zone. Alexander went four months without walking multiple hitters in a given start this past year and walked just one hitter over his first five starts at Double-A. It’s more control than command at this point, but the strike-throwing ability to work efficiently and eat innings as a back-end starter is clearly here. His delivery is safe-looking, he loads his arm early and has a clean, non-violent arm swing which he repeats well.

I think Alexander has a shot to become a No. 4 or 5 starter with a large portion of that value coming from his ability to work efficiently and eat innings.

#6 Joe Jimenez

Perhaps the most noteworthy ranking is that of relief ace, Joe Jimenez. In their rankings last month, Baseball America excluded him entirely after slotting him seventh prior to the 2016 season. This was in spite of an absolutely dominant season that saw Jimenez leap from High-A Lakeland all the way to Triple-A Toledo. It’s reassuring to see FanGraphs take a more sanguine view of Jimenez’ future.

While seemingly everyone agrees that Jimenez’s fastball velocity and movement will play well in the majors, the main disagreement from Baseball America’s rankings concerned Jimenez’ slider. Longenhagen’s report is far more positive on the breaking ball.

...Jimenez has been sitting 94-97 and touching as high as 100 with a plus-flashing, mid-80s two-plane slider that arguably plays up due to the deception and huge extension in his delivery. This two-pitch combination allowed Jimenez to dominate High-A early this year. He allowed just five hits over 17 innings there before moving up to Double-A, where his stuff allowed him to deal with mid-year strike-throwing issues. Jimenez was a late addition to the Futures Game, where he threw just three pitches, and finished his year at Triple-A, mostly sitting 94-96 by then with more control than command.

#11 JaCoby Jones

Little has changed for the Tigers heir apparent in center field over the past year. Jones put in a solid showing in the Arizona Fall League, impressing many with his speed. However, he still profiles as a hitter unlikely to ever be a starting major league player due to the extreme swing and miss in his game. The one piece of encouraging news is that Jones appeared average in center field. He’s still new to regularly playing the position, so it’s notable that he seems capable already.

I was down on Jones after his 2015 Fall League performance. Detroit acquired him from Pittsburgh in exchange for Joakim Soria that summer. He was a 40 runner all fall, was striking out heavily, and looked bad at both shortstop and third base.

Jones was better this fall than last. His raw power was more apparent, he was posting 55/60 run times to first base and he looked average in center field.

Other Notes

While lists of the Tigers’ top prospects in the recent past have been similar in two ways — they’re rather thin overall, and are populated by little more than hard-throwing righties — this one has a little more depth and diversity. One of the more intriguing prospect grades that was doled out was that given to Jose Azocar, an outfielder. He has plus speed, and is a solid defender who uses his speed well. While most of the reports on Azocar mention his solid arm, FanGraphs is far more bullish than most, grading out with a plus-plus grade at present. His offensive grades aren’t as flattering, though, with evaluators holding to the belief that he will never have much in-game power.

Another interesting international prospect is 20-year-old infielder Hector Martinez. Martinez is one of the pricier international free agents the Tigers have signed in recent years, committing a $400,000 bonus to him. He projects to be a fine defender at second base, and has the raw strength and frame projection to promise some future power. The questions revolve around whether his hit tool will develop enough to allow him to tap into that power at higher levels of competition.

Finally, the report had some interesting things to say about right-handed pitcher Spencer Turnbull. While he is starting in the minors for now, the evaluators from FanGraphs see a career in the bullpen. That is mostly due to a lack of command, which limits his upside as a starter. He is a high-velocity pitcher that also showcases three soft pitches: a slider, a curve, and a changeup. “The best of these,” says FanGraphs, “is a mid-80s slider, cutter-like at times, that could be plus at higher velocity levels in short stints.” The other offerings are are below average, and are stunted by his iffy control and arm action.

The full list:

  1. Matt Manning, RHP
  2. Christin Stewart, OF
  3. Beau Burrows, RHP
  4. Tyler Alexander, LHP
  5. Michael Gerber, OF
  6. Joe Jimenez, RHP
  7. Dixon Machado, SS
  8. Derek Hill, OF
  9. Jose Azocar, OF
  10. Kyle Funkhouser, RHP
  11. JaCoby Jones, OF
  12. Adam Ravenelle, RHP
  13. Gerson Moreno, RHP
  14. Sandy Baez, RHP
  15. Hector Martinez, SS
  16. Arvicent Perez, C
  17. Kevin Ziomek, LHP
  18. Spencer Turnbull, RHP
  19. A.J. Simcox, SS