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Mailbag: Looking for potential sleeper Tigers prospects

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We all know about Michael Fulmer and the other top prospects, but the Tigers may have a few diamonds in the rough.

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

While recording this week's podcast, HookSlide and I had a revelation of sorts: the Tigers have prospects now. Sure, the majority of our conversation still centered around the major league team -- one we think is being underrated by the national media, at that -- looking at the farm system with hope in our voices was refreshing.

Granted, the Tigers' farm system isn't exactly flush with blue chips. ESPN's Keith Law and Baseball America both ranked the Tigers as the fifth-worst system in baseball, showing they have a long way to go before their system garners the type of respect big money teams like the Red Sox and Dodgers are currently receiving.

The Tigers may never spend Dodger-like money in the international market, putting more stress on their ability to draft and develop major league talent. They are off to a solid start with their 2015 draft class, which includes players like Beau Burrows, Christin Stewart, and A.J. Simcox who have drawn praise from scouts after solid professional debuts.

Fortunately, there are a few other names who could be on the radar soon.

Prospects like Michael Gerber, Christin Stewart, and Joe Jimenez gained a bit of notoriety during their playoff run with Single-A West Michigan, but teammate A.J. Simcox is one player to keep an eye on. A shortstop from the University of Tennessee, Simcox received a large signing bonus from the Tigers after they missed out on signing seventh round pick Nick Shumpert. Simcox has the chops to stay at short as a professional, and scouts noted a change in his swing that helped him get to the ball quicker. He doesn't have much power to his game at the moment, but could develop a bit of pop as he matures.

Many draft pundits were shocked when the Tigers grabbed lefthander Tyler Alexander in the second round of last year's draft, and for good reason. His game is more smarts than substance, as his fastball often doesn't even scrape 90 miles per hour. Most college pitchers handle the New York-Penn League with relative ease, but Alexander dominated.

IP ERA WHIP BB/9 SO/9 SO/BB
37.0 0.97 0.60 1.2 8.0 6.60

Those numbers are ridiculous, even for someone out of a major college program. Alexander is a candidate to jump multiple levels in 2016, and his advanced arsenal and command will likely lead to more double-takes when browsing his stat line. He's a back end starter at best, but one that could move very quickly.

Move any lower than that in the system and it's all guesswork. Infielder Anthony Pereira and outfielder Julio Martinez headline a group of unheralded international signees that could make some noise, but Martinez has yet to play stateside. I'm partial to Jose Azocar, a rangy center fielder who did a bit of damage in the Gulf Coast League last season, while TigsTown's Mark Anderson used the words "prodigious raw power" when describing third baseman Randel Alcantara. None of these teenagers will move all that quickly, but they may earn a nod on someone's prospect rankings in a year or two.

Sean Nolin is no longer a prospect -- he's 26 and burned his rookie eligibility in 2015 -- but many are surprised that he was designated for assignment on Friday. One of the pieces that came to Oakland in the Josh Donaldson trade last winter, Nolin had some solid minor league numbers before struggling in 29 major league innings last year. He doesn't throw all that hard, though, and his strikeout rate declined in the upper minors.

Nolin was expected to be a decent back-end starter for the A's when he was acquired, but that appears to be his ceiling. The Tigers were comfortable enough with their pitching depth to release Kyle Lobstein earlier this offseason, so it doesn't seem like they will be involved in the Nolin sweepstakes. Even if he does get picked up, he takes up a spot on the 40-man roster and joins the rotation logjam at Triple-A Toledo. I'm ambivalent on this one.

Let's do some basic math first. The Tigers will have seven relievers on their Opening Day roster, and five of them are locks.

RHP Francisco Rodriguez
RHP Mark Lowe
LHP Justin Wilson
RHP Alex Wilson
LHP Blaine Hardy

That leaves two spots open, neither of which has to be a lefty. Drew VerHagen seems like a frontrunner for one of those spots given how he finished 2015, but everything will be up for grabs in spring training. We haven't heard much from Bruce Rondon after the team announced he was afflicted with the Chikungunya virus, and he still may be working his way back into the team's good graces. We could see one or both of them head north with the team, though I imagine both will wear out a path between Detroit and Toledo throughout the season.

Then there are the starters. Matt Boyd seems like he's on the outside looking in. Kyle Ryan and Buck Farmer don't appear long for the rotation with the recent influx in talent. Michael Fulmer is major league ready according to every scout on the planet. Any one of them could be in the mix, but forgotten man Shane Greene is the most likely to Drew Smyly his way onto the roster with a dominant spring. Greene has been largely ignored this offseason after having arterial surgery in August, but he started throwing in early November and hasn't reported any setbacks. The Tigers may limit his innings anyway, so it's a natural fit if he returns to form.

I don't know that the Tigers were particularly disappointed with anyone's play so much as they simply needed to reacquire some middle infield depth. Over the past two years, the Tigers have seen Devon Travis, Eugenio Suarez, Domingo Leyba, Javier Betancourt, Hernan Perez, and Willy Adames depart the organization in some fashion.

And those are just the prospects. Veterans like Ramon Santiago, Don Kelly, and Danny Worth are also gone. When the dust settled, Dixon Machado was the only man left standing. The Tigers are signing veteran retreads like Josh Wilson and Alexi Casilla out of necessity; Wilson just saw a lot of playing time in 2015 because of injuries. New additions for 2016 include Thomas Field and the prospect-ish Kody Eaves, a potential utility infielder from the Angels organization.