In order to beat the ticking clock within the minor league system, major league organizations have come to realize that youth stands as vital an ingredient to success as potential talent in a signee. For the Detroit Tigers, tapping into their international recruiting repertoire proved to pay off after stumbling across 16-year-old Australian shortstop Zach Shepherd.
Although first signed in 2012, Shepherd didn't officially begin his run in the states until 2014, receiving assignment to the Gulf Coast League. Aside from the cultural adjustments for the Sydney native, Shepherd also was faced with adjusting to a schedule expansion from his usual 48-game season with his hometown Sydney Blue Sox.
In his American debut, Shepherd closed the 51-game season hitting .301/.373/.497 with 12 doubles, 29 RBI, a 10.4 percent walk rate and a 21.9 percent strikeout rate, dropping several points from his strikeout rate during the 2013-2014 season in Australia.
Entering the 2015 season, Shepherd got his first taste of full-season ball, producing more than twice as many plate appearances compared to the previous year. While he saw a notable boost in his counting stats, the promotion forced a slight offensive decline, finishing at .245/.327/.339 with a 26.4 percent strikeout rate.
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Shepherd's weigh-in of 185 pounds appears a bit deceptive in his lanky 6'3 frame, but consistent contact has given scouts plenty of reason to anticipate continued development as he continues to fill out his 20-year-old build. Sydney Blue Sox manager, and one of Shepherd's mentors, Jason Pospishil, recalled his first observation of Shepherd in action.
"The first time I saw him was as a 14-year-old during a Baseball NSW (New South Wales) workout and just seeing his ball flight during batting practice made me realize he was going to be prospect at some stage."
Gaining his footing in an Australian league that houses players ranging in age from 17-years-old all the way to age 46 (Former major leaguer Dae Sung Koo), Shepherd's batting stance embodies a tendency to lean a bit inside with his upper half, combining with quick hands and highly impressive bat speed for someone who kept his head above water in the Midwest League as a 19-year-old.
Although his OPS dipped to .667 in 2015, a quick, short one-piece fluid swing produces an innate ability to deliver to all sides, landing him in the top-five for the Whitecaps in runs (48), hits (94), doubles (7), homeruns (5) and RBI (51). Ben Badler of Baseball America stands as one more firm believer that experience should ultimately be able to pull out what the Tigers have seen from the beginning.
"The performance record from last year might not jump out, but he has solid tools across the board with good bat speed, solid-average raw power and the ability to use the whole field. He was a shortstop before he signed and he looks like he's still getting the hang of third base, but the hands, athleticism and arm strength are all there for him to stay at the position with more experience."
Maturity aside, scouts appear to share a mutual concern regarding Shepherd's ability to adapt to the defensive requirements needed to advance within the Tigers system. During his 2015 114-game stretch, the former shortstop led the Whitecaps with 17 errors, up from his 12 committed during his debut in the Gulf Coast League.
While Shepherd's instincts are an obvious plus, below-average arm strength leaves his ability to play third base at higher levels in question. TigsTown's John Moore chimed in, noting "bad lateral movements and average arm strength, profiling as more of a corner outfielder long term."
Once again, youth will play a major factor in the future of Shepherd's defensive positioning. Receiving a 30-grade in defense and a 40-grade arm from TigsTown, the chatter of possibly moving the 20-year-old to the outfield corner will depend heavily on the development that has yet to surface in highly intelligent Aussie. Despite the below average grade scale from the defensive perspective, Shepherd's proven ability to adapt to his surroundings will be the tell-tale sign surrounding the righthander's ability to advance.
Amidst the less than favorable defensive evaluation from most, John Sickels of Minor League Ball hasn't quite lost hope in the projection of Shepherd's future.
"Numbers aren't much yet but he scouts well and held his own considering inexperience, very good glove at third base, 6-3, 185 body is still projectable and could grow into significant power. I think he's a breakout candidate."
Evaluation: Dan Farnsworth, Fangraphs
"Shepherd is an Australian kid who had a respectable 2015 season as a 19-year-old in A-ball. He looks good at third base with a solid-average arm and good hands. Not showing much consistent power yet, he shows the ability to lift the ball and has enough projection in strength to see him developing power in the future. Tigers officials are confident in his future hitting ability, and also praised him for being a very hard-working player with a quiet confidence about him. His strikeout rate was high last year, but with a reputation for having an advanced approach at the plate, it may have been just a matter of seeing that competition level for the first time."
Projected team: Advanced-A Lakeland
While Shepherd's defensive position remains in question, an ability to produce a stream of line drives could evolve into clearing the fence down the line in Lakeland as his body continues to develop. Following his run with West Michigan, it's lost on no one that Shepherd understands what's expected for him. He has the tools to be a run-producing bat down the road. The heavy question mark will lie in where he lands in the field higher up the ladder and ultimately what affect the move will take on his overall performance within the Tigers organization.
Note: We're changing up our prospect coverage a bit this year. Instead of an "official" ranking of the best prospects in the system, we're going to profile those that are most interesting to us (and you too, hopefully). Don't worry, no one has been fired, and daily recaps will still happen during the season. We appreciate any constructive feedback you offer, and we'll take your prospect suggestions into account as well.