Entering this season, the annoyingly capitalized but highly talented shortstop/third baseman/center fielder JaCoby Jones was in the middle of a 50-game suspension for a failed drug test. Perhaps fortunately, the test was for a "drug of abuse," which means he wasn't taking PEDs. Jones was on the Restricted List until May 18, and he had plenty of time to gather rust.
If anyone was concerned about that, they weren't for long. In his season debut in Double-A Erie, he went 2-for-4 with a double, a stolen base, and no strikeouts. He continued to impress with the SeaWolves, putting together a respectable .310 batting average, a .393 on-base percentage, and .597 slugging average over 20 games. That was enough to earn him a well-deserved promotion to Triple-A Toledo, where he continued to tear the cover off the ball. Through his first 12 games, Jones hit .333/.380/.600 with six extra base hits in 45 at-bats.
That's when things started to go wrong. Over his last 20 games, Jones' bat has absolutely wilted. He has accumulated only 11 hits through 77 at-bats, and has not homered since June 16. As if that wasn't bad enough, he has drawn only three walks over that span, and has struck out 28 times. This awful performance has lowered his Triple-A numbers to unacceptably low levels, putting his average, on-base percentage and OPS at .213, .269, and .638 respectively.
Coming to Detroit, Jones was advertised as a highly versatile power-speed guy with the skills to become a sort of Ben Zobrist-lite. Jones has demonstrated the versatility and speed well, playing at shortstop and center field this year. He also showed off his power early in the season before this most recent swoon. If he can get himself together and put all the pieces together, has has a chance to be a solid contributor. Not a bad return for a reliever, I'd say.
Double-A Erie: Wynton Bernard, OF
There is no one I feel more sorry for in the entire organization than Wynton Bernard. He was drafted in the 35th round by the San Diego Padres, but was released by the Pittsburgh Pirates after knocking around the low minors for a while in multiple organizations. Despite this, he clawed his way up to Triple-A in the Tigers organization and a call-up seemed to be in his near future, possibly out of spring training. Unfortunately, he didn't perform well enough during the spring, and has simply floundered in the minors this year. He was demoted to Double-A Erie when Jones was promoted to Triple-A in early June.
After his demotion, Bernard struggled at first. He hit .091 through his first six games, just two hits in 22 at-bats. The casual observer might think that the disappointment simply broke him. However, things seem to have clicked again. In his last 19 games, Bernard is hitting a robust .321/.384/.462.
His approach at the plate has improved too. In Triple-A, Bernard struck out 30 times to just 10 walks in 163 plate appearances. Since arriving in Erie he has taken walks at a much higher rate. He has 11 walks in 113 plate appearances with the SeaWolves thus far, a 9.7 percent rate. He has also cut his strikeout rate, fanning just 15 times in 25 games. While the demotion does represent a drop-off in competition, Bernard's quick rebound is encouraging.
Advanced-A Lakeland: Tyler Alexander, LHP
After a fairly standard first round in the 2015 draft, the Tigers "took a surprising turn" with their second round pick, taking Tyler Alexander from Texas Christian University. He had a dominant first year as a professional, and skipped Low-A West Michigan altogether, instead starting the 2016 season with the Lakeland Flying Tigers. That was a good move, as he has thrived there, pitching well over 11 starts.
Alexander's type -- a pitcher with plus command but middling stuff -- is known for taking the low minors by storm, and Alexander himself is no exception. His fastball probably would not inspire fear in the heart of a wet paper bag, and yet he gets strikeouts, compiles wins, and often shuts down the opposition. He has not met his crucible yet.
At least, it appears that way. In 84 1/3 innings, Alexander has pitched to the tune of an incredible 2.24 ERA and 1.04 WHIP, and this certainly hasn't been sheer luck. He has allowed only 14 walks and six home runs this season, and is striking out over seven batters per nine innings. Long term, Alexander's stuff limits him to a ceiling of a No. 4 starter in the rotation at best, but he projects to get there quickly. And that's if everything breaks right. For now, however, let's just enjoy his relative greatness.
Single-A West Michigan: Jose Azocar, OF
Azocar, a Venezuelan center fielder, entered last season as an unknown, but he exited as a good sleeper prospect, cracking Rob's exclusive Top-5 Tigers sleepers list entering this one. He is a veritable tool-chest, displaying an ability to spray hits to all fields with consistency. He also has plus speed, and is a solid defender who uses his speed well. He struggled at the plate last year, but this year has been a different story. Through 81 games, he has batted a clean .312, legging out nine doubles and an impressive five triples.
However, he has displayed almost no ability to take walks. His .347 on-base percentage is solid, but almost entirely driven by his high batting average. He will need to up his walk rate while cutting his strikeouts a bit, though it's important to remember that he's still only 20 years old and playing with players much older than he is. While it may be that Azocar is a long way from the majors, he may be worth the wait.