Baseball fans everywhere are optimistic about their team’s chances during spring training. When it comes to prospects, however, that optimism is turned up to 11. Prospect rankings and scouting reports emerge every February and March, with evaluators highlighting the tools and talents of baseball’s future stars. Weaknesses are generally overlooked at this point in the year, and fans are given a chance to dream on the potential of their team’s young talent.
While the Detroit Tigers don’t have the most robust of farm systems, they are starting to restock their pipeline with interesting talent. From top prospect Matt Manning to near-big league ready players like Dixon Machado and Michael Gerber, there are storylines to follow with nearly every player.
This week’s question: Which Tigers prospect are you most excited to follow in 2017?
Patrick: Joe Jimenez is the one to watch for me. With Francisco Rodriguez and Mark Lowe eligible for free agency after this season, it would be really helpful for the Tigers to get some help from their own farm system to fill important spots on the major league roster. Jimenez needs to hone his secondary pitches in Triple-A Toledo, where he figures to start the season because of all the players out of options on the roster. We could see him at some point in 2017, though. If he can step into a late inning role by the end of this season and into 2018, the Tigers might even be able to retain J.D. Martinez with the other money coming off the books.
Brandon: There are a slew of pitching prospects I’m really interested in, but I’ll go with outfielder Jose Azocar. While Derek Hill is the more gifted defender of the two, Azocar grades out as a potentially excellent center fielder whose hit tool is developing reasonably well. If he does well in 2017, he could reach Double-A this season, with an outside chance of reaching the majors in 2018. I would really hope Hill eventually surpasses Azocar. But right now, Azocar is the only real light in the system in terms of a plus outfielder. Hopefully his bat continues to progress this year.
Peter: The prospect I’m more looking forward to watch over the next year is Kyle Funkhouser. He could be either really good or nothing at all, and no one seems to know how it will turn out. He was an easy top 10 pick heading into 2015, but fell back in the first round. He failed to reach an agreement with the Los Angeles Dodgers, so he went back to college. Funkhouser struggled and lost most of his prospect shine, but rebounded at the end of the year and the Tigers grabbed him in the fourth round. He looked the part of a top pitching prospect in the New York-Penn League last year. How will he fare over a full season is anyone’s guess, though. If he hits, the Tigers will have stolen a No. 3 starter in the fourth round. If he misses, he will be the next Casey Crosby or Andy Oliver.
Rob: Matt Manning is the crown jewel of the Tigers’ farm system, but I’m more interested in how Beau Burrows performs this season. He was a bit of a surprise selection at No. 22 overall in 2015, but garnered hype when he racked up a ton of strikeouts in his first taste of pro ball in the Gulf Coast League. That strikeout rate disappeared at Single-A West Michigan in 2016. While his overall numbers were quite impressive for a 19-year-old in the Midwest League, his comments about pitching to contact are a bit concerning for a pitcher with his velocity. He will continue to be very young for his level as he moves up the minor league ladder, but I would like to see him embarrass a few more hitters along the way.
John: I’m interested to see what happens with Grayson Greiner this year. He has been a consistent defensive catcher throughout his short minor league career. The question with him has been the ability to generate a decent offensive game. He came out strong in 2014 before he got hurt, and then suffered a lackluster 2015 which had some folks down on him. He hit pretty well last year, although his BABIP may have been a little elevated. He is a big kid, and at the age of 24 still has some time for the power to show up. It will be very encouraging if he shows some consistent offensive production this year, and even more promising if he brings a little more power with it.
Kyle: Christin Stewart has been receiving a lot of attention and rightfully so. With the future of the Tigers outfield very much uncertain and players like Tyler Collins, Steven Moya, and Anthony Gose not exactly taking the reins, Stewart can position himself well for his big league future. I will be curious to see if his bat continues to cover up issues like defense this season. Another productive year could bring him pretty close to Detroit, with a roster that will see a lot of change over the next couple seasons.
Jacob: I'll be interested to watch the development of reliever Mark Ecker. A fairly unsung prospect, he has the potential to become a very good bullpen arm. He was an absolute steal for the Tigers in the fifth round and has a much higher floor than most relief prospects. There was talk of letting him start (which was not long-lived), and that speaks to the quality and depth of his arsenal. Unlike most Detroit pitchers, he features above-average command. If he has another good season, Ecker will be able to grab some of the spotlight. He deserves the attention, as he could be a very good setup guy for the Tigers in the not-so-distant future.
Ashley: As a fan of exciting baseball, I'm really looking forward to seeing if Christin Stewart can live up to all the hype. He has “future DH” stamped all over him, and is at best a subpar outfielder. However, if the guy can hit like people anticipate he will, he could be one of those players where his outfield ability is a moot point because he's so busy mashing balls out of the park no one cares that he's basically that kid in Little League praying "don't hit the ball to me, don't hit the ball to me." Give me those big-bat guys. Those Ortiz, Bautista, Trumbo guys. That's fun to watch.
[Ed.: She likes big bats and she cannot lie.]
On the pitching side, I really want to see how Kyle Funkhouser comes together, especially if he can get a handle on his command. Plus, I really want to hear Rod Allen say “Funkhouser” every fifth day.
Grace: This is a very unconventional, unexpected answer, but it's the truth: Ryan Castellanos. I watched him on a live feed online when he pitched for Nova Southeastern University in early 2015. It was Ryan's junior year and I watched nearly every start of his. The Tigers drafted him in the 25th round of the MLB amateur draft that June, and I've followed his progress through the Tigers' farm system since. He currently plays for the Short-Season Connecticut Tigers of the New York-Penn League. I realize he's not terribly well known but that's who I'll be keeping on eye on in the minors in the 2017 season.