Last week, ESPN’s Keith Law released his annual ranking of the top 100 prospects in the MLB. The list is a great resource for spotting up-and-coming talent, and Law uses a vast network of resources to pull information on talent in order to make the list. In previous years the top 100 has included players like Michael Fulmer, who ranked 48th on Law’s list last year. This year, two Detroit Tigers prospects — Matt Manning and Christin Stewart — were in the top 100 (No. 82 and 92, respectively).
On Tuesday, ESPN released their list of top 10 prospects for AL Central teams, giving slightly deeper insight into the best talent in the minors. Law said he was “a bit surprised” by this year’s farm system offerings. In 2015, the Tigers were Law’s worst-ranked farm team in baseball. Last year, he ranked the Tigers’ system 26th, and this year the Tigers climbed slightly to 24th. It’s clear progress is being made, albeit slowly.
Law’s rankings are by no means the final word in prospect talent, but they do offer a certain level of valuable insight into player potential.
1. RHP Matt Manning
According to Law, Manning is “hyper-athletic” with “easy velocity up to 98.” He is an exciting player, but has a lot of work to do still. With a spike curveball in his repertoire, Law suggested the Tigers might work on switching the young pitcher to a more traditional grip because of concerns over command with the spike curve. Law also pointed out that Manning has no changeup “because he never needed one.” At a lower level, velocity alone made Manning unstoppable, but in the bigs he’ll need something more substantial if he’s going to continue being a threat.
2. OF Christin Stewart
Law sees Stewart as “an everyday left fielder” and an above-average power hitter. He has good speed on the basepaths — something the Tigers are constantly in need of — but also strikes out more than the team might want. Stewart’s high ranking comes with a huge asterisk, though. Law warns that defensively the outfielder is “a liability” and his place on the list is largely due to “a vote of confidence that his is going to hit more than enough to overcome that.” The league certainly has its fair share of guys who are lousy outfielders but dynamic bats; just look at Mark Trumbo. This certainly doesn’t mean Stewart is a wash. The Tigers just need to be aware of his limitations and use him accordingly.
3. RHP Beau Burrows
Burrows has a strikeout problem, in that he has been getting a lot fewer of them than a pitcher with his skill set ought to. Law phrased this politely by saying, “he should have missed a lot more bats than he did in 2016.” Burrows, like Manning, is a high-velocity arm, with a fastball that can reach up to 99 miles per hour. Younger pitchers who have managed their lower-level careers with high-velocity pitches can struggle when they reach a higher tier where the batting has improved. Burrows does seem aware of the need to develop beyond just throwing hard, and has progressed on his changeup, giving him three decent pitches. A little more refinement could see Burrows become a starter for the team.
4. OF Derek Hill
Derek Hill has been on Law’s list the last three seasons, and is a former top-100 prospect. According to Law, Hill “can run and is a plus defender in center, but he needs to get stronger and to produce something at the plate.” Hill, who has been plagued by injury-shortened seasons, has yet to live up to the potential scouts have seen in him. Law also points to Hill’s inability to make contact with his swing despite good mechanics.
5. LHP Tyler Alexander
Law calls Alexander “the system’s highest-probability starter” and predicts seeing him as a No. 4 starter in the majors.
6. RHP Joe Jimenez
Most Tigers fans have been hearing praise about Jimenez for the last several seasons as a potential magic fix for the bullpen. Law contends that Jimenez is certainly a future closer who “throws a bazillion miles an hour” and whose command is showing marked signs of improvement. It’s almost a certainty that Jimenez will be in the Tigers bullpen at some point in 2017.
7. RHP Kyle Funkhouser
“The raw material here is strong,” Law said of Funkhouser, but was quick to point out “I think it’s control rather than command right now.” With a mid-90s fastball, if Funkhouser can get better command and reduce his walks, he has what it takes to be a major league starter.
8. SS Dixon Machado
Machado is another one of those names Tigers fans are familiar with, even with only passing awareness of the farm system. Machado has made several appearances on the Tigers major league roster and Law believes he could be “ready now to play every day for somebody.” For the next season, barring injury, the Tigers won’t be using him at shortstop, where they already have the skillful hands of Jose Iglesias.
9. RHP Sandy Baez
Baez features a high-90s fastball with “unusually good control.” Where he comes up short is in his secondary pitches, which makes him an unlikely candidate for a starting role. However the Tigers bullpen can always use a strong arm with a good fastball for those late single-inning relief appearances.
10. C Arvicent Perez
Law made it clear that scouts have begun to heavily favor catchers who show a strong ability for pitch framing, which might explain Perez ranking higher here than he did on some other prospect lists. Law singled Perez out as “working on the framing and game-calling aspects of catching,” something that is obviously a huge in-game asset but hasn’t featured as heavily as a point of interest for scouts in the past. It seems likely that Law gave Perez an elevated ranking because of the potential he saw in those in-game management skills.
Overall, there are a few surprises here. For starters, JaCoby Jones is nowhere to be seen on this list. In his brief showing in the majors last year, Jones made a memorable stamp, but it wasn’t enough to warrant a mention on even Law’s extended list.
Plate discipline is a big focus for Law when it comes to where the Tigers farm is lacking. While he was pleasantly surprised with the Tigers system overall, he gave the team a friendly suggestion, saying “if they could sign one kid who will take a walk, that’d be great, please and thank-you.”
Some names to watch for going forward at the five players who didn’t quite make the cut this year: righthanders Adam Ravenelle and Gerson Moreno, lefthander Jairo Labourt, and outfielders Mike Gerber and Jose Azocar. These are the guys who could be future top 10 material, depending on how they develop.
The improvement he has seen in the Tigers system is positive overall, especially if the team transitions to a younger roster next year. Law did suggest that the Tigers would be wise to “trade at least one of their biggest names to help restock this system the way the White Sox just did.” That’s not something fans want to hear, surely, but very likely a hard reality of what the team will need to do in order to keep competitive going forward.