It’s hard to call what Beau Burrows did last season in Single-A ball a disappointment. As a 19 year old, he made 20 starts in the Midwest League and limited opponents to a 3.15 ERA. He only walked 7.4 percent of hitters, and was one of the reasons why the West Michigan Whitecaps returned to the playoffs for a second straight year. Facing hitters nearly three years older than him on average, Burrows showed remarkable poise to be productive as he was.
Detroit Tigers fans were hoping for more from one of their top prospects, though. Burrows only struck out 16.5 percent of the hitters he faced, a rate well below what the best pitching prospects in the game manage at the lower levels of the minors. Strikeout rates don’t always improve as a pitcher begins to face better competition, and Burrows’ comments about pitching to contact spooked fans, especially those already skeptical of the Tigers’ ability to develop their minor league talent.
So far, so good. Burrows has turned heads early in the season at High-A Lakeland, holding opponents to a 0.81 ERA in his first four starts. He has 21 strikeouts in 22 1⁄3 innings, and has fanned 25.6 percent of the batters he has faced. His strikeout-to-walk ratio has nearly doubled, and he has a 0.99 WHIP.
Yes, it’s early. Burrows is playing in another pitcher-friendly league, and the jump from Single-A to High-A isn’t nearly as difficult as the next leap he will face when he makes it to Double-A Erie. However, it’s hard to ask for any more from the young righthander so far this season. He’s still only 20 years old, and appears to be finding his strikeout touch.
Triple-A Toledo: RHP Buck Farmer
The Toledo Mud Hens don’t have much in the way of offense, and will struggle more now that two of their hottest bats are in Detroit. Losing John Hick and Jim Adduci over the weekend may be one reason why the Hens hung Buck Farmer out to dry in Sunday’s 1-0 loss. Farmer was excellent, holding the high-powered Lehigh Valley IronPigs offense to a run on five hits in seven innings.
The outing was another strong start for Farmer, who has a 2.78 ERA in 22 2⁄3 innings at Toledo this season. He has 21 strikeouts to just four walks, a 5.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio. This comes after a spring in which Farmer struck out 12 in just 9 1⁄3 innings, and allowed a modest 3.86 ERA.
While fans shouldn’t be expecting Farmer to suddenly become a mid-rotation starter, it’s worth pointing back at his staggered development and wonder if he could still provide value for the Tigers in a swingman or middle relief role. Farmer only turned 26 in February, and the Tigers seem content to let him pile up innings in the minors for now. He could force their hand if he continues to pitch like this, though.
Double-A Erie: LHP Tyler Alexander
Heading into the season, some fans wondered allowed if lefthander Tyler Alexander could be a dark horse to land in the Tigers rotation if injuries struck. Consider that progression on hold for now. Alexander has met plenty of resistance in Double-A ball so far this year, allowing a 5.93 ERA through his first three starts. Opponents have already tagged him for 11 runs (nine earned), a total it took him over a month to cough up in High-A ball last season.
It’s too early to sound any alarms. Alexander’s strikeout rate has largely held steady compared to the 34 1⁄3 innings he logged for Erie, and opponents have managed a .348 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) so far. His command has been a little off in the early going, but we’re still only talking about a sample of four walks in 13 2⁄3 innings. It’s worth keeping any eye on, though.
Single-A West Michigan: CF Jacob Robson
Single-A ball is the first time that a lot of fans hear about their team’s newest prospects. The West Michigan Whitecaps have a few interesting names on their roster, but one guy I’m keeping an eye on is center fielder Jacob Robson. The Tigers’ eighth round pick out of Mississippi State in 2016, Robson has gotten off to a hot start. He is hitting .355/.394/.452 with three extra base hits and 10 runs scored through his first 15 games.
This should not be a surprise. Robson has a talented hitter in college, and was not averse to taking walks either. Players from big college programs like Mississippi State typically perform well in the lower minors, as the Single-A leagues are largely populated by guys these hitters played against in their college days. Still, it’s nice to see Robson get off to a decent start. He has some decent speed — though has been caught in all three of his stolen base attempts this year — and is a capable defender in center field. It’s far too early to start making predictions about his MLB future, but he’s certainly worth watching with the Whitecaps in 2017.