With regards to the corner infield position the Detroit Tigers farm system is, unsurprisingly, defined by a lack of depth.
Most of the corner infielders in the Tigers’ organization played for Southeastern Conference teams in college and were selected by the Tigers in the middle or late rounds of their respective drafts. Few of their corner infield prospects are projected to be above average major league players. Because of this, it is hard to find a clear-cut “first-baseman/third-baseman of the future” in the farm system at the moment, although several players do look to be potential contributors to the Tigers one day.
The lack of a standout corner infield prospect is not the worst thing in the world from the Tigers’ perspective, given the team will have Hall-of-Famer Miguel Cabrera and the promising young Nicholas Castellanos on the corners for the foreseeable future. In the interest of reviewing the Tigers’ minor league depth in the run-up to the 2017 MLB draft, here are some brief scouting reports on the organization’s most promising corner infielders.
Class A - West Michigan Whitecaps
Blaise Salter, first base - Bats/Throws: R/R, Height/Weight: 6’5”/245lb
Blaise Salter, a 23-year-old from Michigan State University taken in the 31st round of the 2015 draft, is currently best known for his family ties. Salter’s grandfather is Bill Freehan, a member of the 1968 championship team who once caught greats like Mickey Lolich. In his first season with the Whitecaps, Salter has impressed so far, boasting a .330/.378/.506 slash line and four home runs. If he continues to hit at that pace, a promotion to Lakeland can’t be too far off in the future.
Josh Lester, third base - Bats/Throws: L/R, Height/Weight: 6’3”/216lb
Josh Lester, a 22 year old Missouri Tiger turned member of the Tigers organization, was taken in the 13th round of the 2015 draft. In 2017, his second season with the Whitecaps, Lester has put up a .269/.308/.462 slash line with five home runs. Lester, a former Little League World Series champ and collegiate star, has struggled with strikeouts the past two seasons with West Michigan, posting a 29.6 percent strikeout rate in 2016 and a 21 percent strikeout rate so far in 2017. At 22-years-old, however, there is still time for his bat to develop, especially given the strong numbers he posted in college.
High-A - Lakeland Flying Tigers
Will Allen, first base - Bats/Throws: R/R, Height/Weight: 6’3”/220lb
Will Allen, a 25-year-old taken with a 13th round draft pick in 2014, has been slow to climb through the Tigers farm system due to an injury he suffered in the College World Series with Ole Miss. Although he played catcher in college, he has played both corner infield positions as a Tigers farmhand. So far in 2017, he has underwhelmed, posting a .228/.293/.412 slash line, albeit with six home runs and five doubles.
Will Maddox, third base - Bats/Throws: L/R, Height/Weight: 5’10”/180lb
Will Maddox, a 24-year-old taken by the Tigers in the 18th round of the 2014 draft, is one of the more promising corner infield prospects in the Tigers system. Last year, David Laurila of Fangraphs wrote that the former Tennessee Volunteer “doesn’t have much left to prove in the Midwest League.” The numbers back up Laurila’s claim. Last year with the Whitecaps, Maddox posted an outstanding .339/.380/.401 slash line, a 131 wRC+ and twenty-eight stolen bases.
So far with Lakeland in 2017, he hasn’t quite repeated this success, posting a .235/.361/.275 slash line despite improving his walk rate from 5.7% in 2016 to 14.3% in 2017. Maddox, a former teammate of promising Tigers outfield prospect Christin Stewart while at Tennessee, will be worth keeping an eye on.
Zac Shepherd, third base - Bats/Throws: R/R, Height/Weight: 6’3”/185lb
In his second season with Lakeland, Zac Shepherd has shown great promise. The 21-year-old Australian is perhaps the most intriguing corner infield prospect in the organization. Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs noted last year that Shepherd has “impressive raw power and power on contact,” while cautioning that he could be hindered by his tendency to swing and miss. So far this year with Lakeland, Shepherd has flashed prodigious power, clubbing eight home runs with a .405 slugging percentage. However, Shepherd will need to cut his 39.5 percent (!) strikeout rate if he wants to eventually play in the major leagues and avoid a Steven Moya-like career trajectory. For further reading, Emily Waldon wrote a great profile of Shepherd last year for Bless You Boys.
Double-A - Erie SeaWolves
Kody Eaves, second/third base - Bats/Throws: L/R, Height/Weight: 6’0”/175lb
A 23-year-old acquired from the Los Angeles Angels in the blockbuster Jefry Marte trade, Kody Eaves has played well enough in Erie to warrant keeping an eye on him. In 2016, he hit 11 home runs, posting a .222/.312/.422 slash line. Although he played a lot of second base in the Angels’ organization, he has primarily played third base for the SeaWolves in 2017. He is off to a decent offensive start this year, posting a .274/.337/.429 slash line. Eaves, regarded for his speed and defensive ability while an Angels’ prospect, could one day be a useful utility player for the Tigers if he continues to progress.
Dominic Ficociello, first base - Bats/Throws: S/R, Height/Weight: 6’4”/200lb
Dominic Ficociello, a 25-year-old out of Arkansas who was taken by the Tigers in the 12th round of the 2013 draft, will likely earn a promotion to Triple-A Toledo in the near future if he continues his hot start to the 2017 season. In spring training with the big-league club this past year, Ficociello impressed by unexpectedly slugging four home runs. In 2017 with Erie, he has built on this success by posting a great .313/.361/.420 slash line. Scouts and commentators have noted his defensive versatility, with Chris McCosky of the Detroit News favorably—though perhaps implausibly—comparing him to Ben Zobrist of the Chicago Cubs.
Aside from being able to play up to five positions—first base, second base, third base, and both corner outfield positions—Ficociello is also a switch-hitter. Since he hasn’t hit for much power at any level of the minor leagues, especially for a first baseman, his best path to the major leagues may be as a super-utility player. When Miguel Cabrera went down with an injury earlier this season, he was replaced by Alex Avila and John Hicks. Someday soon, that could be Ficociello providing useful corner infield depth to the Tigers in the event of an injury to Cabrera or Castellanos. Ficociello probably isn’t the first baseman of the future for the Tigers, but he could be the next Don Kelly or Andrew Romine.
Triple-A - Toledo Mud Hens
Unfortunately, the Tigers do not have any up-and-coming corner infielders of note in Toledo. This is consistent with a broader trend in Toledo’s roster; their position players are on average 30-years-old. Efren Navarro, who has been the starting first baseman for the Mudhens, is a 30-year-old journeyman who has been bouncing around the league since 2007. Toledo’s starting third baseman has been Michael Almanzar, a 26-year-old former prospect of the Baltimore Orioles’ system. Some smart drafting and continued development of their talent in the lower levels of Detroit’s pipeline could help replenish the team’s depleted farm system.
With the Tigers rotation full of young pitchers like Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, and Matt Boyd, and promising arms like Beau Burrows, Kyle Funkhouser and Matt Manning developing in the lower levels of the system, the team could stand to benefit by investing an early draft pick in a quality position player. The success of teams like the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros that emphasized developing home-grown position players while rebuilding speaks to the benefits of such a strategy.