When the Detroit Tigers nabbed prep catcher Sam McMillan with the 155th pick in June’s MLB amateur draft, I was immediately a fan. While it’s not uncommon for Detroit to opt for a backstop in the earlier rounds — recent examples include Alex Avila, James McCann, Bryan Holaday, and Kade Scivicque — McMillan's selection came as a bit of a surprise. The most prominent reason? Only two rounds earlier the Tigers had taken Joey Morgan, a catcher from the University of Washington. There is nothing wrong with taking multiple catchers in the early rounds, but McMillan’s selection went against the grain of Detroit's usual drafting strategy.
While McMillan isn't particularly special with either the bat or the glove, he is a well-rounded player who doesn't get knocked for anything except his speed. In his first few games, the young catcher has done nothing but rake.
McMillan has played in 28 games and has accumulated just 105 plate appearances, making his performance thus far subject to a small sample size warning sticker. In that brief time as a professional, McMillan has impressed with the bat, posting an excellent 149 wRC+ and respectable .119 isolated power (ISO). The most encouraging part: he has been a walking at a 12.4 percent rate while only striking out 11.4 percent of the time.
Between his encouraging scouting reports and fantastic early showings, McMillan is my personal sleeper for this draft class. However, his early performance has also revealed some red flags. While his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is relatively normal, he hits an unbelievable amount of ground balls (a 51.5 percent rate) and has only hit line drives 11.8 percent of the time. While batted ball profiles take more than 100 plate appearances to normalize, he has to cut down on the number of worm-killers he hits if he is going to be a successful batter at higher levels.
Single-A West Michigan: RHP Matt Manning
In his pro debut last year, Manning wiped out the competition, coming to the Tigers as advertised. His high-powered fastball and spike curve were simply too much for rookie ball hitters. Manning’s 2017 season has been a slightly different story, though.
Last season's ninth overall selection caught the Tigers' eye with his heater, an offering that regularly touched 97 miles per hour. That came packaged with a 6'6 frame, delivery that doesn't raise too many eyebrows, and almost no mileage on his arm. Many onlookers were concerned when Manning opened his second season with a fastball that didn't top 93 mph and hasn't increased much in his seven starts.
The Tigers personnel are unconcerned. "I think what happens frequently with younger guys... they start working on throwing strikes,” said David Littlefield, Detroit’s vice president of player development. “He’s got plenty of fastball. He’s healthy, and he’s got that good extra hop at the end of his fastball. There’s no issues whatsoever."
Manning himself addressed the matter.
"I’ve been told I kind of have a rise to it, which makes my elevated fastball effective. I think I’m definitely a power pitcher…I’m not trying to throw 97 every pitch, but I think I can put hitters away with a power fastball when I need to."
With such monstrous raw stuff, Manning's stay in Connecticut was never meant to be long-term. It was instead meant to be a stepping stone of sorts, from which to reach the Whitecaps. He was roughed up in his first two West Michigan starts, and is now the owner of a 30.86 ERA at that level.
Like any raw pitcher, he will learn to approach the game with more maturity; eventually, his stat line will reflect that. As for now, Manning simply needs to refine his command and gain consistency with the curveball. These two things are the key to everything else falling into place.
Double-A Erie: RHP Mark Ecker
If there is any player in the Tigers’ system who deserves more attention than he gets, it's righthander Mark Ecker. A fifth-round pick out of Texas A&M, Ecker never received much hype. He was a closer in college but isn't still one in the minors. He doesn't have a triple-digit fastball. He doesn't have a venomous slider or curveball. What he does have, though, are results.
Ecker is paid to pitch, not to throw. Unlike many guys at his level of the minors, he is a true pitcher. He features a fastball, changeup, and slider, and discussed the nuances of his arsenal at length with Bless You Boys this offseason. He can locate all three pitches in the strike zone. The package he brings to the mound has been too much for High-A hitters to make consistent contact. In 43 2⁄3 innings pitched, he has whiffed 58 batters, or 34.4 percent of all hitters he faced. As a point of comparison, Justin Upton had a 33.84 percent strikeout rate from April 5 to June 16 in 2016. That's a lot of strikeouts.
It doesn't just stop there. When batters are able to get a hold of Ecker’s pitches, it is often a result just as unfavorable. Nearly 45 percent of batted balls are grounders, and 35.8 percent become fly balls. Only 8.8 percent of those fly balls turn into home runs. In other words, when a batter steps up to the plate against Ecker, they don't stand much of a chance.
All of that earned him a promotion to Double-A Erie, where he has thrown 6 2⁄3 innings. He will have to prove once again that he is worthy of attention, as he has had to at every level of the minors. He has the upside of a setup reliever with a cloak-and-dagger style, albeit one with better stuff than would be imagined for that type.
Triple-A Toledo: RHP Bryan Garcia
Expectations for Garcia weren't high when he was drafted from the University of Miami in the sixth round last year. College relievers with plus fastballs and little else are as transient as grass in the Tigers' system. But the unexpected happened; Garcia has separated himself from the pack, pitching well in his debut before pulling a Joe Jimenez and making a frenzied dash through several levels of the minors.
No one can stop Bryan Garcia.
Low-A can't stop him. The statistics gods tried, slapping him with a .429 BABIP through 14 games and 14 1⁄3 innings pitched. Garcia responded with 16.95 strikeouts per nine innings and a 0.52 FIP. High-A can't stop him. This time the victim of a BABIP north of .460, he was unfazed, striking out 7.80 batters for every walk.
Even Double-A couldn’t stop him. In his time there, Garcia was sending nearly 10 batters per nine on the long walk back to the dugout, posting an ERA of 1.17. His walk rate elevated and his FIP was at 3.63, but there's still no metric that can dispute the fact that he has pitched very well. That is made even more impressive by the fact that this is only his first full season as a professional.
"Garcia still needs to simmer for a bit with the SeaWolves."
I wrote that sentence in the original draft of this article, mere days before he was promoted to the roster of the Toledo Mud Hens.
As a member of the Triple-A bullpen, he has only pitched six innings, but has managed to strike out nine of the 23 batters he has faced. Garcia may only have the ceiling of a setup guy, but he sure is an exciting prospect as of late. He's a dark horse for a September call-up as early as this season, especially if the Tigers’ bullpen continues to be terrible and the selloff opens up a few extra spots on the roster and wiggle room for experimentation.