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ESPN’s Keith Law ranks Derek Hill the Tigers’ 3rd best prospect

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You can’t say he isn’t willing to go out on a limb.

New York Yankees v Detroit Tigers Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

There were already some interesting choices regarding the Detroit Tigers’ farm system on Keith Law’s top 100 prospects list at ESPN Insider. Righthander Franklin Perez and outfielder Daz Cameron were the sole representatives from Detroit, fewer than any other publication. That was an opinion that seemed far afield from much of the industry — MLB Pipeline included four Tigers on their top 100, and nearly added a fifth in catcher Jake Rogers.

Law published his top 10 list for the Tigers’ farm system on Friday — along with the rest of the AL Central — and he hasn’t come any closer to the pack in many of his assessments of Detroit’s prospects. That’s to his credit, but it also leads to some surprising opinions.

First, the list

  1. RHP Franklin Perez
  2. OF Daz Cameron
  3. OF Derek Hill
  4. RHP Beau Burrows
  5. RHP Alex Faedo
  6. RHP Matt Manning
  7. SS Isaac Paredes
  8. OF Christin Stewart
  9. RHP Kyle Funkhouser
  10. RHP Sandy Baez

Starting pitchers

We can all quibble with the Tigers’ big four starting pitcher prospects and where they are ranked. However, Law has already made it pretty clear that he is far more skeptical of righthander Matt Manning than most of the industry. As for Faedo, there isn’t really a rationale as to why he holds Faedo in comparatively poor regard in his rankings.

He was throwing 90-94 mph last spring but was also coming off preseason knee surgery that might have hampered his delivery and his velocity, so I wouldn’t be shocked if he showed up in March throwing harder. There’s reliever risk here in the delivery, the slider emphasis and the knee issues, but he has No. 2 starter upside as well.

Law makes some reasonable points, though most saw those same concerns mitigated by Faedo’s outstanding finish to his junior season. None of that kept Faedo out of every other major top 100 list, however. It would seem that Law is just generally more suspicious of pitching prospects. Considering the injury risks and volatility of their tools, there’s some wisdom in that position.

Prospect Pathways

We argue back and forth about the relative merits of various lists. That’s part of the fun of following player development. There are no certainties, and so a wide range of opinions and reports all have their place. However, rather than demanding consensus from prospect watchers, which is its own insidious thought trap, it’s more interesting to think about the individual perspectives and process used by different evaluators.

In Law’s case, there are quite a few choices on this list ripe for a discussion into how scouts and prospect writers consider players’ potential paths to the major leagues, and how those reflect on a given player’s tools and overall risk.

For example, it’s not a shock to see Christin Stewart listed in Law’s top 10. After all, Stewart was hanging around the bottom of MLB Pipeline’s top 100 in the game just last year, and his 2017 season did nothing to diminish his outlook. Odds are fairly good that Stewart is going to hit for power in the major leagues.

However, Stewart also has an extremely narrow path to get there and stick because he’s a defensive liability anywhere on the baseball field. Should he get a call-up to the majors in 2018 and then struggle to produce at an above-average clip, there’s basically no way to roster him. He has to become a borderline elite hitter to suffer his defense, yet that defense makes it extremely difficult to suffer too many growing pains at the plate. The Tigers don’t have a place for a full-time designated hitter in 2018, and probably won’t for many years to come.

On the other hand, Jake Rogers is already a virtual lock to become a major league catcher. Everyone agrees that he is one of the best defensive catchers in the entire minor leagues. It wouldn’t take much development offensively for him to become a foundational piece for the next era of Tigers baseball. His path to a decent long-term career in the major leagues is wide open. Meanwhile, the bat continues to show more potential than was expected of him when he was drafted. There are many ways his career could go, but quickly washing out of the majors is a very unlikely outcome. If Rogers’ defense is as advertised, even average offensive ability would make him a very valuable player.

Despite a much more solid floor and similar ceiling, Law has Rogers ranked 15th, while Stewart checks in at eighth. It’s difficult to fathom Law’s rankings here without assuming that Law is a huge believer in Stewart’s bat. He’s going to have to hit a ton to have any hope of sticking in the major leagues, and many just aren’t willing to bet on that likelihood.

Derek Hill

Now for the real head scratcher.

Based on his borderline elite glovework and double-plus speed, Hill has always had a reasonably high floor and an obvious path to a role in the major leagues. Unless there’s a serious loss in speed, Hill is going to be an excellent defensive outfielder in the major leagues. That speed also gives his bat some support. However, he still has to hit to be a starter.

Like Rogers, Hill has stable, projectable tools that make major league playing time the likely outcome. Unlike Rogers, Hill still has a long way to go with the bat if he is going to be a future everyday player. His ability to make contact seems to have improved, and he has filled out and added obvious strength. He also has enough speed to support his batting average even if harder contact doesn’t show up for him.

However, we only have a good quarter season at Single-A ball on which to hope that he can stay healthy and figure it out. Until we see if he can continue to limit his strikeouts against more advanced pitching — and, more importantly, stay healthy — it’s hard to say if Hill really improved that appreciably in 2017.

Hill certainly has a high ceiling compared to other position players in the Tigers’ system. Even an average bat, combined with his speed on the basepaths and defensive ability, could easily make him a consistent 3-4 win player. But he is still so far from that point that it’s really difficult to reconcile his ranking so far above that of more advanced players like Stewart and Rogers. While other evaluators are probably a bit too bearish on Hill, considering his high likelihood of at least a backup role in the majors, ranking him third in the system seems a bit too optimistic at this point.