The current state of the Tigers’ minor league pitching pipeline has been well chronicled, particularly as it relates to “The Big Four” of Franklin Perez, Matt Manning, Beau Burrows, and Alex Faedo. There is also a second tier of other high-profile arms like Sandy Baez, Kyle Funkhouser, Gregory Soto, and Spencer Turnbull. While the organization is missing the blue chip pieces that would catapult the system into the top tier, they aren’t lacking for pitching depth.
Beyond those familiar names, the Tigers also have a deep stable of potential breakthrough pitchers with the potential to form part of a future bullpen, or provide extra depth to the Tigers’ rotation down the road. These are all somewhat high variance arms, but each has the potential to play a part of the Tigers’ future. Let’s take a closer look at a few of these “under the radar” prospects.
Current Age: 23
Current Level: Triple-A Toledo
Of this group, Houston is the closest to the Majors at this point, having skyrocketed through the organization since being drafted in the 11th round out of Mississippi State in 2016. He tore through short-season ball after the draft, earning a late season promotion to West Michigan. He followed that up in 2017 by obliterating both Midwest League and Florida State League hitters with 91 strikeouts in 58 innings of work.
Houston had a false start this season when he went on the shelf for most of April with a wrist strain. Once recovered, he was assigned to Erie and picked up right where he left off, striking out 25 in 17 1⁄3 innings and holding hitters to a minuscule .136 batting average. His superb performance earned him a promotion to Toledo on May 31st. Houston isn’t part of the Tigers’ 40-man roster just yet, but good work for the Mud Hens could see him fast-tracked as the Tigers look for bullpen help later in the season.
Everything Houston throws has movement. He can dial the fastball up to 98, but mostly lives around 93 and relies on a ton of arm side movement that really tends to be problematic for right-handed hitters when he rides it inside on them. The scary thing is that he’s actually been even more effective against lefties, as he can start that tailing fastball on their right hip and paint the inside corner. Lefties are just one for 26 against him this season with 13 strikeouts. A hard-throwing reliever who can locate to either side of the plate is a guy to look out for.
Houston also features a sharp breaking slow curveball that could potentially get whiffs in the majors. Like quite a few guys in the Tigers’ system, Houston has also started working on a splitter this season that looks like it has the makings of a true out-pitch. Here’s a good look at life on that fastball and “slurvy” action on his breaking pitch. Houston hasn’t gotten a lot of digital ink as of yet, but it’s coming.
Current Age: 22
Current Level: Double-A Erie
Carlton is an interesting case. As a junior at Florida State in 2017, he was the Seminoles’ Opening Day starter with a 4-pitch arsenal. That would be his only start of the season, as they scaled him down to just a fastball/cutter mix and moved him to the closer role, where he flourished. The Seminoles aren’t a pitching powerhouse, but it’s surprising that the Tigers were able to scoop him up in the 32nd round last year.
A 2014 graduate of George Jenkins High School in Lakeland, Carlton was a fan favorite at Joker Marchant Stadium this season. Clocked as high as 96 miles per hour as a prep pitcher, Carlton now sinks it in the low 90’s and pounds the strike zone. In 26 1⁄3 innings for the Flying Tigers, he fanned 26 and walked just six, earning a promotion to Erie on May 30.
There remains some questions as to how Carlton’s stuff will play in the upper levels. His advanced control was too much for even older A-ball hitters with Lakeland. The Eastern League will be a major test, and we will just have to see how he adjusts.
Current Age: 23
Current Level: High-A Lakeland
The 6’2”, 180-pound Venezuelan product burst onto the scene last season in his full-season debut with West Michigan, where he was an extremely consistent starter. In 21 starts for the Whitecaps, Castro allowed more than three runs just one time. He flashed some major strikeout potential with back-to-back 12 strikeout performances in late May. The 2015 Tommy John survivor boasts a low/mid-90’s four-seamer with natural cut to it, along with a solid curve and developing change-up.
Due to Castro’s slender build and cutting four-seamer, James Chipman of Tigstown recently noted on Twitter that a National League scout drew a comparison to Chicago Cubs reliever Carl Edwards Jr., who is making a nice living as a late-innings stopper. However, Edwards exhibited far higher strikeout rates in the minors than Castro does currently. According to Chipman, Castro can hit 97 but, as a starter especially, is better served by sitting low 90’s to maximize his command and movement. As a result, there is a solid relief profile there should he not make it as a starter. If his change-up continues to develop, however, he has a shot to progress as a starter with a middle-of-the-rotation ceiling. Here’s a terrific look at Castro’s mechanics and assortment, courtesy of James Chipman.
Current Age: 23
Current Level: High-A Lakeland
Unlike Castro, Jimenez is a true power arm, with a mid/upper 90’s sinking fastball that can generate swings and misses along with lots of groundballs. Another Tommy John survivor, Jimenez has converted all nine of his save chances for Lakeland this season, striking out 21 in 20 innings, tallying just six walks. While the control appears to be there, the command may need some refinement still, as Florida State League hitters are batting .298 against him. Lefties are especially having their way with the 6’2”, 225-pound Venezuelan native, posting a .375 average and claiming five of his six walks.
Originally signed as a 16-year old back in 2011, the Tigers added Jimenez to the 40-man roster this season to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. He is nowhere near the major leagues at this point. However, with his plus fastball and a solid slider to complement it, there’s no reason to think he can’t master the Florida State League and make his way to Erie at some point this season. Jimenez has work to do, but if his command takes a step forward he’s a guy who could quickly leapfrog a lot of pitchers to arrive in Detroit.
Current Age: 20
Current Level: Low-A West Michigan
Rodriguez was the “player to be named later” in last season’s Justin Upton trade with the Angels. Listed at 6’3”, 160 pounds, the Dominican Native earned Pioneer League All-Star honors as a 19-year old for the Orem Owlz in 2017. After five shaky starts for West Michigan, Elvin appears to be figuring things out. He’s allowed just two earned runs over his last three starts, including a 12 strikeout masterpiece on May 29th against Dayton where he out-pitched Reds phenom, Hunter Greene. Over that three-start span, Rodriguez has sat down 27 hitters in 18-1/3 innings.
For a young pitcher, even for the Midwest League, Rodriguez has good instincts as a pitcher and a projectable frame that suggests he will continue to get stronger. He’s already showed good balance and repeatable mechanics for a gangly, loose-armed 20-year old. Here’s a sequence from the outing against Dayton where he blew away the Reds’ 2017 second round pick, Stuart Fairchild.