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Tigers Prospect Notebook: Kody Clemens is still raking in his professional debut

Of the Tigers’ 2018 draftees, the second baseman is providing some of the best early returns.

Jay Markle/Bless You Boys

Kody Clemens just won’t stop hitting. The second basemen entered professional baseball riding an incredible hot streak that saw him crushing dingers and providing tons of energy to a playoff-bound Texas Longhorns squad. While Clemens had never been seen as the prospect with big tools and an exciting ceiling, he was turning in outstanding performances on amateur baseball’s biggest stage.

According to Clemens, there was a deceptively simple driving factor.

“Plate discipline — that was the key. Seeing the ball well and making sure I’m swinging at the right pitches, that was just it.”

That plate discipline was the reason he was able to kick it into overdrive as the season closed out is an encouraging sign. Too many times, prospects have washed out thanks to an inability to hone their eye at the plate. In fact, some major leaguers never do either, and it has been a thorn in the Tigers’ side this season. Just as the recipe for success was simple in the past, so it is simple now.

Clemens has a plan to stay successful as a pro. “Just stay with the same approach, same mentality. That’s it.” So far, it has worked. He mopped up in the Midwest League, hitting .302/.387/.477 with the Whitecaps.

The plate discipline showed up, too. Clemens walked 12.1 percent of the time and only struck out in 15.5 percent of plate appearances. While early returns in Lakeland aren’t great yet, it’s far to early to pass judgement. He’s an interesting bat-first prospect that will be fun to watch progress over the next few years.

Gulf Coast League: SS Jose King

Jose King has always been the most intriguing player included in last summer’s J.D. Martinez deal. Showing that rookie ball held no challenges for him in 2017, King was given a spot on the short-season Connecticut roster in 2018. That experiment did not go well. He simply wilted, hitting .204/.250/.286 in 14 games. The demotion that followed was no shock.

This most recent trip to the Gulf Coast League has seen King boost his power numbers. Despite a slender build, King amassed seven extra-base hits in 97 plate appearances, and produced an .830 OPS.

It’s important to keep in mind that this newfound power production could be inflated by the speedster’s wheels, though. King has legitimate 70-grade speed, which could help him stretch singles into doubles, and doubles into triples. He is also playing against raw defenders, so poor work with the glove allows a speedy baserunner like King to sneak in extra bases on a ball that doesn’t deserve it.

Still only 19 years old and killing it in rookie ball, he’s on the right track so far. Despite an enormous plate discipline problem — one that led to his demotion earlier this year — King could yet be a valuable prospect.

Double-A Erie SeaWolves: SS Willi Castro

Willi Castro’s transition to Detroit’s organization couldn’t be going more smoothly. His value isn’t built on tremendous offensive skills, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at his numbers with the Erie SeaWolves so far. The switch-hitter has been clobbering the ball — he has put two balls over the fence, and six more have dropped for doubles. The walk rate is nothing to ogle at, but he is suppressing strikeouts as well.

The overall line, .330/.370/.585, is good for a 163 wRC+, a towering 63 percent above league average. It’s not sustainable production — we’re only talking about 23 games here, and he’s currently running a .391 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). But when the dust settles, Castro will still be the most well-rounded shortstop in the pipeline. While scouts prefer Isaac Paredes’ bat, he is more likely to move off the position at some point. Castro’s blistering start, combined with his solid glove, does nothing to dispel the organization’s ideas that he might be their shortstop of the future.

GCL Tigers West: IF John Valente

The scouting industry is very good at identifying talent. Few and far between are the cases when a player goes completely unnoticed and eventually becomes a noteworthy major leaguer. That said, it’s worth paying attention to every player in a minor league system, regardless of their notoriety, simply to try to identify an undiscovered gem. The Tigers may have one in John Valente.

Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Valente. He was drafted in the 21st round after four years at St. John’s University. While with the Red Storm, he posted some of the best numbers the university has ever seen. He was named the 2018 Big East Conference Player of the Year after hitting .360/.400/.483 with a career-high five home runs in only 56 games. An enormous 59-game on-base streak only pads the résumé further.

While college numbers don’t tell the whole story, what’s more interesting is his very successful love affair with the batted ball. He almost never strikes out and has modest walk rates. Minor league ratios need to be taken with a grain of salt, but Valente crushed rookie ball while posting an above-average line drive rate and a significantly below-average ground ball rate. He’s with the Single-A Whitecaps now, playing second base. He was a third baseman in college, but the keystone is where his fearless defense and average arm work best.

"That guy's the truth," said teammate Chris Proctor. "His gameplay speaks for itself." It will be very interesting to see how Valente adjusts to superior pitching as he moves up the ladder.