If you’re a long-time baseball fan, you know the rule about making too much of September call-ups. Just don’t. Still, for many, this is the first time they’ve laid eyes on players like Christin Stewart, Dawel Lugo, Matt Hall, or Spencer Turnbull. It’s natural to try and size them up against major league competition, even if it’s only a small sample of games at the end of a long season. After all, the Detroit Tigers are trying to do the same thing.
In general, we have far more information about the farm system than fans would have had decades ago. Video and scouting reports aren’t hard to come by these days. So while the major leagues are still a whole different ball of wax, it’s easier to know what to look for when prospects graduate to their first tour in the show. From that perspective, let’s just take a casual look at the early impressions made by some young Tigers.
Christin Stewart has been as advertised
Christin Stewart has been the featured callup as the Tigers’ sixth ranked prospect, per MLB Pipeline. He’s stepped into a starting role in left field and hit as projected. Stewart has displayed a very polished approach in the early going, posting a fantastic 13.9 percent walk rate across 72 plate appearances. He’s also cut his strikeout rate substantially from the numbers he posted in the minor leagues. You can expect him to regress from the 18.1 percent strikeout rate he’s put up so far.
Stewart’s power has also been apparent, and so far he’s been a productive hitter. That is likely going to continue long-term considering his peripherals and minor league track record. The Tigers took their time in letting him work on the fine points of his approach in Toledo, and he looks well prepared to do damage at the plate. It’s possible he’s the most dangerous bat in the Tigers’ lineup already. The problem, of course, is that he’s still a quite poor defensive outfielder.
Reports have always had Stewart listed as a below average outfielder, and decidedly so, but it’s been rough seeing it on display. We’re too early into his major league career to turn to defensive statistics to grade him, but most would agree that statistics haven’t been necessary. Stewart’s instincts, speed, and arm are all a good deal below average, and we’re likely looking at a future DH. For the time being, his power is a sight for sore eyes in an enfeebled Tigers lineup. Stewart’s bat will get him plenty of time to settle in and try to improve at the major league level.
Spencer Turnbull has been low-key impressive
The Minnesota Twins beat up the rookie starter for six runs in his major league debut on September 19 at Comerica Park. Turnbull responded with a strong outing six days later at Target Field, when he held the Twins to one run over six innings. His numbers aren’t exactly wowing anyone, but we’re only talking about 11 1⁄3 innings here. More important, has been how well his stuff has played against major league hitters.
Turnbull has been a fairly well regarded pitching prospect all along, of course. He was the Tigers’ second round pick back in 2014. Injuries and command issues early in his pro career held him back and drew skepticism about his future. However, he’s been healthy now for a season and a half and has grown with the consistent reps.
While he’s going to have to continue to improve his command to stick as a starter, the raw stuff appears plenty good enough to handle major league hitters so far. He’s a hard-throwing power pitcher with a pair of mid-90’s fastballs, good extension on all his pitches, and a solid collection of secondary offerings. The way his stuff has played, the too early impression is that Spencer Turnbull is likely to be a major league pitcher for some time to come. The question is whether at the back of a starting rotation, or better used in small doses as a reliever. That’s a question that has followed Turnbull all along, and will take a lot more work to answer.
Dawel Lugo looks overmatched
Lugo was the highest ranked prospect acquired in the J.D. Martinez last year, but has long been regarded as unlikely to max out his profile as an everyday starter at the major league level. There is raw power untapped in Lugo’s frame, but lack of discipline and pitch recognition badly undermine that potential. He does have some bat speed, and the hands to get the barrel to the ball, but his time in the upper minor league levels has been marked with declining discipline and power. It’s a problem in that just about every scouting report on Lugo going back to 2015 mentions a need for seriously improved plate discipline and pitch recognition. Despite the obvious focus on those issues, Lugo has lost ground rather than improving on them.
So far, his strikeout and walk rates have been fine across just 92 plate appearances with the Tigers. He hit his first home run on Friday night, and has four doubles to his credit, but still has a dismal slugging percentage of just .299. Lugo puts a lot of balls weakly on the ground to the pull field, and while he will spray some line drives, he just doesn’t drive the ball in the air enough to do major league caliber damage, and that’s an issue that has persisted since he reached the Double-A level in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ system.
If Lugo were an above average defender at a middle infield position, more enthusiasm would perhaps be justified, but he doesn’t resemble Jose Iglesias in the field. The line on Lugo has always been of a serviceable, but below average defender. So far that seems like a pretty reasonable take. He’s looked solid enough at second base to think that he may not hurt his team there, but he’s going to have to hit, and hit for power, to have enough value to start. Unfortunately, a pretty miserable 2018 campaign at the plate gives no reason for optimism.
At 23 years of age, Lugo still has time to develop, and perhaps the Tigers would be wise to give him another year at the Triple-A level. However, with other younger, more highly regarded infield prospects coming up behind him in the farm system, and few options for a second baseman at the moment, Lugo may be in a sink or swim scenario with the Tigers next season.
Matt Hall has no margin for error
Until this season, 2015 sixth round pick Matt Hall had worked almost exclusively as a starting pitcher. Though his profile has always suggested a move to the bullpen, the work allowed the lefty enough innings with which to try to develop his changeup and his command. The Tigers finally converted Hall to a reliever with the Double-A Erie SeaWolves to start the 2018 season, but thought better of it when attrition opened a spot in the Toledo Mud Hens’ rotation at mid-season. Hall thrived in the Hens’ rotation, posting a 2.60 FIP over 57 1⁄3 innings of work. He kept his walks reasonably under control, struck out a little more than a batter per inning, and eventually earned himself a late season call-up.
So far, Hall hasn’t pitched enough innings to comment on his ERA or FIP. What he’s shown on the mound, however, is the plus breaking ball he’s known for, along with a below average fastball. Hall has some deception, but with a fastball that tops out at 89.4 mph, and looks even slower because of his delivery and below average extension, it’s clear that his command is going to have to be precise to succeed. The breaking ball is great, with a very high spin rate average of 2842 rpms and nasty 11-5 sweeping action. However, without a good changeup to help keep hitters off the heater, even a Blaine Hardy-type career is going to be difficult for Hall to achieve.
If Hall can locate the fastball up and down in the strike zone, playing the curveball against it for whiffs, he may yet develop into a solid all-around reliever. More likely he’s going to function best as a specialist, taking on left-handers in tight spots. That’s a limited role for a major league team to carry on their roster, and things are going to have to tighten up for Hall to reach even that modest ceiling in the majors. He’s still just 24 years old, so we can hope for improvements, but at the moment it’s tough to envision him as ready for prime-time heading into 2019.