Prospect stock is a pretty sketchy commodity. Teams that regularly develop good MLB players out of the draft and international free agent market are few and far between. Even for good prospects, their work ascending the minor league levels is typically a process involving breakthroughs, regression, and long periods of flat growth in their skills and potential. Player development is not a linear path, and any of the prospects on the following list could completely flip the script in 2019. Their presence here is simply a reflection on the state of their overall progress and developmental timetable within the Detroit Tigers’ farm system.
Several of these players, in fact, rank in the top 20 of BYB’s 2019 rankings of the Tigers’ farm system. Two are former first round picks, so we’re not talking about guys who have always worked at the fringes of true prospecthood, either. The point is to identify particular players under serious pressure to have a strong 2019 campaign. Failure to do so could result in some of these players being cut loose by season’s end. Others have more time left in their prospect clock, but took a big enough step back in 2018 that a serious resurgence is necessary to recapture their momentum toward their ceiling as a player.
OF Derek Hill
Yes, this entire category could probably be named after Derek Hill at this point. Falling 14 places in our rankings from a year ago, Hill is the most obvious candidate for a player who desperately needs a breakthrough. After parts of five seasons in their system, Hill needs to graduate to the Double-A level and have some success, or his days in the Tigers organization are numbered.
Unfortunately, Hill, who just recently turned 23, has yet to make a real case for promotion above the A-ball levels on his actual merits. While he retains some tantalizing tools, and his path to the major leagues remains an obvious, if narrow one, even a future fourth outfielder role may prove out of the reach of his bat. The Tigers went so far as to leave him exposed to the most recent Rule 5 draft, which tells you his days are numbered without major growth in 2019.
Hill played 106 games in 2018, the most of any season in his minor league career. He has added some muscle over the past two years and tightened his swing mechanics. He retains his game-changing ability in the outfield and on the basepaths, but the results have remained painful at the plate. Already on the hot seat with many prospect watchers, Hill posted just a .625 OPS for the Lakeland Flying Tigers in 2018. Coupled with a 28.5 percent strikeout rate, those numbers were enough to put many observers off the Hill train for good. The only hint of optimism came late in the season as he finished with a solid (though still modest) month of August.
There’s not a lot of gray area at this point. You have either cashed in your chips on Hill, or you’re hanging on for one last rodeo in 2019. We will cross our fingers, point to the fact that he still has just half as many pro at-bats as Dawel Lugo, for example, and hope a move to a more hitter friendly environment in Erie is what the doctor ordered.
RHP Alex Faedo
The situation isn’t anywhere near as dire for the Tigers’ 2017 first round pick, righthander Alex Faedo. While he took a serious step back in his first experience in pro ball, there remains plenty of time for him to turn it around, and reasons to expect that he will. The Tigers will be patient with him, but if he is unable to get himself into better condition and rediscover his fastball velocity in 2019, his profile quickly degrades into that of a Luke Gregerson-type reliever who relies heavily on a plus slider to keep hitters off a rather average fastball. Thought a somewhat low risk prospect when he was drafted, Faedo’s 2018 season clouded his future in the minds of most observers.
Faedo has some issues in his delivery, namely a poor drive off the rubber and a corresponding tendency to fly open into his release. This results in meager extension at his worst, producing a flat, running fastball that isn’t good enough to beat advanced hitters. With the 93-95 mile-per-hour velocity he had as a junior at the University of Florida, these issues are mitigated. However, sitting closer to 90 mph, as he did at Lakeland and Erie in 2018, isn’t going to cut it. The loss impacted his slider as well. While Faedo handled A-ball with no issues, he ran into a wall against a better, deeper class of hitters at the Double-A level. The 15 home runs he allowed in 60 innings for the Erie SeaWolves testify to that fact.
On the other hand, there’s no reason to get panicky with Faedo yet either. The Tigers were careful with him after the draft for good reason. He was recovering from surgery on both knees heading into his junior season at Florida. He pitched a long season which saw him dominate in a College World Series winning run. The Tigers put him on the shelf until spring camp in 2018, so perhaps it’s not all that surprising that his arm looked out of shape.
Even so, Faedo threw 121 innings split evenly between the Advanced-A and Double-A levels. His strikeout and walk numbers were good, and he finished reasonably strong in his final few starts. If Faedo shows a livelier arm this year, his stock will rebound immediately, even if his numbers are lackluster. If he can’t, the Tigers will be forced to reassess his future role in the organization.
RHP Sandy Baez
For several years now, Sandy Baez has stood out from the typical crop of power righthanders in the Tigers farm system. Unfortunately, the refined command and solid third offering Baez needed to hack it as a starter never came together. Expectations all along were that the hard-throwing 25-year-old would probably move to the bullpen eventually, and that forecast came to pass in 2018. Unfortunately, the transition hasn’t gone as smoothly as Baez or the Tigers would like.
The highlight of Baez’s season came on June 4, when he made his major league debut against a powerful New York Yankees lineup. Arriving directly from Double-A, Baez opened the eyes of a lot of Tigers fans who had only heard his name to that point. While he walked three batters, he managed to blank the Yanks anyway, throwing 4 1⁄3 hitless innings of shutout ball. However, this high point in Baez’s season came early, and it was all downhill from there.
After another summer scuffling in a starting role for the Erie SeaWolves, Tigers finally decided to bite the bullet. Baez made the transition to the bullpen and rejoined the major league club in September. Things didn’t go smoothly, though, as hitters keyed in on his weaker secondary offerings and hit Baez around in eight relief appearances. He got a bit shy of the strike zone, and the walks started to pile up. The same held true in the Arizona Fall League, where he gave up 12 earned runs in 11 innings of work.
The Tigers hoped Baez could put those repetitions to work in learning to settle into the erratic rhythms of a bullpen role. So far, the jury is still out. Baez doesn’t pack the type of secondary pitches that offer much cushion. He is going to live and die with his big-time fastball in short, maximum effort bursts. So far, his command has gone backwards since moving to relief. He needs to get it together in his age-25 season as a much deeper Tigers 40-man roster starts putting pressure on older prospects who have stalled out.
LHP Gregory Soto
The 23-year-old Soto remains one of the more intriguing arms in the Tigers system. Heading into the 2019 season, he finds himself in a similar position to where Sandy Baez was two seasons ago. Soto brings a pair of high quality offerings to the table, but after a nice step forward in 2017, he struggled mightily with his control at times in 2018. He is already on the 40-man roster, and isn’t in danger of being cut loose even if things don’t go as planned this season. However, the specter of an obvious reliever profile means that he may only have one more go as a starting pitcher before the Tigers decide to make a change.
Soto sits around 92-95 mph with a lively four-seam fastball, and backs it with a 11-5 curveball that varies between an easy plus pitch, and a simply above average one. He hasn’t made progress with a third pitch, nor with his control. It’s still a very strong arsenal for a left-handed reliever, as Soto can touch 97-98 mph occasionally. However, a full season at Advanced-A Lakeland in 2018 made clear that, while he is rarely hit hard, he needs a major improvement in his strike throwing to retain hope of hitting his alternate ceiling as a back-end starter or late innings lefty reliever.
2B Dawel Lugo
Life hasn’t been fair to Mr. Lugo. He never asked to be the “key piece” in the J.D. Martinez trade, and it’s perhaps unfortunate that his place in that deal led to slightly unreasonable expectations from Tigers fans. A fringe-average second baseman, but one who won’t provide value there or with his feet, Lugo doesn’t have the tools to be a versatile bench player at the major league level. For better or worse, he has an all-or-nothing profile. Lugo will either hit, and hit for solid power for a middle infielder, or he won’t have a substantial career in the major leagues. That puts a lot of pressure on his bat, and unfortunately, it was at the plate where Lugo finally hit a wall at the Triple-A level.
Hopes for Lugo revolve around his obvious above-average raw power and hand-eye coordination. Only a year ago, he was coming off a Double-A campaign split between the Tigers and Arizona Diamondbacks’ affiliates in which he cracked 13 home runs. He can put the barrel on the ball with authority. But, as he has faced better pitching in the upper levels, he has made contact too often, mainly on poor pitches to drive, leading to a lot of routine ground balls and lazy fly outs. His poor discipline and a distinct lack of in-game power with the Toledo Mud Hens in 2018 have to be reversed, and quickly, or he has no shot at even being a career role player in the major leagues.
In reality, Lugo was always a bit of a fringe prospect who will probably see major league time simply as the next man up, but isn’t bound for a long-term role without a real offensive breakout. Still, the power potential in his bat will earn him more opportunities to prove us all wrong.