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Here are 5 under-the-radar Tigers prospects to watch in 2019

“Under the radar” doesn’t quite mean the same thing now that the Tigers farm system is getting a lot better.

Yeah, really.
Jay Markle/Bless You Boys

One of the (few) redeeming qualities of a rebuild in baseball is seeing the proliferation of a team’s farm system. This is especially so for our beloved Detroit Tigers, who traded away any prospect of value for years in order to restock their major league roster.

Now that the Tigers have one of the deeper farm systems in the game, we have been able to expand our prospect coverage — not only have we expanded our top Tigers prospect rankings to include 30 names, but we have included other posts to highlight those further down the minor league ranks.

Where things differ this year, however, is in how well many of these players are known. “Under the radar” implies a certain level of anonymity, such as when we hyped Wladimir Pinto and Gresuan Silverio at this time last year. This year’s batch of under-the-radar players aren’t being ignored by the fanbase (as you’ll see with the first name) but rather by the prospect community at large. Will they turn into anything special? It’s possible, but they all still have a ways to go.

Here are five guys to watch for in 2019.

OF Brock Deatherage

Deatherage certainly isn’t under the radar to many Tigers fans. He exploded onto the scene after being drafted last year, hitting three home runs in his first professional game. He kept mashing after that, moving all the way up to High-A Lakeland by season’s end. His name (#DEATHRAGE) has only added to his legend.

But in terms of prospect status, Deatherage is certainly off the map. Our friends at TigsTown ranked him 44th in the system, while other top-30 lists (including ours) have passed him by.

At first glance, this seems like a huge error. Deatherage made rookie ball look like a joke, and posted a 130 wRC+ in 46 games at Single-A West Michigan after that. He has legitimate tools, including double-plus speed, a plus arm, and plus raw power. He can both get down the line and get after it in the outfield, and could definitely stick in center field long term. He even has the sturdy build prospect evaluators dream on, at 6’1 and 175 pounds.

So why the low overall grades? His hit tool is a real problem. Deatherage had strikeout issues throughout his collegiate days, including a 28.1 percent strikeout rate in his senior season at N.C. State. He draws plenty of walks, but still struggles with plate discipline, especially off-speed pitches. He is good at punishing mistakes, but will see fewer of those as he moves up the minor league ladder, leaving many questioning whether he will even reach the bigs, let alone star like he did in the minors late last summer.

While Deatherage may ultimately fail, he hasn’t yet, and that alone is reason to keep a close eye on him this year.

SS Kelvin Smith Jr.

If you haven’t read Kenon’s excellent profile on Kelvin Smith, Jr. and his early transition to professional ball yet, go do so now.

Smith, a 20th round pick in the 2018 draft, was a player many expected to go to college. He was the No. 240 player in last year’s prep class according to Perfect Game, a ranking that normally would lead to him being picked somewhere between the fifth and 10th round. But the Tigers came calling 10 rounds later, and Smith still answered. He was a rare late round over-slot pickup, signing for $140,000.

Despite a meager stat line to begin his pro career, there is a lot to like about Smith’s profile. He is a surefire shortstop long term thanks to quick feet and smooth actions in the field. His arm projects nicely there as well, though it’s not the railgun that other prospects in the system (Sergio Alcantara, in particular) possess. Smith is a great athlete and excellent runner, and also has good bat speed at the plate. He needs to develop a bit more there, though, as he looked overmatched at the dish in his 34 games in the GCL. If he can cut down on the strikeouts and develop more of a plan in the batter’s box, he has the tools to be a solid hitter.

SS Alvaro Gonzalez

The Tigers signed Gonzalez for a cool $1 million in 2017, making him one of the jewels of their international class that year (he was MLB Pipeline’s 24th ranked player in the class). He made his professional debut in the Dominican Summer League last year, and the numbers were solid. He drew some walks, bagged several triples, and probably did enough to earn a promotion stateside in 2019.

The 18-year-old Venezuelan is still built like a teenager, at 6’1 and 160 pounds, but should be able to add some muscle (and raw power, hopefully) as he gets older. He is a switch hitter, and one that has shown the ability to make hard contact from both sides of the plate. He has good bat speed for his age and size as well, and could add a bit more thump as he grows. His size will ultimately determine where his home is defensively, but he looks comfortable at shortstop right now thanks to his above-average athleticism. If he does ultimately need to move, he has the arm and hands to slide over to third base.

IF Josh Lester

I didn’t even think of ranking Lester in my personal top 30 list this spring. He is a former 13th round pick who is limited to a corner infield spot, and one that has only posted meager offensive numbers so far in his trek up the minor league ladder. He didn’t even make TigsTown’s massive top 50 list for 2019, and is probably just organizational fodder at the end of the day.

But man, do I want to see if his 2018 season is for real. Lester put up career bests in nearly every major offensive category last season despite moving up a level to Double-A Erie. He hit 21 home runs in 127 games and posted a career-high .196 isolated power (ISO). He doubled his walk rate from the year prior, up to a respectable 11.3 percent clip. And he did all of this without sacrificing any contact, as his strikeout rate held steady at 21.9 percent. A 120 wRC+ in Double-A ball isn’t amazing — Dominic Ficociello and Kody Eaves both topped that mark in 2017 and haven’t sniffed the big leagues yet — but Lester’s improvement is what drew my attention, not the raw numbers.

While we know that the Eastern League is a little more hitter-friendly than the previous couple stops, Double-A ball also represents a huge jump in competition. Lester’s improvements aren’t necessarily what I would call “extreme,” but they are significant enough that we should keep a close eye on what he does in the upper minors this year. He might only be a bench bat at the end of the day, but having someone who can come in and actually provide a bit of offensive thump late in the game would be a nice change of pace for a Tigers team that has struggled to hit for any sort of power throughout their rebuild.

LHP Adam Wolf

Adam Wolf is pretty boring, as far as prospects go. He manages a solid four-pitch arsenal, with a fastball that sits in the low 90s. He only projects as a back-end starter, and might ultimately fall into a left-handed relief role. When discussing the Tigers’ 2018 draft class, many skip right over the fourth round pick out of Louisville to discuss high-octane arms like Hugh Smith and Tarik Skubal.

But while Wolf won’t wow anyone with a big fastball or biting slider, he just gets guys out. He posted a 14-2 record and 2.41 ERA in three years at Louisville, striking out just over a batter per inning. He continued that success in pro ball, holding opponents to a 2.67 ERA in 10 appearances with the Connecticut Tigers last summer. While his strikeout rate dipped slightly from his college days, he still fanned nearly 3.4 batters for every walk, and allowed a 1.09 WHIP in 30 New York-Penn League innings.

We might have to wait a year or two until we really see what Wolf is made of. He will likely start at Low-A West Michigan in 2019, where many advanced college pitchers have dominated in years past. Wolf, who stands a sturdy 6’6 and 220 pounds, should be the Whitecaps’ workhorse this year. He is way down the pecking order when it comes to ranking Tigers pitching prospects, but it’s still possible he emerges as an innings-eating No. 4 starter when all is said and done.