The early stages of the Detroit Tigers’ teardown have been a source of fierce frustration and disappointment. Most understood why the Tigers needed to take a few steps back and start out fresh at the 2017 trade deadline. However, waiting for even hints of a turnaround and an influx of young talent made for a painful and often just plain dull 2018 season. Fortunately, 2019 is the point where fans can expect to start seeing a trickle of young talent that should (if the Tigers know what they’re doing) result in a flood of young players reaching the major leagues in the next couple years.
We saw a taste of what is to come in the arrival of Christin Stewart and Spencer Turnbull late last season. Players like Sandy Baez and Dawel Lugo got their first cups of coffee as well, and are exempt from the following list. While the best of the Tigers farm system will start the year with the Double-A Erie SeaWolves, we will likely see a few of the Tigers’ top prospects make an appearance in Detroit late in 2019.
In the meantime, there are several interesting young players who will almost certainly get their first look at the tall buildings this season.
The Tigers’ Rule 5 draft selection will have every opportunity to win a spot in the bullpen out of spring training. With a lively mid-90s heater and a slider that features nasty two-plane movement at its best, Garrett has the stuff to compete at the major league level. The problem is that it took him a long time to refine his command, and at 26 years of age, he apparently ran out of time in the Texas Rangers organization. Technically, he’s a bit old for prospect status, but he was a quality pickup by Al Avila and company. If he can continue to refine command of his two-pitch mix, he could work his way into a setup role later this summer.
Until this past season, the 24-year-old Robson looked much like a host of college outfielders before him. Every year, teams add college bats beyond the top five rounds of the draft and watch a couple come into their farm system and mash against young, inexperienced pitchers in A-ball. Typically, these older players have already peaked and plateaued, resulting in a quick flame out during the leap to the upper levels. Occasionally, we see an exception. In 2018, Robson was that exception.
The left-handed hitting center fielder mashed his way through the Eastern League in the first half, smacking seven home runs and snatching 11 bags in 311 plate appearances for the Erie SeaWolves. Even better, he carried some of that into Toledo, where his home run power dipped, but his overall production remained steady. Robson remains vulnerable to velocity and well-commanded breaking balls, and probably tops out as a below average major leaguer. However, as a lefty with speed that draws plus or better grades, he is the best bet to take reps in centerfield from JaCoby Jones should Jones’ struggles at the plate continue.
Because Garrett has to remain on the 25-man roster all season or be offered back to the Rangers, he gets the nod over our next candidate, reliever Zac Houston. Houston was recently profiled as our 30th ranked prospect, and like Garrett, the questions don’t revolve around raw stuff. Houston sits from the low to mid-90s with a riding fastball, and backs it with an 11-to-5 breaking curveball that will flash plus at times.
Houston’s delivery has a bit of a crow-hop in it. He gets way down the mound, increasing his effective velocity with excellent extension. The 24-year-old absolutely dominated at both the Double-A and Triple-A levels last year, wrapping up the season as the Mud Hens’ closer. His delivery may prove problematic as he continues to refine his command and consistency, but you will almost certainly get a look at him in the Olde English D this year.
At his best, Funkhouser features a solid fastball from 92 to 95 miles per hour, and three secondary offerings that will flash above-average, but generally draw average grades. The slider is typically the best of the bunch. With the ability to run his heater up to 97 mph at times, that slider goves Funkhouser a decent fallback profile as a reliever. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to make progress with his command. Missing the second half of the 2017 season with elbow issues didn’t help matters, either.
Based on age and experience, and with a host of good pitching prospects on his tail at the Double-A level, Funkhouser is running out of time to take a step forward as a legitimate starting pitching prospect. He needs to refine the slider and either the curveball or changeup into a quality third offering, and improve his command overall. Worse yet, he probably only has one more year in which to do it. Heading into his age-25 season, he is likely the next man up after Spencer Turnbull on the starting pitcher depth chart. Funkhouser will need to get off to a good start for the Mud Hens and show improvement to be worthy of that opportunity.
Castro was the reward for a smart signing last offseason. Leonys Martin was superb for the Tigers during the first half, and general manager Al Avila was able to deal him to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for Castro, a 21-year-old shortstop. Castro remains somewhat raw at the plate, and needs to improve his plate discipline, but he is a sure defender at the six. He alo brings solid wheels and a bit of power potential to the table. As a shortstop prospect, he is not a particularly good one, but has enough tools to profile as a long-term utility man who can’t quite hit enough for everyday duty on a good team.
Castro turns 22 in April, and the Tigers would presumably like to give him the whole season at the Triple-A level to work on his approach and tap into some of the modest power he showed at the lower levels of the minors. However, even best laid plans go awry, and with Jordy Mercer and Pete Kozma as the Tigers’ depth at shortstop ahead of him, don’t be surprised if Castro is called up for light duty at some point this year.
The sleeper candidates
Here we come to the really intriguing names, though the odds of any of these three making the major leagues in 2019 are quite slim. Center fielder Daz Cameron, starting pitcher Casey Mize, and catcher Jake Rogers could each potentially earn their first call-up this season. To get there, they will have to take a nice step in their development. They will also need circumstances to conspire in their favor. Unlike a lot of teams, the Tigers have typically been unconcerned with manipulating service time, but neither will they be in any hurry to debut their best prospects in the majors.
Of the three, only Cameron reached Triple-A Toledo in 2018. He handled himself well there, but still has some work to do on his pitch recognition and two-strike approach. The Tigers would no doubt like to give him most of this season to work at the Triple-A level, with an eye toward taking over the center field position in 2020. JaCoby Jones is running out of time to bring himself up to even a mediocre level of offensive production, and the only other true center fielder standing between Cameron and Detroit is Jake Robson, who is no sure thing to impress again this season. Either injury or a final washout of Jones as a major league option could potentially hasten Cameron’s ETA to the show.
Jake Rogers overcame a tough start at Double-A Erie in 2018 to post fine numbers at the plate the rest of the way, and is already regarded as a major league caliber player behind the plate. He may start at Double-A Erie again in 2019 to work with the Tigers top pitching prospects, but the organization would be wise not to let him stagnate there. A move to Toledo would allow him to work under the mentorship of defensive specialist Bobby Wilson, and would give Rogers his next test as a hitter. Expect to see him in Toledo by the time summer rolls around. Meanwhile, the Tigers are currently very thin at the catcher position, so it’s not out of the question that Rogers could find himself pressed into his first major league action late next season.
As for Mize, the Tigers’ No. 1 overall pick in 2018 was widely thought to be near major league ready back in June when he was drafted. The Tigers will no doubt take things slowly with Mize in the beginning. He may even begin the year at Advanced-A Lakeland. Based on his advanced command and repertoire, he should face little challenge in the minors and a run through multiple levels should be expected.
Of these three, Mize is the most advanced overall. However, he’s also going to throw more innings than he did in college, assuming things go well. His handlers should be wary of pushing him to the majors late in the season even if he handles the heavier workload without issue. It’s difficult to imagine the Tigers pushing him the way a contending team might, but there remains an outside chance that fans will get a glimpse of their prized prospect in 2019.