While the number of pitching prospects who can make meaningful contributions for the Detroit Tigers in 2020 is up for debate, there’s no question that it will be the year the organization begins to collect returns on its rebuild. The majority of the 2019 Erie SeaWolves rotation that rocked the Eastern League last season will attempt the same trick in Toledo with their eyes on a mid-season callup.
However, the Tigers won’t be rushing any of their most talented arms. The likes of Casey Mize and Matt Manning won’t be able to make up for the lack of major league depth demonstrated in 2019 right away, and the front office will have to make additions from out of house.
The waiver wire and free agent market offers some options, but as the Tigers are unlikely to spend much money on a free agent, they could turn to the Rule 5 draft to shore up their ranks. The Tigers’ pick last year, Reed Garrett, was a reliever, but he underwhelmed and was returned very quickly. Still it’s easy envisioning them going a similar route this year and hoping for a better outcome.
If you’re unclear on how the the Rule 5 Draft works, you can read a breakdown of the rules involved here. Go ahead, we’ll wait! Otherwise, let’s take a look at the top group of pitchers available.
The first five players on this list represent picks who could feasibly help the major league club right away. The second half of the list are five prospects who would be more likely to ride the bench and be stashed in the minors after the year ends.
RHP Ljay Newsome, Seattle Mariners
Few pitchers were as dominant at their respective level as Newsome was in 2019. He was positively in charge over the course of a 100 2⁄3 inning stretch in High-A where he struck out 11.09 batters per nine innings and only walked 0.80 per nine. That was fueled by his utter command of the baseball, which MLB Pipeline calls double plus (70-grade) and a poll of minor league managers voted his command best in the California league. His stuff isn’t the hardest — his fastball sits in the 88-91 miles per hour range — but he was still able to miss bats by putting the ball exactly where he needed to. His strikeout rate took a steep decline in a nine-game stint in Double-A and his introduction to the majors would probably be rocky, but there’s potential for a backend starter to emerge.
Steamer Projections: 5.57 FIP, 6.93 K/9, 1.97 BB/9 (Video)
RHP Thomas Burrows, Atlanta Braves
The thing that will propel Burrows to a role in the majors is and always has been his slider. The pitch is a major weapon against left-handed batters. He faced the Triple-A challenge with success and maintained both a high strikeout rate, making him interesting to rebuilding teams; and high walk rates, making him expendable for the Braves. Although the new three-batter minimum rule eliminates the need for a lefty-killer in the ‘pen, there is still a chance that he could carve out a middle relief role. The Tigers bullpen was not an especially strong unit during the 2019 season, and if he isn’t immediately terrible, Burrows could hold down a role there.
Steamer Projections: 4.67 FIP, 9.28 K/9, 4.46 BB/9 (Video)
RHP Jordan Sheffield, Los Angeles Dodgers
With incredible gifts of arm strength and elite spin rates and little idea of how to control the resulting pitches, Sheffield is the quintessential stereotype of a Rule 5 pickup. His fastball reaches the upper 90s with good riding action, and if he needs to, he can use it to blow away hitters. Backing it up with a curveball and a changeup that both flash plus and an above-average cutter, there are few hitters who can really square up on him when he’s right.
Fortunately for hitters, he’s rarely right.
Sheffield’s walk rates have always been sky-high and that pushed him out of the starting rotation. If the Tigers think they can iron him out, he has a chance to be a lockdown relief arm. Scouts have been significantly less interested in him in recent years than previously, though, because he can’t seem to find a repeatable delivery, which drives his poor command.
Steamer Projections: 5.23 FIP, 9.11 K/9, 5.34 BB/9 (Video)
RHP Griffin Jax, Minnesota Twins
Jax’s career has followed a very strange arc because of his commitment to the United States Air Force, but his 2019 season was decidedly a high note. He was left unprotected because of his uninspiring strikeout rate and less than dynamic fastball. On the other hand, he’s very close to his ceiling as a fifth starter who relies on his above-average changeup and decent command. He will never have the sexiest stuff and isn’t bound to gather many whiffs, but he excels at keeping the game well in hand by inducing groundballs. An excellent athlete with a 6-foot-2 frame, a team may be able to coax more velocity, but at age 25, the mold is mostly set on Jax.
Steamer Projections: 5.53 FIP, 5.51 K/9, 2.79 BB/9 (Video)
LHP Garrett Williams, San Francisco Giants
Anchoring his three-pitch mix with a low-80s curveball, which elicits swings and misses thanks to its depth and power and FanGraphs calls double-plus at its best. He pairs it with a riding fastball that can reach 96 miles per hour and a fading changeup that projects to be average. That’s enough stuff to stick in the rotation, but his fate depends on how well he can command the baseball long-term. MLB Pipeline cites inconsistent mechanics as the source of his trouble, positing that his pitches lose their bite when he loses his delivery. That was the case in 2018, when all three regressed to a level that was unusable with poor command. It bounced back, though, and a lefty starter with a power arsenal is an excellent addition to any organization.
Steamer Projections: 4.95 FIP, 7.30 K/9, 5.21 BB/9 (Video)
RHP Gray Fenter, Baltimore Orioles
Fenter is a risk simply because, thanks to injury, he has yet to see competition higher than Low-A. There’s little comparison between that level and the major leagues, meaning he would undoubtedly face a baptism by fire if selected. At 23 years old, he’s old for the level but was a victim of Tommy John surgery that wiped out his 2016 season. He does have some appealing traits: his curveball is a weapon and he has a starter’s repertoire. It was far too much for the weak offenses of Low-A, who struck out 32.3 percent of the time against him. Without a large frame or the command to be a sure thing in the rotation down the road, though, his success will depend on whether he’s able to continue striking guys out in bunches like he did in 2019.
Steamer Projections: 6.92 FIP, 6.38 K/9, 6.24 BB/9 (Video)
RHP Sterling Sharp, Washington Nationals
It was a mild surprise when Washington didn’t protect Sharp, who has the stuff to be a backend starter and probably isn’t all that far away from reaching that projection. Born and raised in Michigan, Sharp has potential as a late bloomer, wrote FanGraphs in December of 2018. In addition to making him more projectable, evaluators like his athleticism because it enables him to throw strikes despite having lanky limbs and a complex delivery geared for deception. Keeping hitters off his somewhat soft sinker is key for Sharp’s long-term success, and he uses a slider, cutter, and changeup to do so. Thrown with excellent armspeed, the changeup is the best of the three. It mimics the sinker’s movement and keeps hitters off balance.
Steamer Projections: 4.75 FIP, 6.20 K/9, 3.43 BB/9 (Video)
RHP Braden Webb, Milwaukee Brewers
Webb, who will be 25 years old on Opening Day and has battled injury and mediocre numbers, is still a prospect because his raw tools are too good to ignore. His heater reaches 98 miles per hour, and although its value is stunted by ongoing struggles with fastball command, it’s an excellent anchor. He pairs it with a swing-and-miss curveball that is already a plus pitch according to FanGraphs’ most recent scouting report. Thus far, he has been able to stick as a starter so far because he has a passable changeup that projects to hold up long term. If he’s selected, the Tigers will probably place him in the bullpen in hopes of minimizing the impact of his command and adding an extra tick on his fastball.
Steamer Projections: 6.22 FIP, 7.59 K/9, 5.77 BB/9 (Video)
RHP Yohan Ramirez, Houston Astros
Taking the high walk/high strikeout profile to the extreme, Ramirez worked as both a starter and a multi-inning reliever across two levels in 2019. He accumulated a massive number of strikeouts during that time — 153 whiffs in 106 innings pitched — but also gave free passes to over 15 percent of hitters. Capable of blowing opponents away with a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and can reach 99 miles per hour, he can also fool them with the late action on the pitch. He also works with a slider and changeup that 2080 Baseball project as average pitches. Although the Astros haven’t given up on him as a starter, a team looking to select him will almost certainly try to hide his terrible command in the bullpen in hopes of polishing his inconsistent, choppy delivery.
Steamer Projections: 5.65 FIP, 8.66 K/9, 6.23 BB/9 (Video)
RHP Luis Rijo, Minnesota Twins
Rijo hasn’t yet captivated the interest of the national media, in part because of being buried in an incredible organization for the majority of his career as a Yankees prospect and in part because he’s yet to reach a large stage. But with a 12-6 curveball that features above average spin and plus projection, he’s worth a second look. Add a passable fastball that he fires from a clean delivery with the building blocks for plus command, he’s an intriguing project. A maxed out frame doesn’t offer reason to believe his fastball will get better, but his strong lower half and easy delivery raise no injury concerns. 2080 Baseball notes that he hides the ball well and is able to lad all three pitches for strikes and bait hitters for whiffs with the curve. If everything works out, Rijo could become a backend starter.
Steamer Projections: 6.09 FIP, 5.33 K/9, 3.79 BB/9 (Video)