The Detroit Tigers have significantly improved their farm system since general manager Al Avila took over in 2015. Though that has largely come at the expense of the Tigers’ active roster, they have gone from dead last in baseball to a system capable of producing viable MLB talent.
How much they have improved is up for debate, though. ESPN’s Keith Law is on the lower end of the spectrum, as he ranked the Tigers farm system 18th among Major League Baseball’s 30 teams. The Tigers are “getting better but not there yet,” as Law put it, a summary that most fans would agree with. The Tigers landed three prospects on Law’s recently released top 100 list, headlined by righthander Casey Mize at No. 15 (the highest anyone has ranked Mize yet). Matt Manning and Daz Cameron also landed on the list after taking steps forward in 2018.
Law’s overall ranking feels low, though. Many assumed the Tigers would be in the conversation for a top 10 spot in baseball, especially after MLB Pipeline named them one of the most improved systems in the game in 2018. They may still land in or around that position in other rankings, but the lower-than-expected return on this list speaks to the lack of top-end talent in the farm system.
That dearth of impact talent stems from what they initially had to trade, as Law notes.
“...the Tigers have been hurt a bit more than most rebuilding teams by the lack of tradable assets (speaking of contracts rather than just players) on the major league club, although Nick Castellanos and a healthy Michael Fulmer could help them make another leap.”
Trading Castellanos has been on the team’s to-do list for months now, but the team doesn’t appear close to a deal. We haven’t heard much of anything on that front for weeks now, other than Castellanos’ desire to be dealt before spring training. A deal will likely happen at some point, but with such little interest in the 26-year-old right fielder throughout the game, adding any impact talent to the minor league coffers seems unlikely.
Dealing Fulmer would return a larger prospect package, but he will need to prove he can stay healthy and effective for a full season before another club pays top dollar for his services. Fulmer is under team control through the 2022 season, but has finished the last two seasons on the disabled list, and is coming off another knee surgery this winter.
Outside of dealing those two, the Tigers’ best way to improve their system is through the draft. While Tigers fans have lauded the team’s most recent draft after the club selected several high-upside players, there is plenty of risk inherent in their strategy as well.
They picked first last year and landed the best player in the draft class, Casey Mize, but then chose to put most of their remaining bonus pool in two high-risk prep hitters with question marks, which could work out spectacularly but carries a high probability of zero return.
The Tigers won’t have the benefit of taking the best available talent in the draft this year, though a No. 5 overall pick should still help. However, it falls on their minor league coaches and development staff to squeeze as much value as possible out of the farm system in order to return the team to contention in the next few years.