Outfielder Jake Robson has been somewhat of a fan favorite around here ever since he was drafted by the Tigers in 2016. The now-24-year-old outfielder was an eighth round pick that raked in college, and brings true 70-grade speed to the table. He has always profiled as a solid fourth outfield type, but between his well-rounded skill set, hard-nosed game, and awesome nickname — “The Maple Hammer,” if you aren’t aware — many have hoped that he will eventually bring more to the table.
Turns out, there might be something here. Robson was the talk of the farm system after a scalding hot couple of months in 2018, to the extent that we had to pump the brakes on him a bit. Sure enough, he cooled off a bit down the stretch, with just one home run after July 5. He still finished the year with a .796 OPS in 245 plate appearances at Triple-A Toledo, a solid figure for a player who does everything else well. But at the time, we figured the home run pop was just a blip on the radar.
The Hardball Times thinks there might be something here, though.
Robson has a lot of potential to be a swing change monster. He had one of the highest ground ball rates in the high minors, clocking in at 58.8 percent at Double-A and 57.4 percent at Triple-A. Robson and Shed Long are the only batters under the age of 24 to post double-digit home runs with a groundball rate north of 55 percent. Despite the low launch angle approach, Robson has performed at every level, posting wRC+ of 131, 119, 133 and 127 at the four highest levels of the minors.
Well, that would be fun. We shouldn’t necessarily expect him to turn into the next J.D. Martinez — there is only so much pop a 5’10, 180 pound frame will generate — but if Robson can start lifting the ball a bit more, he could elevate himself above that dreaded “fourth outfielder” tag.
High-A Lakeland: RHP Casey Mize
It’s far too early in the minor league season to draw any statistical conclusions — something we will stress again with the next name here — but it’s hard not to be excited about what Casey Mize did in his first start of 2019. The Tigers’ No. 1 overall pick took a perfect game into the fifth inning, and allowed just one baserunner while striking out eight. It was exactly the debut we were hoping to see after he struggled a bit in Lakeland at the tail end of 2018.
There isn’t much to say about Mize that we haven’t already repeated 100 times since he was drafted. He is probably too advanced for Single-A ball, but will make a few starts in Lakeland until the weather up north cooperates. He touched 96 miles per hour with his fastball in the start, per James Chipman, and his splitter showed “nasty hard bite.”
Here’s hoping he moves up to Erie soon so we can actually watch his starts.
Double-A Erie: OF Derek Hill
Most Tigers prospect aficionados have all but given up on Derek Hill. Detroit’s 2014 first round pick has done himself no favors, batting just .245/.315/.336 across five injury-riddled minor league seasons. He finally played more than 100 games in a single season in 2018, but put up a paltry .625 OPS in High-A Lakeland. Though he is still only 23, expectations for the speedy center fielder are as low as they have been since he entered the farm system.
But man, did his 2019 season opener make me want to believe. Hill collected three hits in his Double-A debut, including a triple that showcased his wonderful speed. None of the hits were cheap either, save for maybe a seeing-eye single that he slapped through the right side of the infield.
Hill will need to prove he can do this for a full season, of course, but everything is in place for him. He finished last season healthy, didn’t suffer any injuries in spring training, and will get plenty of chances to set the table for a solid Erie lineup. He is still a longshot to turn into the everyday center fielder many were hoping for when he was drafted, but could still be a useful bench outfielder at the big league level — especially with everyday rosters expanding in 2020 and beyond.
Single-A West Michigan: OF Parker Meadows
The Tigers did what we expected and sent Meadows to the Midwest League to start the 2019 season. It’s an aggressive placement for their 2018 second round pick, but one that Meadows seems up for. He showed excellent plate discipline in short-season ball last year, drawing 10 walks in 106 plate appearances. Early returns for him aren’t great — he has five strikeouts to just one walk through two games — but the hitting conditions in South Bend looked rather miserable, especially on a rainy Thursday evening.
Fans will need to be patient with Meadows throughout the year. Jumping straight into full season ball is tough for many college draft picks, and all the more difficult for a teenager facing competition a few years older than him. He had a couple of great takes on tough pitches in the two at-bats I watched on Thursday, and still has a lot of growing to do to fill out his 6’5 frame. We’ll see how he does as the season wears on.