Four weeks of baseball is a relatively small sample size at any level. Nonetheless, every year has its share of early season story lines. As we turn the page on April and head into the meat of the season, it’s an opportune time to take a look at some of the top performers across the Detroit Tigers’ farm system.
The Big Arms
Casey Mize took the entire baseball world by storm when he flipped a 98-pitch, no-hit gem on April 29. Aside from that outing, Mize spent the month of April making Florida State League hitters look like Spencer Turnbull holding a bat, allowing just seven hits in 26 innings pitched. He’s on the ascent, and it’s all Tigers fans could have hoped for and more.
Not to be outdone, Matt Manning has picked up right where he left off in Double-A last season, showcasing his overpowering fastball, deadly hammer curve, and use of the change-up as an out-pitch. Through five starts, Manning is fanning nearly 13 hitters-per-nine, and has walked just seven in 28-2/3 innings of work.
Staying with the theme, Alex Faedo apparently took none too kindly to prospect outlets writing him off after a lackluster 2018 with Erie. The 2017 first-round pick had one rough outing in which he surrendered four home runs, but has otherwise been brilliant. In four April starts, Faedo worked 23 innings, striking out 26, walking just two, and holding opposing hitters to a .190 batting average.
While the numbers aren’t as flashy, Beau Burrows’s introduction to Triple-A has to be considered a success. The 22-year-old has had his struggles with command and high pitch counts. Aside from giving up three long balls in his final April start, however, Burrows is showing that his stuff will play just fine at the highest level of the minors. His development track is where one would expect it to be.
The Erie SeaWolves Outfield
Perhaps the most stunning development in the early going has been the offensive output from the outfielders in Erie. Derek Hill, who had just 16 extra-base hits in all of 2018 with Lakeland, has already tallied 10 in his first 19 games, including three homers. The strikeout rate is still higher than you’d like, at 29%, but he’s getting on base at a .337 clip. If he can sustain anything close to that, his carrying tools will carry him the rest of the way.
Despite closing the month in a 1-for-16 funk, Cam Gibson got off to a blistering start, with 17 hits in his first 13 games. including seven multi-hit contests. Gibson doesn’t have the tools of a guy like Hill, and has struggled mightily against lefties (1-for-12); but he can be a nice platoon bat in the upper levels of the minors.
As productive as Hill and Gibson have been, the gold star in this group goes to Jose Azocar. Once one of the most highly regarded prospects in the system, Azocar has flirted with getting an “org soldier” label over the past couple seasons, due to his inability to conquer the Florida State League. Azocar has been hampered by a low walk rate and lack of power, which really limits his upside as a potential corner outfielder. The move to Erie has served him well though, and he finished the month of April hitting safely in 11 of his last 12 games. The stats are a little inflated by his completely unsustainable .441 BABIP. But part of the reason the BABIP is so high is because he is hitting nearly 40% line drives, which is astronomical. With his speed and defensive acumen, continued production anywhere close to this will definitely have Azocar’s name resurfacing in prospect discussions.
Always need some help from your defense in a no-no. Great play from Derek Hill here...even if he was playing deep second base. pic.twitter.com/LwvMMYYCSR— Locked On Tigers (@LockedOnTigers) April 30, 2019
While Mize, Manning, and Hill have stolen most of the headlines, shortstop Willi Castro is quietly off to a superb start at the plate. Castro just turned 22 last week, and hit safely in 20 of 22 April games for the Toledo Mud Hens. One of the most promising things from a statistical perspective is that Castro, who entered the season with a career walk rate under five percent, has drawn 11 walks in his first 104 plate appearances. The switch-hitter has been equally effective against both lefties and righties, and enters the month of May sporting a lofty .337/.422/.465 slash line. Already on the 40-man roster, it is looking more and more like we will get a glimpse of Castro in Detroit this season.
The Other Hill
For all of Derek Hill’s notoriety, another Hill has been absolutely dominant down in West Michigan so far this season — and that’s Garrett Hill. The Tigers’ 26th round pick in 2018 out of San Diego State, the right-hander has yet to allow a run in four Midwest League starts. His current scoreless innings streak actually spans 26 1⁄3 frames, dating back to 2018 when he pitched in the Gulf Coast League. Hill is 23 years old and features a fastball, slider, change-up assortment. Given his age, it’s difficult to get too excited about him mowing through the Midwest League. That said, he’s holding hitters to a .136 batting average and it is certainly noteworthy. We will have to wait and see how his stuff plays against more advanced lineups, but it’s obvious he’s too much for Low-A.
The steal of the 2018 draft may have come in the ninth round when the Tigers selected left-handed pitcher Tarik Skubal out of Seattle University. A Tommy John graduate, few questioned Skubal’s arm talent coming out of college; but many had concerns about his command and durability. The standard opinion was that he was likely best suited for the bullpen.
The Tigers have elected to let Skubal go as a starter for now and gave him an aggressive assignment in Lakeland to start the year. Skubal had one nightmare of an outing on April 22nd, when his command abandoned him and he failed to make it out of the second. Otherwise, he has been nothing short of dominant. Through 23 1⁄3 innings, Skubal has whiffed 31 hitters and walked just five. His best outing came on April 15th when he twirled six innings of shutout ball, with 10 strikeouts and no walks. For a system rather devoid of premium, left-handed arms, this is an incredibly promising start to the 2019 season.
Here’s an unedited clip of #Rays Vidal Brujan hitting against #Tigers LHP Tarik Skubal.— Eddy Almaguer (@EddyAlmaguer) April 27, 2019
Good afternoon (78 CB), good evening (94 FB) and good night (80mph).
Made Brujan look silly with the last pitch.
Thus far 3 IP, 2 H, 0BB, 6 K. pic.twitter.com/m1oVeN1GcD
A few who are struggling
We shouldn’t dwell on this too much, only four weeks into the season; and that goes for getting too excited about the players off to good starts as well, but here are a few names who are off to rocky starts in 2019.
Rey Rivera: 8-for-62 (.129), 23 strikeouts; Rivera has hit safely in three of the last four games in April.
Kody Clemens: 13-for-76 (.171), 26 strikeouts; reports out of Lakeland are that Clemens has struggled with his timing on even mediocre velocity, and is not recognizing spin very well.
Brock Deatherage: 10-for-46 (.217), 22 strikeouts; Deatherage has hit safely in four straight since coming off the Injured List on April 26th, but the strikeout rate is alarmingly high.
Wenceel Perez: 13-for-67 (.194), 2 XBH; Perez has cut down on his strikeouts as of late, and his four for his last seven. Hopefully, it’s only a matter of time before he breaks out again.
Zac Houston: 9 2⁄3 IP, 10.24 ERA, 8 BB; Houston struck out three in 1 2⁄3 innings on April 30th, earning his first save of the season. Control and command have otherwise been all over the place.
Sandy Baez: 13 1⁄3 IP, 8.10 ERA, 10 BB; Like Houston, the last day of the month was kind to Baez, as he worked two perfect innings and struck out Reds top prospect Nick Senzel in the process. Maybe that will be the confidence boost he needs.
Kyle Funkhouser: 17 2⁄3 IP, 7.64 ERA, 18 BB; Funk shockingly failed to make it out of the first inning in consecutive starts.