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Tigers Prospect Notebook: Updating early season minor league storylines

Spoiler alert: Casey Mize and Matt Manning are really good.

Kody Clemens has heated up down in Florida
Terri Nummer

After the first month of the minor league baseball season, we chronicled several of the key storylines from down on the Detroit Tigers’ farm system. Now that another month has passed, let’s take a look back and see how those same headlines from early on in the season are playing out as we approach the dog days of summer.

The big arms

Casey Mize and Matt Manning tore through the month of April, and have showed no signs of slowing down into mid-June. Both had single outings in which they gave up a pair of home runs. Otherwise, they have absolutely devastated Eastern League hitters and are making a strong case to be the most dominant starting pitching duo in all of minor league baseball. Opponents are hitting just .180 against Manning and .193 against Mize this year. With both horses already over 70 innings pitched, it will be interesting to watch how the Tigers manage their workloads into August.

Alex Faedo has been a little up and down, showing some of the same long ball vulnerabilities we saw a year ago. There are flashes of brilliance mixed in, though, including two double-digit strikeout outings. He is effectively using his changeup and slider in any count, which is great to see. Furthermore, the velocity on his fastball isn’t lighting up radar guns. But it’s also not the talk of the town anymore. He is living in the low-90s, topping out around 93 mph, and that should be fine for him. The key is getting it on the right plane and keeping it out of the heart of the plate so he can tunnel and change eye levels.

Beau Burrows was off to a solid, if unspectacular, start in Triple-A Toledo. Unfortunately, the 22-year-old landed on the injured list with shoulder tendinitis and hasn’t pitched since April 27th. Burrows is rehabbing down in Lakeland and it seems he close to returning to game action very soon.

The Erie SeaWolves outfield

Derek Hill and Jose Azocar got off to sizzling starts in April, leading many to start questioning whether their hit tools had finally arrived. Hill fell hard and fast, posting just a .198 batting average in May with 33 strikeouts in 24 games. Currently, Hill is in the midst of a little four-game hitting streak in which he is 6-for-18. Hopefully, he can find some consistency with the bat over the summer. Azocar’s fall wasn’t quite as drastic, but it was still steep. After posting an .892 OPS in April, Azocar got on base at just a .280 clip in May. Through June 10th, his OPS has fallen 175 points to .717. The low walk rate and lack of extra-base power, both of which have plagued Azocar throughout his career, continue to be his Achilles heel.

Cam Gibson also came out of the gate with a hot bat. Despite continuing to get on base at a consistent rate (.335 for the year), his isolated power (ISO) is just .121. In the absence of any other truly exceptional tools, it’s difficult to project a corner outfielder with such light power numbers.

Willi Castro

Perhaps no Tigers prospect was off to a hotter start than Willi Castro. The 22-year old shortstop from Puerto Rico came out of April with a .337 batting average and basically duplicated the same offensive output in May and currently sits at .320 for the year, good for sixth in the International League. Castro’s discipline has improved this year, as his walk rate is up around 10 percent, well above his career pace.

The only thing holding Castro back from a job in Detroit right now is his defense. After committing just 15 errors all of last season, Castro has 12 already through 53 games. He just tends to get a little sloppy on the routine plays sometimes and needs to be more consistent. His day in Comerica Park will be coming soon.

The other Hill

Garret Hill didn’t allow a run until May 13th. He was subsequently rewarded with a promotion to Lakeland. In three Florida State League starts, the 23-year old righthander out of San Diego State has had similar success, allowing just three earned runs in 13 23 innings and holding opposing hitters to a .167 batting average. It is yet to be seen whether Hill’s assortment will work in the upper levels of the minors, but this is fantastic production to get out of a 26th round pick.

Tarik Skubal

One of the more exciting developments of the 2019 season has been that of Tarik Skubal. After being drafted in the ninth round in 2018 out of Seattle University, Skubal was labeled as a guy who was likely headed to the bullpen. The Tigers have decided to try and groom him as a starter, however, and gave him a very aggressive assignment in High-A Lakeland.

Skubal has answered. While not every start has been a gem, the overall body of work has been impressive. The 22-year old southpaw has rung up 72 hitters in 61 13 innings and is effective against lefties and righties alike, leading many to start questioning when his flight to Erie will be scheduled.

A few who are struggling

A handful of players were off to rough beginnings to the 2019 campaign. Let’s check in on them and see who has rebounded.

Rey Rivera: The Tigers gave Rivera 99 plate appearances in Lakeland and it simply did not go well. He struck out 34 times and was hitting just .178 when they moved him back down to West Michigan. Things are going much better down there, as Rivera is hitting .260 with a .784 OPS in 25 games.

Kody Clemens: Clemens broke out of his early season funk in a big way, knocking 15 extra-base hits in May, slugging at a .529 clip. Perhaps the only thing keeping Clemens from a promotion to Erie is his 4-for-33 line against left-handed pitching. He will need to improve upon that in the upper levels.

Brock Deatherage: Things got even worse for Deatherage in May, as he struck out 33 times and walked just twice the entire month. June has been much kinder, as he is currently riding a seven-game hitting streak. He hasn’t struck out in either of the last two games, which is the first time this season he has gone consecutive games without a whiff.

Wenceel Perez: The 19-year old shortstop continued to struggle through May, but has begun to string to together some multi-hit games. Perez is 10 for his last 27 with a homer and three doubles.

Zac Houston: For the first time since being drafted in the 11th round out of Mississippi State in 2016, Houston faced adversity. After giving up 20 earned runs and walking 14 hitters in his first 18 innings pitched, Houston was sent down to Double-A Erie to get things straightened out. Since his demotion on May 29th, he has worked 5 23 scoreless innings, with seven punch-outs and just one walk.

Sandy Baez: The entire season has pretty much been a disaster for Baez. Despite sporting a 7.58 ERA at the time, the reliever was called up to Detroit on May 17th when Rule 5 pick Reed Garrett was designated for assignment. Baez appeared in just one game with the Tigers before being sent back down to Toledo. He has not pitched since May 27th, and was placed on the injured list on June 1, citing a “minor illness.”

Kyle Funkhouser: Funkhouser’s early season struggles can likely be traced back to shoulder impingement, which landed him on the injured list for the entire month of May. The 25-year old righthander has dominated in his first two rehab starts and should be full-go from this point forward, with a chance to land in Detroit later this summer.