For years, the Detroit Tigers’ farm system was more of a running joke than a viable pipeline, but times have changed. Burgeoning depth in the minor leagues has made the poor results in the majors somewhat easier to take [Ed.: Maybe for the prospect guy.].
A number of factors have played into the organization’s improved depth. First of all, the Tigers are no longer trading players away from their prospect pool each July. Merely ceasing the annual outflow of young talent has had a big impact. The front office has also seemingly changed their draft strategy, and have started to spend more money on individual international free agents during the July 2 signing period. While that’s only part of the equation — and an oversimplification of the matter, frankly — the outcome has been a desirable one.
One side effect is that players who would have been ranked in our top 30 list in previous years are now being edged out. We are striving to maintain consistency in our coverage of the minor leagues, but there are still players in the organization worth talking about. They simply didn’t make the cut on our list. Here’s a brief look at six of those players.
C Sam McMillan
McMillan was the Tigers’ 2017 over-slot sign after saving money on second-rounder Rey Rivera, and he has been on the edge of the radar in the years since. McMillan is a mature and disciplined hitter who is able to work the count and foul off pitches, leading to downright pornographic walk rates. That led to a 122 wRC+ in 72 games with the Whitecaps in 2019 despite hitting for very little power and a mediocre average. He was always going to be a long-term project — he was a catcher drafted out of high school, arguably the riskiest bet one can make — and has been difficult to pin down as a prospect since turning pro.
Last year, we heard very poor reports out of Connecticut regarding every part of McMillan’s game, asserting that he was an atrocious defender and would never hit, but he has assuaged those concerns to an extent. Our staff had some in-person viewings in 2019 and came away with the impression that he should be an average catcher in time. His utter lack of power numbers is frustrating because he will show average raw pop, a respectable amount for a backstop. What he does has worked on the stat sheet overall, though, and it will be tough to ignore if he can beat the Florida State League in 2020.
OF Ulrich Bojarski
Bojarski is a catcher-turned-outfielder who came to the Tigers organization without fanfare or recognition as an international signee from South Africa. He started to get attention last year, as he made his first stint with the Single-A Whitecaps and impressed coaches with his surprising raw power. He leverages a big swing with his slender runner’s body and it earned him consistent playing time during the 2019 season. When he’s on, it produces results, as evidenced by the fact that he was the Whitecaps’ only Midwest League All-Star. He is probably a left-field-only type thanks to unreliable arm strength and accuracy, but his footwork improved throughout the season.
Bojarski has a very difficult time recognizing spin and has a frighteningly low walk rate — he drew only 16 free passes in 420 plate appearances at the Low-A level. We came away from in-person looks with the impression that his swing is a bit of a mess right now, but it is fixable. His performance also drooped significantly down the stretch but that’s more than likely as a result of fatigue — 2019 was his longest season to date, and it isn’t close. The upcoming season will be an excellent litmus test for the offensively-geared 21-year-old. If he can conquer High-A ball (and beyond?), he may make the jump onto our top 30 list.
RHP Zack Hess
Hess was pegged by many as a potential fast-tracker if the Tigers were willing to move him to the bullpen as a professional, and they did so immediately. His repertoire is well-made for a relief role, and he thrived as a closer during his freshman year at LSU. His college numbers as a whole are less than thrilling, but that was in part due to his role as a starting pitcher, a role he is not built for. As a reliever, though, he offers a sizzling fastball and swing-and-miss slider that should enable a rapid ascent through the minor leagues.
Hess missed out on a top 30 ranking because he has almost no chance to start, putting a hard cap on his ceiling. His performance in 2019 didn’t really tell us much, either. Low minors hitters struck out against him in droves, but they also were able to work him for walks, and the sample sizes were too small care about anyway. He will probably land a top-30 ranking within the next year as other relievers graduate, especially if he rockets through the system as expected.
OF Jake Robson
Robson has very little left in the tank, developmentally speaking. When he was added to the organization as an eighth round draft pick, he was received with little fanfare. Pegged as a potential fourth outfielder after he dominated the low minors, he has pretty much made it to that projection. His skill set is wheels-first, but he isn’t a plus defender because his speed can’t quite make up for unimpressive instincts and glove work. He is not suited for an everyday role but could probably fill in as a pinch runner and see time in any of the outfield positions.
Shredding Triple-A pitching to close out his 2018 campaign, the speedy outfielder’s numbers dipped in 2019 despite the offensive explosion that rocked the International League. Between that and his position in a system bursting at the seams with high-minors outfielders with high floors and low ceilings, Robson’s skill set doesn’t stick out enough to get a place on the top prospects list. He might see some time in Detroit this year, though, especially if injuries wreak havoc on the depth chart.
OF Troy Stokes Jr.
A late-season pickup that the Milwaukee Brewers tried to sneak through waivers, Stokes is one of many outfielders who could get a crack at the fourth outfield job in Detroit next season. His appeal lies in an interesting power-speed combination, but poor feel to hit and uninspiring arm strength limit him to fourth outfielder upside. Fortunately, he has hit everywhere he has gone — well, everywhere except Triple-A. In the midst of a nationwide surge in Triple-A hitting, Stokes fell on his face and posted his first-ever substandard wRC+, falling a whopping 20 percent below average.
Stokes is still worth keeping an eye on, though. He walks at a good clip even during dry spells, and he was only 23 for the whole of the 2019 season. There’s an outfield job in Detroit that hasn’t been spoken for yet, and he is on the 40-man roster. While Stokes isn’t first in line for it, it’s not hard to imagine a circumstance where an opportunity falls into his lap. If he had more potential or better numbers, he would probably crack the list.
But, then again, Milwaukee probably wouldn’t have designated him for assignment either.
RHP Wladimir Pinto
Pitchers of this ilk can be found in every organization. Pinto is a rough-hewn power pitcher with the potential for a frightening pitch mix and an absolutely frightening lack of command. I’m sure regular readers of this site could basically write the next part themselves; featuring a fastball that reaches the upper 90s, Pinto pairs it with a slider that will show the potential for plus status. His lack of a true third offering makes his sequencing somewhat predictable, though, and he walks too many hitters to be trusted in high leverage situations.
The Tigers decided to roll the dice by leaving him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft and he went unclaimed by other clubs. An initial gut reaction is that 2020 will be a very important season for Pinto, but that may not be the case. He pitched in Double-A games as a 21-year-old, and his 22nd birthday is just before pitchers and catchers report. He has some time to figure things out. It’s an outside chance — he missed the list for a reason, after all. But if he can figure out his command, it’s possible that he becomes a middle reliever or even a setup man.