Almost as soon as the 2020 minor league season was scuttled due to the novel coronavirus, folks began scheming other ways to find playing time. A myriad ideas were thrown into the ring, and the current plan is still a little hazy, but Detroit has an instructional league roster set for this fall.
The Tigers’ minor leaguers will be participating in games from Oct. 14 until Nov. 8, competing against other teams in the area surrounding the Tigers facility in Lakeland, Fla. While they’ll be closed to the public, reporters and other media will be allowed to attend, meaning we’ll still get a glimpse into how things are progressing.
The season kicked off on Wednesday, so this is as good a time as any to breakdown the stories we’ll be following during this brief extension of the 2020 baseball season. Of course, it’s hard to determine anything for certain in such a small time frame. We haven’t seen Tigers prospects play since major league summer camp, though, so any small pieces of information we can gather will be useful despite the big fat sample size asterisk attached to it.
How good is Riley Greene?
It feels like an eternity ago that we were fawning over Greene and his extraordinary performance at big-league camp during Spring Training. Of course, he was just riding a hot streak, but the underlying talent that allowed him to hit a bunch of home runs and take a bunch of walks is no mirage. He spent the whole summer marinating at the alternate training site in Toledo and came out of it feeling better than ever before.
“My confidence is the highest it’s ever been,” he said to Cody Stavenhagen of The Athletic. “My swing right now feels better than it’s ever felt in my life.”
Those are remarkable words from a young man who’s been praised since day one for his uniquely refined swing. If they’re true, and he really has improved himself to an appreciable degree, it’s going to be a real treat to watch him torch opposing pitchers during instructional league play. Aside from Spencer Torkelson, it’s tough to name a hitter in the farm system with a higher ceiling. If he can be fast-tracked to reaching that potential, it will do a great deal of good toward getting this team out of the doldrums.
First look at 2020 draftees
Of the six players the Tigers selected in the 2020 amateur draft, five will be receiving playing time in the instructional league. The exception, catcher Dillon Dingler, was not included due to an undisclosed injury. The choice to include all of the team’s draftees on the roster is notable because it gives the team a chance to see their prospects in a fully competitive environment for the first time as professionals.
Part of the appeal of Detroit’s recent draft class was that it was a nice blend of upside and ready-made talent. As these players go about their business in the weeks ahead, we’ll be watching for them to deliver on their pre-draft billing. From Spencer Torkelson and Daniel Cabrera, we’ll be expecting composed performances and mature at-bats. On the other hand, watching Gage Workman and Colt Keith is more about the flashes, so expect some good plays mixed with bad ones. Trei Cruz is somewhat of a wild card — he has present power and some patience, but there’s work to be done elsewhere.
International players’ progress
Entering the season, some of the better breakout candidates in the farm system were position players signed by Detroit from the international market in recent years. A few years into their development, there’s not a lot known about how much they’ve progressed. This is a good chance to get real footage of dudes who performed well in the rookie leagues and have caught the attention of national prospect hounds at Baseball America and FanGraphs.
Of particular interest is outfielder Jose de la Cruz. He was moderately well-known foreign prospect in the 2018 class, although he’s not a big enough name to attract national attention quite yet. He garnered some excitement preseason when FanGraphs revealed that his maximum exit velocity during his stateside debut was 109 miles per hour, which is elite for a player of his age. The Tigers are trying him in center field during the instructional league — likely just to see what happens — but if he sticks, he has the building blocks to be a breakout prospect next year.
The Tigers have amassed one of the most impressive groups of pitching prospects in recent memory over the course of the last few seasons. As that group gets closer to becoming the team’s major league mainstays, there hasn’t been much in the way of successors to backfill the depth chart. That’s partly due to the franchise’s heavy investments in offensive prospects — only two of their last 16 major draftees have been pitchers. The player development program isn’t exempt from blame, though. They’ve had their hands on a number of breakout candidates for several seasons and (aside from Skubal) we’ve yet to see dividends.
The group of pitchers being sent to play in the instructional league includes a variety of guys who have the building blocks for success but have yet to put it together yet. Between the projection arms in Elvin Rodriguez and Wilkel Hernandez, traits-based favorites like Keider Montero and Alex Lange, and flamethrowers like Jason Foley and Max Green, there’s a good chance one has taken a big step forward during the hiatus. We’ll be keeping a close eye on reports to see if there’s a new arm to add to the high-caliber group Detroit’s collected.