Of the four drafts overseen by Detroit Tigers’ general manager Al Avila since taking over in August of 2015, it’s the 2017 edition that has drawn the most criticism. The story is far from written at this point, but quick flameouts from several high picks that year have left it largely up to first round selection Alex Faedo to redeem things.
Over the past two and a half seasons, Faedo has been pushed to the backseat by the outstanding trio of starting pitching prospects the Tigers have assembled. Matt Manning, Casey Mize, and Tarik Skubal will continue to get top billing, but there is an impressive secondary tier of young arms behind them with Faedo, wild card Franklin Perez, and southpaw Joey Wentz leading the way.
Building around pitching takes an awful lot of depth to pull off successfully. The Tigers have taken a bit of a risky path in spending most of their first round picks on pitchers the past five years. It could pay off handsomely if ownership eventually takes advantage by spending on higher priced free agent position players.
However, for this to work and assuming the good faith of ownership here, the Tigers need to develop that second tier of arms into both depth for the future rotation and bullpen, and also as potential trade chips to help complete the roster. They need a few players like Faedo to succeed if they’re going to be able to balance out some of the weaknesses remaining in the farm system.
Faedo is a Tampa, Florida product and played his college ball for the University of Florida. The first glimpse Tigers’ fans and prospect watchers got after the Tigers selected him with the 18th overall pick in 2017 was a series of dominant starts by the junior to help lead the Gators to a College World Series title.
The big right-hander showcased a tough fastball sitting 93-94 mph with good control, and broke off nasty wipeout sliders all tournament long to pile up strikeouts and weak contact. Faedo’s stock had slipped pre-season due to surgery on both knees and a slow start to his junior year. At the time, it looked like the Tigers may have gotten something of a steal with the 18th pick. His size, competitiveness, and precocious breaking ball all made a very positive impression.
After a long college season, the Tigers shut Faedo down for the rest of the year and he didn’t pitch again until spring camp in 2018. Immediately there were some warning signs. Instead of the expected 93-94 mph fastball, he was sitting close to 90 mph. Faedo spendt the first half of the season in the Florida State League, where he was effective, but the strikeouts were lacking and the contact against his fastball was a little loud. Things got markedly worse when he graduated to Double-A in mid-June and he starting serving up a ton of home runs as well.
None of this was good for his stock as a prospect, and a lot of evaluators moved off of Faedo after seeing the velocity drop in 2018. Early on, we had noted some mechanical issues here that needed to be addressed, and there was little progress in evidence on those fronts as the 2018 season ended either. The long post-draft layoff was postulated as part of the source of his struggles, and we advised the fanbase to give him time, but the only way to change minds was to come out with a strong bounceback season in 2019. Fortunately, Faedo was able to pull that off.
Faedo cleaned up some elements of his delivery, improved his fastball and slider, and was excellent all year long working in a stacked Erie SeaWolves rotation. Crucially, his velocity was back up into the low 90’s and topping at 95 mph this past season after substantial offseason work. Across all Double-A leagues, he posted the third best strikeout rate among qualified starters while putting up a walk rate of just 5.3 percent. There were still a few more homers than one likes to see, but overall the strong campaign set the 24-year-old right-hander up for his approach to the major leagues in 2020.
Faedo’s size, command, and plus slider have been the standout points in his profile from the beginning. While he’s not particularly athletic, his 6’5”, 230 pound frame hints at the ability to remain durable and eat innings at the major league level. As he’s adjusted his delivery, he’s also started to use that height to advantage, developing better two-plane movement on his fastball this season.
We’ve written a few times about Faedo’s mechanics, his weaknesses, and the adjustments he made in 2019 to improve. In short, he really improved his posture and as a result he was striding on line and getting his arm up into a better position to throw with extension toward the plate. The result was more downhill plane, and as Matt Manning suggested, more true backspin, improving the ride on the fastball. Per FanGraphs scouting data, Faedo added an average of 150 rpms to his fastball and 200 to his slider over the course of the season, putting them both above average.
Faedo also saw nice gains in his command, throwing a high ratio of strikes while still getting plenty of whiffs. Much of the season he was effectively spotting the fastball and the slider, and if the delivery changes diminished any deception it wasn’t apparent in the results.
He posted three starts with double digit strikeouts, and got off to a strong start with seven no-hit innings on April 24th to lead the SeaWolves to a combined no-hitter over the Bowie Baysox. There were starts where his flyball tendencies bite him for big numbers, but overall Faedo was one of the tougher Eastern League assignments for any lineup.
Faedo’s slider is his calling card and is a consistent plus offering. He gets a lot of depth on it, and has good feel for adjusting the shape and spotting it where he wants. Forced to turn to it a lot in 2018 to support his diminished fastball, it became an even more versatile weapon for him and was a big part of the huge uptick in his strikeout rate. He showed off the ability to vary the break on it more consistently, throwing a nearly straight 12-6 version away from left-handers, and adding tilt to sweep it away from right-handed hitters and backfoot the lefties.
While things certainly look brighter than they did this time last year, the fact remains that Alex Faedo’s ceiling remains fairly limited by a subpar fastball and lack of a functioning changeup. To push the bar higher, he’s going to have to make gains with one of them. Both pitches grade below average, and there isn’t a whole lot of hope for major improvements in either at this point.
The adjustments Faedo made in his delivery this year were pretty substantial and paid obvious dividends, so perhaps that bodes well for further development to come. However, as things stand he’s still working with a somewhat mediocre fastball. At 94-95 mph it’s lively enough to be at least average, but his cruising speeds of 91-93 mph are still undercut by his short stride. It’s just not a particularly powerful move off the rubber, and the history of knee issues doesn’t argue for hope of much improvement despite his size and relative youth.
Over the past two seasons, the heater has caught the brunt of the damage. Faedo consistently posts fly ball rates over 50 percent. While he gets plenty of weak contact in the air, he also benefited from an excellent defensive outfield at Erie. Now he faces a major test moving up to Triple-A where they’ll be using the major league baseball again this season. The move to the happy fun ball in 2019 predictably resulted in a home run surge across the various Triple-A leagues. That forebodes problems for a fly ball pitcher without a true power fastball by today’s standards, nor even an average offspeed pitch.
Fastball command is part of the antidote to the home runs, but any major improvement is probably going to have to come from his changeup. When he was drafted, the circle change was actually fairly promising already, but he hasn’t developed much feel for it in the interim. It was really just a show-me pitch this season and was rarely integrated into his approach.
The pitch has decent fading action, but it remains too firm and he struggles to locate it. A little more velocity on the fastball would help the separation, but that may just be out of the question. Faedo made a lot of adjustments this season that may have pushed work on the changeup to the back burner. Hopefully he can get it back to a consistently functioning third pitch this year. Odds are, he’ll need it this season to avoid a real uptick in home runs as he joins the Toledo Mud Hens’ rotation.
The 2020 season should tell us a lot about Faedo’s future viability as a starter. He shows advanced command and has thus far been reasonably durable. He cleared 120 innings in 2018, and fell just short of that mark in 2019. This is an intelligent, highly competitive pitcher who understands how to mix his fastball and slider to keep hitters off balance. He and his fellow SeaWolves’ starters all showed signs that they were pushing each other to improve, and taking advantage of the Tigers investments in technology. After a strong rebound year, it’s easier to hope that Faedo has a little more projection left and can take the step to the major leagues at some point this season.
However, there’s a decent chance that he just isn’t able to keep the ball in the park well enough to go through a major league order multiple times. Fortunately, his slider gives him a solid basis for a fallback plan as a reliever. Allowed to air out his fastball, he could presumably sit near his max at 95 mph, and use the slider in heavy volume. That’s not exactly closer material, but there is enough here to potentially support a relief profile. As teams adapt to the potential of an extra arm on the roster, it’s also possible that Faedo eventually finds his niche in some kind of long relief role.
Projected 2020 team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
Of the 2019 Erie SeaWolves rotation, Matt Manning and Alex Faedo are the two most prepared to start the season with the Mud Hens. They each posted a strong campaign last year and have now spent well over a full season at the Double-A level. The Tigers will be happy to pair the long-time roommates and throwing partners as they take the next step toward their major league goals. With Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Joey Wentz not far behind, the Toledo Mud Hens should be one of the hotter tickets in the International League this season.