Nowhere on the field are the Detroit Tigers’ organizational holes more obvious than in the middle of their infield. Niko Goodrum may well prove a solid stopgap at shortstop for a few seasons, but Jonathan Schoop is just passing through, and beyond them the Tigers have little in the way of interesting prospects within the farm system.
Wenceel Perez is currently one of the few interesting bets to change the situation.
The 20-year-old switch-hitting shortstop is a long way from the major leagues. However, excellent contact ability and improving defensive skills give him a clear path to a long career, and perhaps a fairly good one if he can tap into a little more power along the way there.
Perez was signed as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic in the class of 2016. At the time, the Tigers weren’t really spending much in the international free agent market, so the $550,000 bonus allotted to him was a major investment by their standards and put Perez on the radar from the moment he signed.
The 5’11” shortstop proved a tough out in his early work in the Dominican Summer League, and carried that trait through his rookie ball stint in 2018 before reaching West Michigan late in the year as an 18-year-old. His early emergence from rookie ball brought Perez some notice, including his first major appearances on various Tigers prospect lists throughout the 2018-2019 offseason. Meanwhile, his 16 game initiation to the Midwest League resulted in a solid .765 OPS that hinted at a potential breakout in 2019.
Instead, Perez was unable to translate his bat-to-ball skills into hard contact for average or power in 124 games for the Whitecaps this year. The strikeout and walk numbers remained very compelling, particularly for a player in his age-19 season in A-ball, but overall it was a bit of a disappointing campaign that started poorly and improved only modestly in the summer months. At his age, a mediocre season is easily shrugged off, but he needs to get back on track this year and start making further progress.
The first thing that stands out about Perez is his innate feel to make contact in any situation. His bat control is very advanced, and he’s willing to make adjustments as needed to protect the plate when he falls behind. His approach remains aggressive, but he has decent zone discipline, and even when fooled is plenty capable of fighting off tough pitches. Couple those abilities with plus speed, and the makings of eventual average defense at the shortstop position, and you have a prospect who could play a nice part in the Tigers future.
Perez hits from an open stance, and has a compact, level stroke from both sides of the plate. A short load, quiet head, and quick hands allow him to make a lot of contact. That holds true from either side of the plate, as his splits have been pretty balanced so far in his young career.
He’s still an aggressive hitter and will get a little jumpy at the plate. He can be made to chase his way into soft contact despite the relatively low number of whiffs. He ran hot or cold this season, and needs to be more consistent in going to the plate with a plan. Too often he trusts his hands and appears to simply take what is offered rather than hunting for a pitch to drive. More experience will help in this regard, and at very least he has a strong foundation in his ability to put the bat on the ball.
Despite plus grades on his speed, it’s unclear whether Perez will develop into a true base stealing threat. He nabbed 21 bags in 124 games this season, but doesn’t really have an explosive first step nor particularly strong instincts for thievery. Still, he should be good for 15 bags or so per season as long as he maintains his current speed. Despite his skills, he is also a little behind much of his older competition in terms of experience and that showed up in the field and on the basepaths at times this year.
Defensively, Perez is still a little raw, but has the tools to be an average shortstop. He has an above average arm, reacts well and can cover some ground, but his actions aren’t very refined. He’ll overwork a play at times, rushing when it isn’t necessary and occasionally booting a routine chance. Those mistakes should be moderated by more experience and maturity on the field. Overall Perez has solid hands, will catch just about everything hit his way and has an accurate arm when he throws under control. In time he should be be roughly average at shortstop or second base if the organization prefers.
The real issue for Wenceel Perez is a lack of power. Not just home run power either. Perez needs to drive the ball in the air more, and he’s going to need to adjust to do so. Right now he’s playing a game of pepper out there too often, trusting his hands to put the barrel on the ball rather than maximizing that contact ability with better pitch selection. When he does wait for a good pitch to hit, he often drills hard groundballs rather than driving the ball down the lines or up the gaps.
Perez does have good hands and plenty of feel for contact, and he’s a pretty well built 5’11”, 195 pounds. So the physical ability to hit for decent, if below average, power are in place. Patience early in counts might do more for him than adding muscle or pressing too much to add loft to his swing, but all three are going to be required for Perez to top out as a major league regular.
Too often in 2019, Perez went through stretches where he regularly gave at-bats away with weak contact on pitchers’ pitches early in counts. If he can trust his hands enough to stay patient and hunt better pitches knowing that he can likely still put the ball in play with two strikes, it’s possible he could surprise with near average pop as he matures. Still, it’s worth noting that FanGraphs, despite being the site highest on Perez in many ways, projects him for just 40 game power, which is a full grade below average.
Overall this is a solid package of tools without anything really eye-popping. The consensus outlook on Perez is as a future utilityman with a little upside, but that contact ability and speed, with progression in his defense, does give him a well-rounded foundation to reach the major leagues. He’ll just have to get everything out of his bat to actually lay claim to a full-time role as the Tigers shortstop someday.
Projected Team: Low-A West Michigan Whitecaps
Perez has a full season and change of Midwest League action under his belt already, but a brief tune-up there to start the year is probably indicated. He got off to a slow start last season, but hit better in July and August. Look for the Tigers to let him build off that for a month or two and try to gather some confidence and momentum before a move to Lakeland this summer.