Five years is quite a long time in baseball terms. It’s difficult to reconcile the seemingly endless decline of the Detroit Tigers with the realization that way back in 2015, they were just a year removed from their last postseason appearance. Those now classic teams had grown overripe, but we certainly didn’t think we were beginning a half decade as the worst organization in baseball.
With the club still in win-now mode, the selection of prep right-hander Beau Burrows with the 22nd overall pick in the 2015 wasn’t particularly heralded. Still, after years of focusing on college talent in closer proximity to helping the major league club achieve it’s goals, the first round selections of teenagers Derek Hill in 2014, and Burrows in 2015, felt like hints that some emphasis on the long game was now in order.
Burrows is a Texan and played his high school ball for Weatherford High School. While his listed 6’2” frame wasn’t particularly projectible as a starter, he already featured a mid-90’s riding fastball and the makings of a quality curveball.
There weren’t a lot of high-end expectations for Burrows, and he’s generally been viewed as a future backend starter with some potential upside as a reliever for a fall back plan. However, he proved durable through his first three full seasons and made steady progress into the upper levels of the farm system. It wasn’t until this past season that he finally hit some real speed bumps.
He was waylaid by bicep tendinitis and a bout of shoulder inflammation in April before being shut down in May. He returned and threw a few good games in June before things went sideways again. The walks and home runs returned and Burrows was still struggling when an oblique injury ended his season in mid-August. With his health in a bit of question and a veritable horde of good starting pitching prospects on his tail, he could really use a strong campaign in 2020.
Beau Burrows calling card has always been his fastball. At full strength, he’ll still touch 97 mph and cruise in the 92-93 mph range. The heater has good riding life and when he’s locating it he’ll rack up a decent amount of whiffs above the strike zone. Sub-par extension keeps the fastball from drawing above average grades, but the life on it balances that issue. In short bursts, the potential for a plus fastball in relief is still there.
The 2019 season was a struggle for him, but typically Burrows is an aggressive pitcher who throws a lot of fastballs, gets a lot of weak contact and is happy to come inside on hitters, but just doesn’t have the consistent out pitch yet to be a useful major league pitcher.
Burrows more often turns to his curveball as his main secondary, but the changeup has sometimes been a better pitch for him. He struggled with both this season, but they have flashed above average at times in the past, and that gives some hope for a rebound. Presumably the injury issues played a part, but we’ll have to see if he gets some feel back and can build on it from there.
The change has some fade and is typically 83-84 mph. It’s certainly usable and with a little more conviction and command could still round into an average offering.
Burrows’ curveball is the pitch that frustrates. He throws a power 12-6 version between 78-80 mph and has an above average spin rate. Yet it hasn’t really tightened up into the consistent weapon the Tigers were hoping for. That’s more a measure of his inconsistency with it than the curveball’s potential, but one way or the other, Burrows really needs a more dependable second pitch. After a few years of waiting on it, it may be that the curveball just isn’t going to get there.
To make up for that lack, Burrows and Toledo Mud Hens’ pitching coach Juan Nieves focused on developing his slider this season. He’s flashed a slider here and there over the past few years, but despite some early potential he rarely showed much confidence with it. The injury issues impeded work on the pitch in 2019, but perhaps there’s still hope of a breakthrough. Burrows does show the ability to really spin the ball, so it’s not out of the question that he could tune up a better slider than he’s shown previously.
When a prep draft pick turns 23, we tend to consider them close to a finished product, despite them being the same age as many players in their first full season in pro ball. That equation doesn’t always hold true, and while it’s certainly possible that Burrows just doesn’t have much more to offer, there are at least small signs that he’s still making some successful adjustments.
FanGraphs has begun releasing some Trackman data along with their scouting reports, and one note that stands out for Burrows is that he improved the spin rate on both his fastball and curveball by 100 rpms this season. Adding spin guarantees nothing on its own, and Burrows definitely needs to adjust some things to use that spin effectively, but it may be a sign that Burrows is still tuning things up and getting results. The Tigers’ recent investments in technology and modern pitch design should produce some benefits along these lines so it’ll be interesting to see if he can improve the slider or show another new wrinkle in his game this year.
Like most young pitching prospects, Burrows’ continues to struggle with his command, and that was true even before dealing with bicep tendinitis and shoulder inflammation early in the 2019 season. Certainly his durability was a point in his favor until fairly recently, and assuming he puts the injuries behind him, it’s reasonable to expect less of this season’s low points. The problem is that even entering the 2019 campaign, Burrows’ trajectory seemed to be flattening out.
The fact is that Burrows’ stuff and command have improved only incrementally over the past few seasons. Prospects hit walls along the way and need time to break through, but others just approach their peak early and confound hopes of substantial further improvement. That possibility certainly exists here.
Burrows’ fastball has been maxed out for a long time now. His command regressed rather than improving as needed. He doesn’t have a dependably good second pitch and without one, even a consistent relief role in the majors is going to remain out of reach.
One season with a few injuries and no improvement can be written off, but there is going to be pressure on Burrows to bounce back in a big way this year. He needs to sharpen one of his secondaries into a legitimate weapon, tighten his command, and most of all stay healthy. That’s a pretty tall order, but without some real gains he may find himself bodied out of a rotation spot as the Tigers top pitching prospects crowd their way into Toledo this summer.
All of which is to say that we know we’re riding with Beau Burrows a bit at 12th in our rankings here. By this time next year he may well be a reliever, and perhaps not one of the highest ranked relievers on the list. But his 2019 season was the first big dose of adversity Burrows faced in the minor leagues and there is some staff consensus that he’ll come back stronger for it in 2020.
Projected Team: Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
Smart money says the club wants to give Burrows another year as a starter, and won’t be in any hurry to rush their top prospects to Triple-A early in the season. If he comes back healthy and has a solid spring, the Tigers will slot him back into the Mud Hens rotation and hope the offseason has him renewed and ready to take another step in his development. If things go poorly, we’ll have to see just how patient the organization is willing to be considering the number of talented young starters primed for approach to the major leagues this year.