Things are back on track to get an MLB season underway and players included on 60-man rosters are reporting to camp on Wednesday. However, the unfortunate, though not unexpected, news came through on June 30 that there will be no 2020 MiLB season. It’s a massive bummer for fans who follow prospects and most enjoy the minor league action, but it could also be a career altering choice for a countless number of players throughout the league.
Loss of playing time isn’t the death knell of every career, but it’s one big reason why major surgeries are so dreaded. Players cannot improve unless they’re consistently playing against others with a similar talent level. While all 30 teams are in the same boat, the loss of the minor league season is going to hurt some players more than others. While the top prospects and more advanced players are populating the 60-man player pools around the game, younger guys and those on the fringes of real prospect status will be the ones taking the biggest hit.
Let’s take a look at some of the players in the Tigers’ pipeline who, for one reason or another, are likely to be uniquely hurt by the loss of playing time this year.
SS Wenceel Perez
Perez, who was at one point the talk of Tigers fandom, has sputtered somewhat in the last two seasons as he’s failed so far to get a good foothold in Low-A ball. He has a few interesting tools - his ability to make contact is miles ahead of most other players in the Midwest League and he’s an above average runner. The rest of the package falls short, though. His approach at the plate is less than judicious and as a result the quality of contact isn’t what it could be. In addition, he’s a pretty inconsistent defender and sometimes looks like he doesn’t belong up the middle.
These are issues that sometimes can be worked out with playing time. To his credit, there were occasions near the end of last season were he looked far more put-together than in previous viewings. A performance of .233/.299/.314 on the season doesn’t inspire much confidence, though. That’s not to say he’s a lost cause; Perez won’t turn 21 until October, meaning he has plenty of time. But it’s certainly time to stop spinning his wheels and start advancing toward the jump into the upper levels. Given plenty of reps in 2020, he would had the chance to prove he can consistently choose better pitches and smooth out flaws on defense.
3B Nick Quintana
The Tigers’ second-round pick in 2019 was well received by fans, excited by the potential of adding a polished position player to the farm system with attractive attributes both at the plate and in the field. The excitement quickly turned to frustration as Quintana didn’t turn up in pro ball as advertised. He struggled to stay afloat with the Whitecaps, playing against a lower level of competition than he had dominated as a college player. He struck out far too often, courtesy of a grooved swing.
He wasn’t polished in the field, either. His play at third was choppy and he produced an exorbitant number of errors. Chris Brown wrote a segment for Tigers Minor League Report examining a handful of his errors, and found that things are not as bad as they seem. “I see a lot of the ingredients of an above-average defender,” Brown concluded. “He seems to have a quick first step and good range, his hands work well, and he gets himself in good throwing position.” Given his highly successful college career, it’s not unreasonable to project a rebound, but after the rough start, spending a year and a half on the shelf was not what the doctor ordered.
RHP Alex Lange
Lange was one of two players plucked from the Cubs in the trade that sent Nick Castellanos to Chicago. He was well-regarded as a starting pitching prospect out of Louisiana State University during his draft cycle, but stagnated a bit in pro ball. The Tigers immediately transitioned him to the bullpen, where he can rely more heavily on his excellent offspeed pitches and protect his now-lackluster fastball from getting walloped. His command is also conducive to a bullpen role, and it seems likely that he will thrive in short outings.
The issue is that he’s getting a little long in the tooth for a prospect. He’ll be 25 years old by the time the 2021 season rolls around, which is generally seen as the dividing point where players age out of prospect status. He’s yet to play above Double-A and would have benefited from showing his potential worth as a future bullpen piece. Instead, he’ll be forced to pick up where he left off next season or risk being pushed out of the frame.
C Sam McMillan
The Tigers tried to get creative in their approach to the MLB draft in 2017, and it’s difficult to ding them for the sentiment. The execution left much to be desired, unfortunately. Their master plan was less than successful, as second round pick Rey Rivera has more or less washed out already. However, there’s still hope for McMillan, who they overpayed to sign in the fifth round as a prep catcher out of Florida. His skills both as a defender and at the plate have been called into question at various times, but the team always knew his development would be a long-term project.
Three years have passed since then, though, and it’s time for McMillan to throw it into gear. He was a highly productive hitter with the Whitecaps last season according to wRC+, but the approach he used to produce those results is unsustainable at higher levels. He’s a patient hitter but struggles with barrel control, leading to high walk numbers paired with too many ground balls and a low power output. McMillan is still less polished than most players his age - he’s 21 years old - but the building blocks are there. He really needs the playing time to put them together.
RHP Elvin Rodriguez
Expected to pitch for Double-A Erie, Rodriguez’ 2020 season would have been his first showing in the high minors. He was acquired from the Angels with the idea that he had quite a bit of projection remaining, and it was only a matter of time before his reedy body filled out and his fastball velocity would pop. Two years later, and that has yet to happen. He’s put up a pair of capable but unremarkable campaigns in with the Whitecaps and Flying Tigers, but his stuff ranges from fringy to a tick above average.
Because things haven’t changed for Rodriguez all that much since coming to the Tigers, he is the kind of pitcher who needs to prove himself at every step along the way. Even against low-level competition, he gets brutalized when his command is off and the margin of error in his march to the major leagues in razor thin. His upcoming campaign in Double-A would have been very informative about what lies in store for his future.
OF Parker Meadows
The Tigers’ followed their selection of the ultra-polished Mize in 2018 by selecting an ultra-raw Meadows. The younger brother of Rays star Austin Meadows, his tools are eye-popping but he struggles to show them consistently (are you sensing a pattern?) and his 2019 numbers reflected that. He hit for a meager .221/.296/.312 line in 2019, albeit against older competition. Frustrated fans have quickly written him off, but his athletic abilities are still intact. He’s a blazing runner and plays the field well, not to mention considerable raw power potential.
What will be the key to unlocking his potential? I’m no hitting coach, but one AL scout complained to me that his swing features a dramatic hitch before as he loads, which can cause timing issues. The only way to smooth out a problematic swing is through reps, which Meadows won’t be getting this year. If he gets things on track in 2021, he could claim the “center fielder of the future” title, but there’s substantial work to be done, work that demands time on the field.
There are plenty of other prospects who could have been included in this list. It was a struggle to select only six of them. Wilkel Hernandez seems to be on the edge of a minor breakout. Gage Workman is less polished than most collegiate draftees and the Tigers would no doubt have preferred to get him right back into action post-draft. Jose de la Cruz and Adinso Reyes both could have kept their developmental momentum rolling. You get the picture.
Perhaps no one represents the issue better than second baseman Kody Clemens. A fringe prospect with some tools and baseball IQ, Kody Clemens was bound for Erie this year and needed to take a step forward with the bat against better competition. Now, when he does get back into action next spring, he’ll be fast approaching his 25th birthday and in need of rapid progress to avoid being left behind. His lack of inclusion on the 60-man player pool says the pressure is going to be on him to make up for lost time next year, and that he’s probably not an organizational priority any longer. It’s a tall order to overcome all that as well as the long layoff from competitive action.
The lack of baseball to play in during the 2020 season does few people any good from an athletic standpoint, but it was the right call to keep these players safe. There was no reasonable way for minor league franchises to operate without gate revenue anyway. Unfortunately, it means delaying or even derailing the development of a lot of young players. We’ll have to wait and see what the long-term impact of this choice is, but in the short term, it really stings.