The Detroit Tigers farm system is vastly improved from the state it was in back in 2017 when the teardown started. However, at the premium positions they still have precious little to offer in terms of hopes for the future.
There really isn’t a player in the system who looks like a likely starting centerfielder, though Daz Cameron still has an outside shot. Meanwhile, most of the hopes for a full-time catcher lay with Dillon Dingler, the Tigers second round pick in 2020. The shortstop position may ultimately be handled by Willi Castro if he can moderate his throwing issues, but beyond him, there are no other options that look particularly viable. Wenceel Perez may be able to change that impression this year.
The Tigers inked the Dominican native for $550,000 in the 2016-2017 international free agent signing period. Now 21 years old, the switch-hitting shortstop stands 5-foot 11-inches tall and officially weighs in at 195 pounds. From the beginning, Perez showed great aptitude for making contact, and while the defensive fundamentals needed much refinement, the skills and athletic ability to develop into a good defensive shortstop were already in place.
Perez came stateside in 2018 and saw Gulf Coast League and short season A-ball action before breaking out a bit as an 18-year-old, with a solid 16 game stint for the Single-A West Michigan Whitecaps. He returned for the full Midwest League tour in 2019 and wasn’t able to build momentum in that, his age 19 season. He showed a little better discipline, and continued to put the ball in play constantly, but the quality of said contact didn’t improve.
2020 was a wash for Perez obviously, and it leaves him in an interesting position entering the 2021 campaign. There was a lot of raw ability on display with the Whitecaps, but every part of his game needed substantial refinement. Now 21 years old, his development this season is going to do a lot to sort out whether he’s a bona fide shortstop prospect, or whether he’s going to be confined to a utility profile.
Perez makes a ton of contact and his swing is built around putting the ball in play consistently. He hits from an open stance with a quiet lower half and a short, compact stroke from both sides of the plate, and sprays line drives and grounders. That quick bat and stability in the box mean that he puts the ball in play a lot despite his aggressive approach. He just doesn’t leverage his weight shift to the ball to make enough authoritative contact.
Defensively, Perez has the range, hands, and enough arm to play average shortstop at the major league level eventually. He also draws plus grades for his speed, and stole 21 bases in 2019 despite a fairly meager on base percentage. There is plenty of athleticism to work with here as long as he can develop more substantial gap power and the discipline to get to it in games.
The problem for Perez is that he’s still a slap hitter who makes far too much weak contact to get very excited about his bat. FanGraphs, for example, has a future 55 grade on his hit tool, but 40 power. Unlike Sergio Alcantara, another Tigers glove and contact specialist whose slight frame and lack of power kept him from any real notoriety as a prospect, Perez does have the size and strength to hit for decent power. He simply hasn’t shown signs of leveraging it into more consistent hard contact. With a year off to work on his strength and conditioning, the 2021 season should tell us more about his future power potential, but odds are good Perez will never approach even average in-game power.
Defensively, the physical ability to become a quality shortstop is in place, but much refinement is required. Perez has enough arm to play shortstop, but he’s not working with a cannon that can make up for sloppy actions. Based on 2019 views, he needs to clean up his fundamentals and eliminate wasted motion in order to maximize his ability and reach his likely ceiling as an average defensive shortstop. The bat isn’t going to be able to carry him if he can’t.
Ultimately Perez is in an interesting position. If the glove develops, he’s got a very solid shot at becoming a utilityman. In that role, a slap and dash hitter may still find some success. But for Perez to develop into a real future shortstop prospect, he’s got to become more selective, stop settling for playing pepper, and learn to drive the ball up the gaps with some regularity so that his speed can boost his offensive value.
That’s not an easy needle to thread, and Perez is a low percentage shot to make it as a starter. Still, there is enough here that the package of tools could start coming together and boost his stock significantly in 2021.
Projected 2021 team: Advanced-A West Michigan Whitecaps
Perez was on course to spend the 2020 season with the Lakeland Flying Tigers at the Advanced-A level, and that’s presumably where he’ll find himself this season, just in West Michigan again as the A-ball levels have switched homes. The hope would be that Perez made some strength gains while sidelined, and will hit with more authority this season. If there is more gap power present, and he shows improvement in his defensive fundamentals, a path to regular playing time in the majors remains. If the hard contact isn’t forthcoming, Perez will really need to show that he’s cleaned up his defense just to remain an interesting future utility infielder candidate.