It’s playoff time once again. While some other fanbases are focused on keeping their heart rate down as their team plays in the biggest games of the year, the Detroit Tigers faithful look on, hoping for a better future, and reflecting on the season that just played out. From any statistical viewpoint, from the eye test, in whatever way you evaluate it, the Tigers fell incredibly far short of expectations as a whole.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t some bright spots. Having graduated Tarik Skubal and all of their first round picks from 2016-2020, the farm system looked prime for a major falloff in talent. Fortunately, things went much better under the new player development staff than we could’ve reasonably expected.
The pitching development at the major league level remained very strong despite a host of injuries, and Miguel Cabrera reached 3,000 hits. Riley Greene was reasonably good in limited reps due to injury. Eric Haase proved his 2021 wasn’t a fluke. More importantly, it was also a season that saw Al Avila finally relieved of his duties midseason, and in the days since the final regular season out was made there’s been many other front office staff and coaches let go. The new President of Baseball Operations, Scott Harris, has his work cut out for him, but the situation is far brighter than the 2022 record would lead you to believe.
The biggest question to answer is how can you make this team better both in the short and the long term? Trades and free agent signings are the quickest way, reinforcements from the farm system are another.
In theory the young pieces for the next Tigers playoff push are in place. Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene, Casey Mize, Matt Manning, and Tarik Skubal. Those are the big name prospects of the last few years, and they’ve arrived. That’s the core to work with, despite the fact that much development remains for them to reach their potential.
As we Tigers bloggers watch the playoffs, we’re also preparing. When the last out of the postseason is made, rumor season starts. There will be free agent signings and there will be trades. Harris has a reputation as both an aggressive dealmaker and someone who is constantly tuning the final spots on the 40 man roster via small trades and thorough scouring of the waiver wire. Detroit will need to be active if they hope to make a push towards contention in 2023.
But what do we make of the farm system? The development system continues to show ongoing improvement, and there are plenty of fun, talented young players atop the organizational rankings. As we sit here, eagerly waiting to see what Harris and company have planned, it’s important to take stock of what potential assets already exist within the organization.
Health played a factor in this season, especially on the the pitching side of things. That’s an undeniable truth. However, it was the pitching that held the team together. Just a few short years ago if I were putting this piece together, I’d be mentioning the impending injection of pitching talent of Mize, Manning, and Skubal. Other than Skubal, who ended the year injured, that trio wasn’t the group keeping the rotation afloat.
What went well in terms of the farm system in 2022 was the clear step forward in the philosophies and ability to develop arms. It’s great when you’re handed pitching talent like the Tigers had in that trio. It’s better when the team shows the ability to create big league level contributors without having to use first round picks to get them. Entering the season there’s not a single person who could’ve anticipated the role that arms like Beau Brieske, Alex Faedo, or Garrett Hill would play. Maybe none of those guys are anchoring the front of the rotation, but that’s what the highly touted arms are there to do. The depth of arms was incredible this year.
Looking beyond the guys who donned the Old English D this year, there were massive step forwards from many prospects.
Wilmer Flores went from an undrafted free agent from the shortened 2020 draft to one of Detroit’s top prospects. He also pitched his way into Baseball America’s top 100 list, coming in at number 86. There are talent evaluators who believe he could walk into an MLB clubhouse today and be a reliable 4/5 starter and grow into a larger role. That’s a good signal that he could be another arm that helps the Tigers in 2023.
Flores’ teammate in Erie, Reese Olson, flashed his ceiling several times throughout the season. He racked up strikeouts and kept his walk numbers down, posting the least amount of walks allowed and the most innings thrown this year. The effect of the coaching was easy to see, too. His high effort delivery has been toned down quite a bit. While he has more variance in his ceiling and floor than Flores, there are scouts who think he has the higher ceiling. As a noted Olson hype man, I should clarify that while I believe that, I’m not referring to myself.
For many Jackson Jobe’s fatal flaw might be that his name isn’t Marcelo Mayer. So early struggles turned a lot of people away. We only got brief glances at Jobe throughout the year when Lakeland would play Bradenton, but he did keep getting better. His elite spin fastball and breaking balls showed a lot of promise. But, you have to walk before can run. He needed to learn to use his arsenal against professional hitters before he could really start to show what he can do. The run he went on late in the season showed it all rapidly beginning to come together for him.
There’s also Ty Madden, Dylan Smith, and Brant Hurter, among others, who had good seasons, and a crop of relievers with good stuff who need more fine-tuning to take the next step. The Tigers drafted a ton of college pitching this season, headlined by Troy Melton. The list can go on and on. With the demonstrated ability in pitching development, this has to be considered one of the strengths of the Tigers, and it continues to track upwards in comparison with other organizations.
With former Dodgers pitching coordinator Gabe Ribas as Director of Pitching for the minor leagues, and a very good major league pitching coach in Chris Fetter running things in the show, the club is primed to continue pitching well for years to come. They just need a run of better health to really unleash the full pitching potential of the organization.
This is where things get interesting. The Tigers do not have a sparkling reputation when comes to the development of hitters. In fact, their reputation over the past decade has been downright terrible. Torkelson and Greene came in as very good hitters and soared through the minors without much hands on required from their coaches. But beyond them, the Tigers reputation is not ideal because it was the offense that sputtered the most during the 2022 season.
Frankly, sputtered might be too kind of word choice. Javier Baez, while leading the team in homeruns, was underwhelming. Austin Meadows missed most of the year with injury. Spencer Torkelson adjusted slowly, though showed signs of life after a trip to Toledo. Riley Greene was late to the party because of injury, but did perform relatively well once he arrived. The result was one of the worst offenses in the history of the game going all the way back to the dead ball era.
However, in much more positive news, many hitting prospects took a step forward. The ascension of Kerry Carpenter from obscure Double-A prospect to MLB hitter is nothing to be taken lightly. He took minor league baseball by storm early on in the season with his power numbers. Carpenter hit 30 homeruns between Double-A and Triple-A before his early-August promotion. His previous career high? 15. He came into 2022 with a revamped swing, and spoiler alert, it worked out well for him. We’re still not sold on an everyday role, but Carpenter showed some signs of rapid adjustments to major league pitching that could make him an interesting weapon next season in a part-time role.
Parker Meadows is another hitter who saw vast improvements. He was very far out of the minds of most prospect hounds last spring. Many, myself included, had written him off completely as another underwhelming high draft pick from the Tigers. Parker, I apologize. He started in High-A, but was quickly tested in Double-A where he answered the call, putting together the best offensive year of his professional career. It couldn’t have come at a better time because he’s Rule 5 eligible this winter. With a shorter, cleaner swing, and more muscle on his huge frame, Meadows the younger went on quite a run over the final months, serving notice that he may yet become a force to be reckoned with at the major league level.
Wenceel Perez, Izaac Pacheco, Colt Keith, and many others also took big steps forward this year. Cristian Santana put together a very good season, showing a ton of potential as an 18-year-old already in A-ball. The injection of Jace Jung, Peyton Graham, and Danny Serretti via the draft is exciting. That’s a positive sign for hitting development as a whole for Detroit. They appear to have plenty to work with despite the lack of top prospects on national lists. That said, the hitting is just in a different place than the pitching and still trying to catch up.
It’s a precarious situation from the outside looking in. The Tigers need hitting help. However, the Tigers hitting prospects, at least the ones who have a chance to make a true impact, aren’t in a place to provide it next year. The top of Tiger prospect lists have guys like Keith, Pacheco, Santana, and Jung. None of them have played above High-A. Dillon Dingler was a Double-A hitter, but his career will likely be defined by defense.
Parker Meadows did play Double-A ball and now is in the Arizona Fall League, and he looks like a potential contributor. Whether that’s a true everyday player or not depends on who you talk to. He might be, but he might have a fourth outfielder ceiling. He’ll have to continue to show his talents next year, though if things continue progressing on his current trajectory he’s very likely to earn a look later next season. Andre Lipcius was in Triple-A, and while a talented, well-rounded player, he isn’t expected to be that impact kind of contributor that fills an everyday role on a division winning contender.
It’s important to stress that there are very good hitting prospects in the Tigers farm system right now. There are several who have legitimate chances to not only be everyday players, but impact players at some point in their career. It’s an exciting group. They lack a couple of true blue-chip talents with Torkelson and Greene graduating, and the timetable of their top hitting prospects doesn’t show any obvious help coming in 2023. What they do have now, are the type of positional prospects who may serve Harris best as trade chips while he sets out to implement his own strategies and personnel in scouting going forward. No doubt evaluations of the system are one of his key priorities as he prepares for his first offseason running the Tigers.
What Does All This Mean?
If it seems to this point that it’s been all praise toward the development team and prospects, that’s because there should be a lot of praise headed their way. It was an objectively fantastic year in terms of players taking major leaps forward in their abilities and perceived ceilings. Getting the systems of development implemented and identifying what traits the team can maximize value on is a huge step toward building a consistent contender. First year Vice-President of Player Development Ryan Garko and his new staff appear to have done a fine job setting the foundation this season.
The problem here is that it wouldn’t be ridiculous for the Tigers to go from sixth worst record to threatening for a wild card spot next season. The variance in potential outcomes is huge depending on how aggressive Harris is this offseason. Health to key players will play a major role, as getting players like Austin Meadows, Tarik Skubal, and Spencer Turnbull healthy and back contributing will be crucial. The continued development of Torkelson and Greene is another major factor that is really difficult to predict right now. There is young talent at the MLB level and that means a clock has started, but that doesn’t mean Harris is going to sell off the farm in a ferocious push to make everything happen all at once.
Yes, the Tigers will have the young core for years to come, but as we inch closer to a decade without Detroit in the postseason it seems like 2023 will be a decisive year for this team. It’s one thing to have young prospects with promise, and talented major leaguers who just haven’t put it all together yet. The Tigers have that in spades, but it’s another thing entirely to put it all together and build a contender. While there’s every chance that the Tigers could come back a lot better next year with their current crop of talent and a few smart additions, if the offense once again is struggling then there won’t be much in the way of help coming from top prospects.
The state of the Tigers farm system is much better than we would’ve expected with most of the blue chip prospects now graduated. Development across the board looks like it’s taken a step forward. In terms of bats and arms, there’s a lot of talent within the organization. As the new front office group takes the reigns, they aren’t starting with a bare cupboard. The question is how they deploy those resources toward success at the major league level, and just how aggressive Harris and Ilitch plan to be this offseason in terms of signings and trades.
I can say with confidence that I have more excitement towards the farm system as a whole right now than I did just a year ago for what was considered a top heavy system. There’s something to be said for that. With new leadership atop the organization and another major overhaul of the coaches and front office now underway, all we can do now is wait for the World Series Champion to be crowned and see what Harris has in store for us in his first offseason running the Detroit Tigers.