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Three 2022 position player breakouts in the Tigers’ farm system

Overall, the hitting improved by leaps and bounds in Ryan Garko’s first year as VP of Player Development. Let’s take a look at three of the most notable hitters.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

For most of the last decade, the Detroit Tigers farm system slumped far behind most of the league in terms of scouting and player development. A lack of high picks and minimal spending on coaches and training personnel, analysts, and facilities, left the organization running a fairly barebones affair during the later years of Dave Dombrowski’s tenure. It took Al Avila far too long to begin turning the player development system around, but finally major changes came to pass and the Tigers slowly began catching up on the pitching side in recent years.

The problem was that the position player side of the development equation remained stalled. The Tigers finally responded in 2021 by replacing longtime development chief Dave Littlefield with Ryan Garko as VP of Player Development. We can hope that the broad success of the Tigers position player prospects this year is a sign that under Garko, and director of player development Kenny Graham’s more progressive and cohesive approach, things are finally changing for the better.

While the debut of Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson was less than ideal, a pretty large group of the Tigers top positional prospects indeed had nice breakouts in Garko’s first year running the show. In several cases, such as Parker Meadows and Wenceel Perez, players reversed fortunes after several seasons of flagging progress. In the case of Cristian Santana and Izaac Pacheco, we saw two of the teams most promising teenaged prospects acquit themselves very well at the A-ball levels, Santana as an 18-year-old. However, leading the way was third baseman Colt Keith, who leapt to the top of many Tigers prospect lists with a very convincing breakout despite a shoulder injury that cost him more than half the season.

Let’s take a look at Keith’s season, and the breakout of two other intriguing position prospects in the Tigers’ system. We can find plenty of positive signs suggesting that the rebuilt development group is at least a significant upgrade.

Colt Keith

Keith came to the Tigers via one of their wiser moves in the draft under Avila’s tenure. A good prep positional prospect out of Biloxi, Mississippi with enough arm to consider as a pitcher as well, he was pegged as a difficult sign if not taken by the second round in the 2020 draft. Teams shied away early and seemed to write him off as a player guaranteed to go to college, while the Tigers managed to cobble together a $500,000 signing bonus and took him in the fifth round. To everyone’s delight, that was enough and Keith agreed to the deal and began his pro career.

Like all five 2020 draftees, Keith didn’t get into regular season action until 2021, and initial returns weren’t particularly impressive. He showed the advanced plate discipline and contact ability that made him an attractive hitting prospect and lived on base, posting a .436 OBP, but produced no real power at all for the Low-A Lakeland Flying Tigers. A late season move to High-A West Michigan showed more of the same in a short 18 game look at the higher level.

Prior to the season he was still ranked pretty close to 10th in the system on most prospect lists. We had him 11th at BYB. Keith gave a pretty in-depth interview to David Laurila of FanGraphs discussing his generally successful debut season, but also the lack of power. He was pretty convincing in his belief that the power would show up, and he made good on it, adding over 20 pounds of good muscle during the offseason and displaying his newfound pop from the moment the 2022 season began.

Colt Keith 2022 season

Season PA BB% K% ISO HR
Season PA BB% K% ISO HR
2022 216 10.2 19.4 0.244 9

Keith impacted the ball with substantially more authority, and did a much better job finding pitches to attack and drive in the air. He did so without losing his approach, and continued to spray plenty of hard line drives to all fields as well. His nine home runs in 216 plate appearances this season works out to 27 bombs, 42 doubles, and nine triples over a full major league season’s work of plate appearances (650 PA). That would do nicely, and his very advanced approach, pitch recognition, and contact ability provide a strong argument that he can carry his success into the upper levels.

Of course, Keith’s season was derailed by a fluke shoulder injury he suffered diving back to first on a pickoff play in early June, just as the world was taking notice of his breakout. He wasn’t able to return during the regular season, costing him a lot of valuable at-bats and a probable jump to Double-A at mid-season. The Tigers sent him to the Arizona Fall League to help get him some added reps and solidify his improvement heading into the offseason. Keith didn’t miss a beat, posting a gargantuan .463 OBP with three home runs and three doubles in 19 games for the Salt River Rafters against good age appropriate competition.

Keith is still a bit too error prone, though he makes up for the some botched plays with solid athleticism and plenty of arm strength for the position. The now 21-year-old will move to Double-A Erie to begin the 2023 season, and we’ll look for him to clean up his defense this offseason. Odds are good that he’ll have plenty of offensive success at Double-A, and if the defense improves as well, we wouldn’t be surprised if Keith found his way to Toledo this summer.

We can debate as to whether or not Keith or Jackson Jobe is currently the Tigers top prospect, but the fact that Keith is seriously in the conversation speaks to just how convincing his performance at the plate was this season. His power potential remains closer to average than to plus, but his quick, compact swing, discipline, and burgeoning power are compelling, and he’ll have the opportunity to boost himself into the top echelon of position prospects in the game next year. Expect him to move quickly.

Parker Meadows

Of all the major positive moves in the Tigers’ system, perhaps only one registered with prospect watchers as a huge relief. The Tigers committed significant draft capital to select and sign Meadows (younger brother of Tigers’ outfielder, Austin) with the first pick in the second round of the 2018 draft. For three full years, the lean, six-foot-five centerfielder struggled with his timing, was extremely vulnerable to velocity, and failed to drive the ball with authority in the air. Other than crushing the odd mistake pitch, he looked rather overwhelmed. Despite big time secondary tools (speed and raw power) and a tall, lanky frame that screamed late bloomer, hopes for Meadows to hit enough to capitalize had faded badly after the off-year for COVID produced no real gains in 2021.

Just as things were looking bleak, Meadows emerged this spring with some added muscle, a shorter, cleaner stroke and much better tempo in his swing. Offseason work with private instructor Shane Hopper, after multiple seasons of differing philosophies and instruction in the Tigers’ system, paid off in a big way. The mechanical improvements showed up in April as he repeated the High-A level and displayed better batspeed and hitting rhythm. Suddenly, he was driving good fastballs to the pull field, ambushing pitchers, and still maintaining some ability to stay back and hit offspeed as well. The Tigers responded with a promotion to Double-A in May, and after struggling for a few weeks as he settled in, Meadows caught fire in June and never looked back.

Parker Meadows 2021-2022

Season PA BB% K% ISO HR
Season PA BB% K% ISO HR
2021 (High-A) 408 9.1 24.3 0.121 8
2022 (Double-A) 489 10.6 18.4 0.191 16

The raw power was already there, but now it was showing up in game, as Meadows cranked numerous tape measure shots for the Erie SeaWolves over the course of the season. Just as important was the fact that he was spraying line drives with authority. His plate discipline improved as he no longer had to cheat to hit the fastball.

Meadows’ 2022 chase rate was just 19.3 percent, which is very good. Despite the selectivity, he remained an aggressive hitter and still somewhat vulnerable to good offspeed stuff, but he drew more walks and swung at better pitches all season long and thrived after an adjustment period after the jump to Double-A. From a strikeout rate in the mid-20’s at each successive level, Meadows trimmed that to just 18.4 percent his season with the SeaWolves. From June 1 on he hit .296 with a .373 on base, 14 home runs, and 18 extra base hits in 85 games, finishing strong in August and September.

Meadows has been in the system for four years now, but didn’t turn 23 until November. For a 22-year-old with little track record or prior success, his performance at Double-A was particularly impressive and presumably a big relief to the Tigers’ development hands. He put a little capstone on his year by continuing to perform well in the Arizona Fall League in October. New President Scott Harris had no choice but to add him to the 40-man roster in November.

There are still some weaknesses at the plate, including excessive vulnerability to good left-handers, but there are plenty of positives too. Meadows handled high fastballs much better this season, and was more effective at spoiling pitchers’ pitches. He crushed mistakes. He looks far more likely to become a decent major league hitter at this point. His power and speed will carry him the rest of the way if he can take the next step.

Meadows vaults well into the Tigers top ten list heading into 2022, and once again may hold the highest upside among the Tigers position prospects because of his power projection and ability to handle a premium defensive position. He still has room to grow, and if he gets off to a good start at Triple-A Toledo, he’ll be in line for his first look at the majors next summer.

Wenceel Perez

Unlike our first two subjects, infielder Wenceel Perez rarely had much helium beneath his prospect status. A good pure hitter with plus speed, in his early years in the system Perez lacked enough meaningful power to comfortably envision a future major league regular. However, changes to his swing and approach, as well as added strength, finally saw him break out in a big way in 2022.

The recently turned 23-year-old second baseman signed with the Tigers as an international free agent at age 16 back in 2016. The switch-hitting Dominican Republic native inked a deal for $550,000 and quickly made it to then Low-A West Michigan in 2018 as an 18-year-old, his first year stateside. That impressive trajectory perhaps led to an overreaction when he struggled in his first full year of A-ball in 2019. His slash and dash hitting style suffered against better competition and poor defensive fundamentals saw the Tigers move him off shortstop to second base as well.

At that point, Perez made plenty of contact and rarely struck out, but he also showed little power even of the gap variety. Beyond his slight, five-foot, eleven-inch build, was an approach geared to swinging aggressively and using his good hands to put balls in play. He slashed grounders and sprayed routine line drives into the outfield for singles, and showed he could put his speed to work on the basepaths, but there wasn’t much to indicate enough future power to play in the majors even as a light hitting utility player.

These impressions began to solidify when Perez returned after the COVID off year looking fundamentally unchanged. His game showed only modest improvements as he moved from Low-A to High-A for most of the season. He continued looking to spray the ball on the ground and on a line, and while he still had good hands and enough zone discipline, he wasn’t selective, slashing at everything close to the zone and only rarely hitting the ball with real authority. The Tigers eliminated his toe tap in 2021, and tried to work with him on keeping his hands back rather than drifting forward early and getting over committed. As the season went on, he seemed more comfortable and explosive, but there still wasn’t much to show for it.

He was still only 21, and too young to give up on, but it was harder to find real optimism about his future other than as Triple-A level depth for the Tigers’ infield. That finally changed in 2022.

Perez entered camp with a little more muscle and a better approach geared to driving the ball up the gaps and more often, over the fences. In 55 games for the West Michigan Whitecaps, Perez posted an 11.4 percent walk rate and a 16.1 percent strikeout rate, launched nine home runs, and stole 13 bases. He showed a much improved, professional approach, picking better pitches to offer at and showing the batspeed to handle better velocity and hit the ball over the fence.

Still just 22 years old, Perez graduated to Double-A in June, and didn’t miss a beat until a back injury ended his season in mid-August. That proved enough for new President of Baseball Operations, Scott Harris, to protect Perez from the Rule 5 draft by adding him to the 40-man roster in November.

Wenceel Perez 2021-2022

Season PA BB% K% ISO HR
Season PA BB% K% ISO HR
2021 (High-A) 369 8.4 17.3 0.103 3
2022 (High-A) 236 11.4 16.1 0.243 9
2022 (Double-A) 171 8.8 13.5 0.233 5

All these gains have Perez in a very interesting place in the Tigers’ system. He’s always been a good contact hitter, but the power gains were legitimate this season. He’s now carrying average raw power, and while he may not get to quite that much of it in game, the quicker, more explosive stroke and better mechanics have him looking quite capable of handling major league pitching. It’s much easier now to envision him as a guy who hits .260-270 with solid walk rates and maybe 10-15 home runs and 20 steals a year at the major league level.

The question is what to do with him, exactly? He certainly controls the strike zone pretty well, so he feels like a guy Harris will appreciate. You can squint and see a starting second baseman with the potential to be a speedy nine-hole guy who helps turn the lineup over, but the utility path still seems more likely. Perez played some third base the past two seasons, but his arm is a little stretched there and he continues to be a little too error prone in the infield overall for comfort as an everyday player. He has the reflexes and the overall athleticism, but there’s just a penchant for too many mistakes on fairly routine plays. With his speed still close to plus territory even after he added a little muscle, I can’t help wondering about trying him into the outfield and really leaning into the full utility profile.

With only 39 games at Double-A, its possible they could start Perez off with the SeaWolves again, looking to get him some traction before attacking the next level and giving them time to experiment with him positionally. Added versatility would make it easier to see a clear path to regular major league playing time in the near future. He’s only 23 so there’s no need to send him straight to Toledo this spring. However, now that he’s on the 40-man roster, the clock is ultimately ticking. He’ll need to start providing evidence of his future utility with the Mud Hens at some point not too deep into the season.

Either way, it was pretty gratifying to see it come together for the likable young infielder who has been in the organization for six years already. If he can continue to tighten up his game and handle Triple-A level as well as expected, Perez has a high likelihood of making his major league debut next summer.

Final thoughts

While the story of the 2022 Tigers’ farm system was largely one of success, there were a few sour notes. Dillon Dingler continues to develop into a good defensive catcher with a strong arm and solid raw power. However the hit tool hasn’t improved, leaving him looking more like a future backup than the everyday catcher the Tigers were hoping for. Likewise, infielder Gage Workman, whose power potential and defensive ability continue to intrigue, had a brutal year offensively and is going to be in the shop for a serious mechanical overhaul of his swing and approach this offseason. Ryan Kreidler’s early season fractured finger derailed his season after a somewhat promising 2021 campaign. Outfielder Daniel Cabrera struggled. It wasn’t all roses on the farm this season.

Still, beyond the three hitters we’ve discussed, catcher Josh Crouch and outfielder Roberto Campos had good seasons and moved up the ladder, particularly Crouch, who is on the verge of challenging Dingler for best system catcher. Pacheco and Santana were very good in their full season debuts as teenagers, with Pacheco showing much better defensive ability at third base than was expected. The addition of Jace Jung and shortstop Peyton Graham in the 2022 draft also boosts the positional group significantly headed into the 2023 campaign. So does the acquisition of Justyn-Henry Malloy from the Braves in the Joe Jiménez trade. And of course the Tigers continue to produce a lot of solid pitching talent even now that top picks like Casey Mize and Matt Manning have long since graduated.

Taken as a group, Colt Keith, Parker Meadows, and Wenceel Perez aren’t exactly scaring anyone. They represent different tiers and levels of potential. The point is that the development group has had reasonably good success with each of them over the past year. We could point to quite a few others as well, but what’s really notable is not just the individual players, but the fact that a substantial group of them, all with differing levels of ability and none a “can’t miss” prospect at the top of the draft, have all made significant strides.

The Tigers still have several top 100 caliber players, and a host of guys on the doorstep. They hold three of the top 50 picks in the 2023 draft, including the third overall selection. And if we extend the definition to players 24 years old and under, there aren’t so many teams with more young talent on hand. Certainly the farm system lacks a couple of blue chip prospects and is ranked appropriately as a result, but they do have plenty of talented players to work with.

Just as importantly, we finally have real signs that the Tigers’ player development evolution has reached a point where they’re doing a better job developing hitters than they have in a long, long time. Let’s hope it continues on that trajectory.