With minor league players reporting to a spring minicamp on Wednesday, and spring training looking increasingly like it will be composed of non-40-man roster players, composing a preview for the Tigers is a bit tricky. We should be turning from the Super Bowl to the arrival of pitchers and catchers. Instead the big storylines are all in a holding pattern. The pleasure of seeing Eduardo Rodriguez, Javier Báez, and Tucker Barnhart on a field wearing the Olde English D will have to wait at least a little longer. Meanwhile, minor league camp isn’t slated to begin until March 10.
The Tigers do have plenty of other points of interest even if spring camp begins without the major leaguers on site. Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson will be front and center no matter what. Much of the organization’s future rests on their youthful shoulders. The pro debut of the Tigers third overall pick in 2021, right-hander Jackson Jobe, is the most highly anticipated attraction on the list. Jobe and the rest of the pitchers from the Tigers 2021 draft class, none of whom saw game action last summer, such as Ty Madden, Dylan Smith, and Tanner Kohlhepp, will be watched closely. The prospects are rightly going to get most of the attention.
But the other battle, and the one that has the potential to have some major league impact, is to pick up as many minor league agents that could be contributors as possible. The Tigers have added 14 players at last count, and while there’s not a lot of major league ready talent there, they do have a few interesting possibilities on the list. Much of this is simply bringing back former fringe prospects who are still young enough to possibly figure it out, or building org depth at the Triple-A and Double-A levels. Really only one player, right-handed reliever Jacob Barnes, is a veteran with a track record of major league success looking to turn his career around.
History suggests that precious few of these players will make any impact at all, and yet every year teams manage to rehabilitate players into solid contributors. Hopefully the Tigers can add a few more minor league free agents with a chance to contribute before the season begins. The better fringe candidates and reclamation projects are largely still in limbo as MLBPA members for now.
RHP Jacob Barnes
Barnes is the best addition of the bunch. An effective reliever for the Milwaukee Brewers for several seasons, the big right-hander has struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness the past few years. He hasn’t lost his power stuff though, and if healthy he’ll make a really good project for Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter to work with.
Barnes has a pretty good riding fastball and can run it up to 98 mph at his best. When he’s locating it, he can be pretty tough on hitters and gets plenty of whiffs up in the zone and above. He backs it with a high 80’s cutter that is solid but doesn’t necessarily pair that well with the heater. Still, when he’s locating he’s good. The problem has been command and some minor injuries the past few seasons. Barnes will have an invite to major league camp should such a thing eventually occur, and while his chances of making the team aren’t great, the Tigers may be able to work with him in the minors for a while and have him as depth for the bullpen at some point.
Several of the Tigers’ minor league free agent signings involved retaining pitching prospects whose team control expired. Players who sign with major league franchises at age 18 or younger have to be added to the 40-man roster within five years or they become Rule 5 draft eligible. As many international free agents sign at 16 years of age, they reach 40-man eligibility at age 21 or 22, well before teams would generally give up on a decent prospect. The Tigers re-signed several pitchers who became free agents this offseason to minor league deals, and brought back minor league slugger Josh Lester as well.
Probably the most notable is 23-year-old right-hander Carlos Guzman. The Tigers converted him to pitching from third base in rookie ball, and for several years he was an interesting prospect who found his way onto some national prospect lists for the organization. Injuries derailed him somewhat in 2019, but he came back in 2021 to throw 98 2⁄3 innings with decent numbers at A-ball. Command and development of his secondary pitches remain problems for him, but at his age, giving it one more go makes sense. Guzman will probably have to break out somewhat and show some ability in the upper minors by the end of the season to earn another shot.
Two other former fringe prospects the Tigers signed are RHP Jesus Rodriguez and RHP Gerson Moreno. The latter has been a fringe relief prospect in the system for several years, boasting a pretty good fastball but little else. Rodriguez is 24 and a decent starting prospect who just hasn’t developed. He was hit hard making the leap to the Double-A level in 2021 and is just org depth unless something radically changes for him. The Tigers also brought back right-hander A.J. Ladwig and right-handed reliever Ricardo Pinto. Pinto was reasonably good for the Toledo Mud Hens last year and might add a bit of relief depth at some point. There’s really nothing expected among this group though.
Lester plays first base, and has experience at third as well. Now 27 years old, the left-handed hitter was never really much has a prospect, but he can mash lesser right-handers, clubbing 32 homers in 2021 in just 109 games. His reward for hanging in there will presumably be a role with the Mud Hens this season, with the possibility of a cup of coffee in the majors not out of the question.
RHP Carlos Sanabria
25-year-old Carlos Sanabria is another interesting pickup for the Tigers. Originally an international free agent in the Houston Astros’ system, Sanabria got a cup of coffee in the majors in 2020. He was then released and picked up by the Kansas City Royals for the 2021 season but continued to battle his control.
Sanabria has a plus fastball with some ride, but while the rest of his repertoire is deep, he doesn’t have another average or better offering to lean on. The changeup has some potential and if he’s commanding the heater, could be effective as a reliever, but a better breaking ball would really do wonders for him. Neither of his previous clubs has been able to coax a good breaking ball out him, however. If he can command his fastball he’s likely a decent middle relief option, but that’s still a pretty big ask at this point.
Odds and Ends
The Tigers signed two more pitchers to minor league contracts in the past week, and interestingly enough, both feature a sidearm delivery. They are relievers J.T. Perez and right-hander Alex Powers.
Perez is a big lefty who stalled out post-draft in the Minnesota Twins’ system and hasn’t pitched above A-ball. He hasn’t been on the mound since 2019, presumably due to injury, although there’s little info available. Now 26 years old, we’ll have to see if he’s got something extra in his return that caught the Tigers attention. Here’s a look at him from 2019.
Powers is now 29, and has yet to reach the major leagues. He reached the Triple-A level in the Cincinnati Reds system in 2019, and split time in 2021 between the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres systems. Reports that are now several years old describe a sidearmer with good extension and a pretty good whiff rate on the low 90’s heater, and an average breaking ball and changeup. One way or the other Perez and Powers haven’t figured it out, and probably won’t, but we’ll have to see if the Tigers saw something to work with, or if both are simply org depth for Toledo at most.
Another addition is only notable because of where he comes from. RHP Markus Solbach is a 30-year-old starter who has never seen the show. He’ll be looking to earn a job as a starter in the upper minors. A veteran minor leaguer his age, who continues to play, feels like possible coaching material eventually. Or perhaps, he just loves the game and is content as an org starter. The interesting part, is that Solbach spent 2021 in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ system. Since the Tigers appeared to poach about half the Dodgers player development staff over the last six months, we might assume one of that group vouched for him.
Right-hander Luis Castillo completes the group of pitchers signed to date. The 26-year-old reliever is definitely not the Cincinnati Reds’ starter of the same name. The Tigers’ Castillo pitched in the Arizona Diamondbacks system at the Double-A and Triple-A levels in 2021, with mediocre results. He features a low arm slot and a little funk, sitting 92-94 mph with a pretty good changeup and a solid breaker. Castillo generally keeps the ball on the ground with his tailing fastball, but unless there’s been a radical change this offseason he’s in the org depth bucket.
Finally there are two more position players to mention. The Tigers picked up middle infielder Luis Carpio back on February 4. Carpio spent his minor league career in the New York Mets system. Now 24 years old, he should provide some flexibility in the infield at the Triple-A level. He’s a right-handed hitter with no power to speak of, but makes plenty of contact. He’s a decent defender up the middle, but better suited to second base due to an average arm. If he catches on, Carpio should be Mud Hens’ manager, Lloyd McClendon’s utilityman and late innings situational contact guy this season.
Finally the Tigers picked up a little org depth at catcher in the form of veteran Chris Rabago. The 28-year-old hits right-handed and makes a fair amount of contact, but doesn’t really have anything in his offensive profile to recommend him. He is a solid defensive catcher in a system that needed some depth in that department.