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The Tigers farm is starting to look like a future pitching factory

The depth in the system may be underrated, but more importantly, the philosophy has clearly evolved.

Salt River Rafters v Scottsdale Scorpions Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Over the last few years the Detroit Tigers farm system was headlined by a three-headed pitching dragon in Casey Mize, Matt Manning, and Tarik Skubal. All three have graduated prospect status, leaving the team with more of a two-headed position player monster of Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene. That begs the question, after losing three significant arms what is the state of pitching among Tigers prospects?

Detroit is now heading in a direction where they will start shelling out money on the free agent market, as evidenced by the signing of both Eduardo Rodriguez and Javier Baez. That can cover for some weaknesses in the farm system. However, to really achieve their stated goal of developing a consistent contender, the organization is going to have to produce a steady stream of depth to the roster, particularly in terms of pitching. While the Tigers may not have any big names beyond 19-year-old Jackson Jobe, a deeper look at the non-top 100 arms in the system reveals that there may be a lot more future depth already on hand than it seems. More importantly, perhaps, is evidence of an evolving philosophy when it comes to pitching.

It started with the the additions of AJ Hinch and Chris Fetter to the coaching staff, followed by an overhaul in the front office and player development. There are tangible changes in decision making that are coming from those moves. Take the addition of Elvin Rodriguez to the 40-man roster to protect him from Rule 5 eligibility, as one of many minor examples. At the surface level Rodriguez posted a FIP north of five through 75.2 innings of work in Double-A. He was snake-bitten by the longball to the tune of 2.14 HR/9. Digging a little deeper shows the analytical foundation of something more. He posts spin rates that are above average on more than one of his pitches with a nice shape on his fastball. That’s worth taking a chance on.

The Rule 5 Draft at the major league level has not happened yet because of the lockout, but the minor league level Rule 5 draft did occur. Once again the Tigers invested in players who had one pitch where the data speaks louder than surface level statistics. Whether it be the hard throwing Elvis Alvardo and his data-driven fastball or Nick Kuzia and his high spin slider.

It’s clear that there is a plan to stockpile high spin arms, among other points of data, and try to optimize them to find success. Looking at some of the arms currently in the Tigers farm system, it’s working to a degree. Jackson Jobe was Detroit’s most recent first round pick and he comes in with a slider that surpasses 3000 RPMs, which is fantastic. Beyond him and maybe Ty Madden, there are not any arms that are currently banging on the door of top 100 lists. But don’t let that fool you. There are many fun arms that show some serious upside potential.

Reese Olson

There were a flurry of moves at the most recent trade deadline and the Tigers contributed one trade the frenzy by sending Daniel Norris to Milwaukee for Reese Olson. He was in High-A at the time posting high strikeout numbers, but also high walk numbers and immediately walked in as a potential top 10 prospect in the organization. As you probably can guess, he fits right into the data-driven world of the current Tigers decision making. That starts with his slider.

Olson actually has two different breaking pitches, a slider and a curveball. Both of them are plus spin pitches, the slider being the better of the two. It has plenty of horizontal movement, but it’s the gyro, or vertical, movement that gives it that whiff potential. His most used secondary, however is his changeup.

The fastball got the lion share of usage during the 2021 season and for good reason. It’s a low-to-mid 90’s pitch that takes on more of a two-seam shape. It, too, has above average spin and will play best down in the zone. He’s got four pitches and takes on a sinker/slider type profile.

He offers a starters upside as the new Tigers regime gets their hands on him and tries to optimize his tools. There are command and walk questions that come with Olson, but overall he was a low risk, high reward acquisition by Detroit. Depending on the list, he’s in the SP3-SP5 range in the organization with room to climb. As with many of the pitchers on this list, the raw stuff is certainly undeniable.

Wilmer Flores

This is one of two pop-up prospect types who bring some exciting upside with them. Flores is all ceiling, very little floor. He’s the brother the Giants infielder of the same name and burst onto the scene this year by posting a K/9 above 12 across the complex and Low-A. He utterly dominated, spending most of his time in Lakeland with a FIP of 2.80. He’s become a popular name among those who focus on Tigers prospects for a reason. He even was sent to the Arizona Fall League.

This is a true high velocity four seam fastball that topped out at 98 MPH. It is a very high spin offering that’s delivered on a plane that can be tough for hitters to pick up at times. Then, of course, there’s the big curveball that garners above average spin and some huge, tight movement. It is a legitimate weapon and out pitch for him right now. That will leave the development of a cutter and/or changeup to fill out the arsenal. Either offering could make the jump.

With Flores there are still command question, but there are also questions about his viability as a starter long term. Some scouts would say he needs to clean up his delivery to smooth it out. There is a lot of effort at the point of release, and he has what’s known has headwhack on his follow through. It’s hard to sustain that level of effort over several innings a game throughout a professional season. There’s time for all that to play out, but the arsenal is undeniable.

Dylan Smith

Overshadowed by the famous names of Jackson Jobe and Ty Madden in the 2021 draft is Dylan Smith our of Alabama. As the Tigers third round pick he isn’t all that hidden, but he certainly isn’t as well known as the two arms taken in front of him. That could change in a hurry. What’s unique about Smith as a college arm is the room for projection left on his 6’2”, 180 pound frame. He comes in with a fastball that can touch upper-90’s, and there’s reason to believe he could sit in that area as he fills out more.

The best pitch currently in his arsenal is a late, sharp biting slider. When he is on, the slider is getting whiffs low in the zone and his fastball rides right through bats at the top of the zone. It’s a fun combination. Add to that a curveball with higher end velocity and a potential developing changeup and there’s plenty to like for Smith moving forward.

There are points of refinement here, but there is a clear starter under development. His whippy arm creates some easy velocity. His frame is another plus, as it’s very likely he can add muscle and velocity. At present his breaking pitches can bleed into each other in terms of both shape and velocity. Making those more distinct might be a point of emphasis as it was for Tarik Skubal between the 2019 and 2020 seasons. There’s legitimate reason to believe Smith could see his stock skyrocket as he starts his professional baseball journey.

Beau Brieske

Along with Flores, Brieske is another name who pitched his way into the conversation this past season. He posted monster strikeout numbers in High-A, and respectable numbers in Double-A. Across both levels he was able to limit his walks and overall stay competitive, posting a combined ERA of 3.12 across 106.2 innings of work.

While everyone on this list so far boasts loud and flashy stuff, Brieske doesn’t pop as much just by the eye test. His fastball is generally a low-90’s offering that’s paired with a solid changeup and two breaking balls that are developing. The eye test isn’t everything. His fastball is sneaky good because it seems to be extremely optimized. It’s a high spin offering that has a solid shape to help it play up in the zone. It’s thrown on a flat plane that is deceptive for hitters, too.

Brieske can lead with his fastball and changeup for now because of excellent command. Both his slider and curveball are developing, but they are currently usable options. As he continues to progress he’s working with a starter’s profile. The command gives him a chance to play above what his raw stuff would suggest. There’s reason to believe his stuff will continue to progress through to work of both Brieske and the new forward-thinking coaching staff working with him.

Other Notable Pitches

There are other pitchers in the organization who have certain pitches that could help them to pop, too. The organization is littered with pitchers who make a solid analytical footprint in one way or another.

Notably, Keider Montero and his curveball. Much like Jobe’s slider, Montero’s curveball regularly exceeds 3000 RPMs. There are still some consistency questions and perhaps an adjustment in shape to work on, but the raw ability to spin the baseball is extremely high. His name has been floated around for a few years, and while he may ultimately have three solid major league caliber offerings, that curveball is clearly his main selling point.

There are a few other big breaking balls to pay attention to. For one, Tigers seventh rounder Brant Hurter has a massive slider, too. He has yet to debut professionally following a college season.

In the 26th round of the 2019 draft the Tigers selected a righty out of Siena College named Brendan White. It’s more than just one pitch in his arsenal, but he generates plus spin across the board. From his two-seamer to a wicked slider he can generate tons of spin and movement. It’s another case of consistency needing to be added.

Recent draftee Tanner Kohlhepp’s two-seamer, Dario Gardea’s slider, Keider Montero’s 3000+ rpm curveball, and so many others have the kind of data that the Tigers appear to be coveting right now. This isn’t just prevalent to top pitching prospects. Those who don’t fit the picture will likely continue to be weeded out in favor of the pitchers that fit the vision that the new player development team has in mind for the future.

We can again look back to the most recent minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft as proof. The Tigers lost one pitcher, Ruben Garcia, to the Astros. According to some scouts this was considered a big loss. However one look at the same data that’s being used for the rest of these pitchers and it all makes sense. Garcia was a lower spin guy, so they decided not to protect him. On the surface it seems just that simple.

What Does All This Mean?

It’s no accident that the Tigers are making the decisions they are making. The front office is hunting for certain traits in their pitchers and a foundation to work with. We are seeing that play out with a few of these arms. That cannot be understated when looking at the state of pitching among Tigers prospects. Jackson Jobe and Ty Madden will ensure some well known names at the top of the prospect lists, and that comes with plenty of talent between them too. What’s more exciting is that it’s not a wasteland of pitchers.

This overhaul of staff brings with it several coaches and front office members from teams with forward thinking reputations like the Los Angeles Dodgers. Because of that there’s a bevy of new ideas and voices determining what direction this farm system is heading. It also means plenty of new training technologies being used such as something called Clean Fuego or new core velocity belts.

The ultimate goal is clear. Create an arm factory a la the Dodgers, Cleveland Guardians, or the Tampa Bay Rays. The Tigers want to have a log jam of arms ready to compete throughout a season for whatever role might be needed. They also realize that they’ll likely need plenty of trade chips along the way, and they need the kind of pitchers the buyers will value highly for their potential. They’ve certainly taken steps in the right direction. They are much closer now than they were even a year ago, but it’s a long road to get there. Focusing on spin rates, vertical attack angle, while collecting a mix of arm angles and pitch types, and adding new training technologies are just part of it. The talent needs to be there, and it looks like it’s coming. One of the other aspects of building a plethora of arms like this is also having arms that are different.

A quick glance at all of the highlighted names there are several of sinker/slider type profiles. Some have fastballs that can ride through the zone, but there’s seems to have been an effort to bring in the former more than the latter. Being able to vary the plane a fastball comes in on, or the depth of a breaking ball, or even the arm slot it gets released from is an underrated aspect of what Detroit is doing.

This isn’t an overnight transformation of a top-heavy three headed monster to a reliable system that churns out big league ready arms. The Tigers have done a phenomenal job of doing what they can to accelerate this process over the past few seasons. They know what they want, and sometimes developing those profiles to be coveted is the hardest part. Between ever changing organizational philosophies and the raw ability of these players it’s an exciting time. There’s a whole lot of pitchers gearing up to prove that they are the next pitcher worth a top five ranking among Detroit prospects.