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Prospect Beau Brieske hit the fast track toward a major league debut last year

After a breakout campaign in 2021, this 27th rounder may be the next pitching prospect to make his debut.

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

Winning organizations need to find usable talent in every nook and cranny. That means hitting on early round picks, being willing to throw around some weight in free agency and the trade market, identifying talented castoffs for refurbishment, and landing on the right developmental longshots late in the draft now and again. That last item is the hardest one to pull off and growing tougher by the year as teams become ever more consistent at identifying the best young talent.

For every rule there’s an exception, though, and the Tigers are on a bit of a roll in terms of pitching prospects. Back in 2018, they landed a good one in left-hander Tarik Skubal in the ninth round and guiding him to elite prospect status. Few suspected they had landed another potential MLB caliber starter the next year when they selected right-hander Beau Brieske out of Colorado State College Pueblo. While he doesn’t have Skubal’s former status as a prospect just yet, Brieske’s 2021 season was a Ryan Kreidler caliber breakout that made him the Tigers’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year, vaulting him onto our top 30 list at fifteen.

He has plenty left to prove this season, but advanced command has him in position for spot start call-ups this summer. We debated him at the back of the top ten, and may regret not bumping him up higher than fifteen, but we’d like to see his fastball play in the upper minors a little longer before we get too giddy.

Background

Growing up in Gilbert, Arizona, Beau Brieske wasn’t even a pitcher until his senior year of high school and he never became a draft prospect. After a lackluster freshman year playing third base and outfield for a community college, it was clear that his path was as a pitcher. He found a pitching coach to work with in Jim Huizenga, and devoted himself to the craft full-time. Along the way, Brieske grew a few more inches to 6-foot-3, and started building his pitching muscle with reps and targeted strength and conditioning. His fastball was now topping 90 mph and he found himself pitching for Division II Colorado State Pueblo for his sophomore year.

Heads still weren’t turning Brieske’s way during his two years with the ThunderWolves, but he kept improving little by little. He developed a changeup and was able to start refining his curveball and slider. After a solid but uninspiring junior year—from the perspective of major league teams at least—Brieske languished into the late rounds looking like he wouldn’t get drafted at all. After 801 selections in the 2019 amateur draft, as other teams were about to turn to the “getting to know you” portion of the draft, the Tigers grabbed Brieske in the 27th round.

Post-draft, the Tigers had him in Lakeland playing mostly in the Gulf Coast League. They limited him to light relief work, only throwing him for 17 13 innings, but Brieske was already prepared to show them some things. He punched out 28 hitters in that stretch with only a handful of hard-hit balls. Expectations weren’t exactly raised by dominating rookie ball hitters, but he quickly proved he was ready to tackle A-ball and had perhaps flown under the radar in the draft.

It’s probably a good thing he had some success, because later round draft picks without much prospect status were particularly affected by the cancellation of the 2020 season. Without a hefty bonus to sustain them, those players were faced with a lot of difficult decisions about their futures based against their likelihood of ever achieving their major league dreams. Brieske never faltered, resolving to take the time off as an opportunity to radically improve his game, and embarked on a disciplined daily regimen of strength and conditioning, work with his pitching coach, and nightly flexibility work. The results were clear in 2021, and before the calendar had turned to June he was suddenly getting some attention.

Brieske made 13 starts with the High-A West Michigan Whitecaps and was quickly a fan favorite. He struck out 30.2 percent of Midwest League hitters he faced, with an excellent walk rate and only five home runs allowed. Along with a 3.45 ERA and 3.25 FIP, notice was served that this was a seriously improved young pitcher. Brieske then put a stamp on his breakout campaign with continued strong numbers across eight starts for Double-A Erie.

Strengths

Brieske combines a sneaky good fastball with three solid secondary pitches and solid command. One of the chief pleasures of watching the Tigers’ farm system last summer were Brieske’s best outings, where he artfully tied hitters into knots at the top of the zone, and then worked them over with changeups and sliders down as they began to protect against the high heat. He wasn’t usually that precise, and command of his secondary pitches in particular was still variable, but at his best he looked remarkably polished. The stuff remains a little too underpowered to get really excited about just yet, but with a little more tuning Brieske could be a pretty nice backend starter.

In 2021, Brieske came out sitting 92-94 mph and occasionally touching an extra tick or two higher. That’s just a bit on the light side for major league work these days, but he has some force multipliers than earn the pitch an average grade. First, Brieske can spin the heater decently and gets pretty good riding action up in the zone. Second, and most important, his relatively low release point and flat plane to the top of the zone help him draw a lot of whiffs and weak fly balls. When he’s moving the fastball in and out on the edges, and then going upstairs, there’s a lot to deal with even at the lower end of his velocity band.

His best secondary pitch right now is probably his changeup, though his slider isn’t far behind. It’s a fairly prototypical slider with good sweeping action, and occasionally he’ll break one off with a little sharper tilt. With a little more refinement he might have a plus pitch there. It pairs well with the fastball, as does Brieske’s changeup. He gets good velocity separation from the fastball with the circle change in the low-80’s. It doesn’t have a ton of depth, but seems deceptive out of his release, fades hard away from left-handed hitters, and drew a lot of whiffs last season. He’s not afraid to use it aggressively against right-handers at times and it may prove his best weapon in the long run. Finally there’s a curveball that is still a little loopy and obvious out of his hand, though he will steal a strike with it here and there.

What really ties the whole package together is Brieske’s balanced, efficient delivery. He generates good armspeed with a short arm stroke that gives him some deception and helps sell the changeup, and he throws a lot of strikes. It’s a pretty smooth motion that bodes well for continued command development, and even when he moved up a level there were outings where he was really spotting three pitches well and giving Double-A hitters fits.

Unless there’s another pop in his stuff, and it’s hard to project too much more entering his age-24 season, Brieske probably will be hard-pressed to reach his ceiling as a mid-rotation starter. However, the level of polish he showed already, along with a solid repertoire of pitches, have him on the verge of being a viable backend starting option at the major league level. The last steps can be the hardest, but after a very impressive breakout, his chances of putting together a nice major league career look a lot better entering the 2022 season.

Projected 2022 team: Double-A Erie SeaWolves

Because he already throws a lot of strikes and isn’t far from major league average command, the Tigers have options here. Brieske will presumably start the season in Erie and look to build on his late season run there. However, he looked very capable of handling himself at that level last year, and if he has a strong camp, starting him in Toledo wouldn’t be moving too fast. Arguably he doesn’t have that much left to learn in Double-A and we don’t expect him to stay there too long in any case. In the hierarchy of the Tigers most advanced pitching prospects, Brieske may have the inside track versus Joey Wentz and Reese Olson at this point. Expect to see him debut sometime this summer.