For the last few years the Detroit Tigers have been patiently awaiting the arrival of top pitching prospects like Casey Mize, Matt Manning, and Tarik Skubal. That time has arrived and now the farm system is top heavy with hitters. That will soon change with the graduation of Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson to the majors, but it also leaves some questions of what is to come from the pitching side of prospects in the near future.
Unlike the hitters, however, the Tigers have had pitching prospects make big jumps in their development. Skubal is the most successful example as a former ninth round pick who became one of the premier prospects in the system. Especially considering the overhaul of the development team that shouldn’t be something to ignore. The organization has begun to target certain metrics and it’s paying dividends already with several arms starting to pop up.
There’s upside to be had with data optimization on any arm, but the fact remains they need the raw tools to perform in order to stand out as a prospect. That’s where a pitcher like Beau Brieske comes in. Another arm in that bucket of statistical standouts with data backing is Wilmer Flores. Our sixteenth ranked prospect is another pull of a young pitcher who wasn’t on anyone’s radar on draft day, but was located with a deep dive by a Tigers’ area scout.
Flores’ name might sound familiar because of a San Francisco Giants infielder who shares the name. They share bloodlines, too, as the Tigers’ Wilmer Flores is the younger brother. The 21-year-old righty spent much of his debut 2021 season in Low-A Lakeland before being selected to participate in the Arizona Fall League. He stands out physically, standing 6-foot-4 and is listed at 225 pounds. Born in Venezuela, he went undrafted out of Arizona Western Junior College in the shortened 2020 MLB Draft before signing with Detroit.
He went under the radar for many, but it didn’t take long once he started pro ball for whispers to start among Tiger-focused prospect hounds about the big bodied pitcher with a big curveball to match. During his time in Lakeland he posted an absurd 12.23 K/9 with a 3.40 ERA across 53 innings. His FIP looked much nicer at 2.80, which is largely due to a high walk rate of 3.74 BB/9.
One year of pro ball is now under his belt and that comes after only one year in college as well before joining the Tigers. There isn’t a ton of in-game experience at a high level for Flores. That speaks even more to his upside potential as he matures in game against professional level hitters.
Raw stuff is what makes Flores pop right now. It’s easy to see his wipeout curveball and his fastball that can touch 98 MPH. Those are the tools that propelled him to such eye-popping strikeout numbers on the complex and then at the Low-A level. He can also throw a high-80’s cutter that tops out at 92 MPH and a changeup, which is a distant fourth pitch. At first glance, it’s a starters build with an arsenal that screams rotation.
Tigers prospect Wilmer Flores is, uh, looking really good as I dig more into him. Hammer breaking ball on display in this video. Struck out 90, walked 24 in 66 Low-A innings. Performed well in the AFL too. Younger brother of Giants infielder Wilmer Flores. pic.twitter.com/rIuIAAECTj— Trevor Hooth (@HoothTrevor) January 16, 2022
Taking a peek behind the curtain of his pitches shows just as much promise. His fastball is a high velocity offering and will generate whiffs. It’s also carries high spin an is delivered on a decently flat plane. That means it should play well in the upper-third of the zone right now. There’s still some room for optimization, but the high velocity will all but ensure the pitch continues to play well in games.
The crown jewel of the arsenal is his breaking ball. It’s a power curveball that is routinely in the low-80’s. It, too, is a pitch with plus spin on that leads to tight rotation, but big, nasty break. There are an astonishingly high number of whiffs when he throws it. Downward action is present, but it breaks on two planes with plenty of horizontal break to accompany the vertical break. It takes an 11-to-5 shape.
The combination of fastball and curveball give Flores two potential above average, if not plus, offerings. Development of his other two secondary pitches will be one of the questions in deciphering rotation vs. bullpen. His cutter approaches with great velocity and above average spin and his changeup has about a nine MPH difference off his fastball. That gives both of these pitches potential to develop into average offerings.
Rotation dreams are not crazy with Flores, but there are questions that need to be addressed throughout his development. Chief among them is his command. His walk rates were high, and that is not necessarily because he saw a bunch batters with Juan Soto-level plate discipline. He tends to be wild around the zone, which can be attributed in part to his inconsistent mechanics. There is a lot of effort at the point of release, which is generally a sign of reliever risk. There is also ‘headwhack’ when he throws the ball, a term used to describe how his head moves during the follow through after releasing the ball. His over the top delivery is part of that, but there is room for his delivery to become cleaner and more repeatable. That would be a huge step in the right direction for his command.
As should be expected there’s an overall rawness to Flores’ game that lends itself to a fair amount of risk. His debut performance is nothing to scoff at, and he has the ability to continue to find success. His big raw stuff could easily find him a rotation spot in the future, however it’s impossible to ignore the relative bullpen risk. No matter what role he ends up in, the Tigers have an arm with explosive pitches that with solid development has a chance to be a high level contributor in Detroit one day.
Projected 2022 team: High-A West Michigan Whitecaps
In 2021 it was clear that Flores was too talented for the Low-A level. He racked up the strikeouts and even through the high walk numbers was consistently effective for the Flying Tigers. Following AFL participation the next step is to prove he can succeed against even better talent. That is the exact challenge he should face as a rotation arm for the Whitecaps. His age is spot on with this assignment and while he remains light on experience, he should be ready to show what he can do. To climb up another rung in the organizational ladder, he will likely need to show improved command, but it would be great to see him in Erie before 2022 is over.