It seems pretty clear at this point that the Detroit Tigers have figured out the pitching side of player development. The depth in the upper levels of the system has been on display as guys like Alex Faedo, Beau Brieske, Elvin Rodriguez, and Rony Garcia have all enjoyed some success in a starting role. Joey Wentz looked like things were coming around before he was lifted with a shoulder issue last week. And the Tigers still have another group in Reese Olson, Wilmer Flores, Garrett Hill, and Austin Bergner who, to varying degrees, look like they might be able to contribute later this season.
That doesn’t even account for another very talented trio of arms in Ty Madden, Dylan Smith, Jackson Jobe, and Carlos Pena all at the A-ball levels. Many of the names mentioned won’t pan out as starters or even relievers, but with a group this deep and talented, Tigers’ pitching coach Chris Fetter should have plenty to work with over the coming years.
The hitting side is where the Tigers have probably been the worst team in baseball in terms of scouting and development over the past decade. Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene are bound to change that, but if you have to pick at the top of the draft to land any hitters at all, you’ve got a big problem.
Position players in the upper minors like catcher Dillon Dingler, our third ranked prospect preseason, or top international free agent teenagers like Cristian Santana and Roberto Campos may change that perception somewhat, but Dingler himself isn’t really showing signs of a breakout push to the big leagues either. And neither Santana or Campos has done a whole lot to impress this spring either. Izaac Pacheco is having a strong year with the Lakeland Flying Tigers and needs a promotion, while Colt Keith is doing well in West Michigan and should move up shortly. There is some hope on the horizon.
However, if we’re looking for signs that things are changing, some of the most interesting developments this spring have come from relatively unheralded players. Much like shortstop Ryan Kreidler, who blew up with an excellent 2021 campaign after being pegged as a low power contact hitter entering the system, we’re seeing some interesting moves made by players who made swing changes, found some power, or who had just gone unnoticed in 2021, getting them on the 2022 prospect map.
Improvement is improvement, so while most of these names aren’t likely to make an impact at the major league level, they’ve certainly made tangible improvements that may hint at improving results under the new player development regime headed by first year Vice-President of Player Development, Ryan Garko.
This left-handed hitter, 24-year-old left fielder was the Tigers 19th round pick back in 2019, out of Virginia Tech. The Florida native gave little sign of a major breakout to come, and was at best a name mentioned as a fringe prospect outside the top 30 who would bear watching because of his discipline and decent bat-to-ball skills. Yet in 2022, he’s been one of the big stories down on the farm, erupting over the past month with the most eye-popping display of power of any player in the minor leagues.
After a two homer game on June 4 against the Harrisburg Senators, Carpenter has now launched 15 home runs dating back to May 6. He has 19 long balls on the season in just 47 games. Even considering that UPMC Park is a bit of a launching pad, that is a 60 homer pace, and few have been cheapies into the right field corner. Carpenter is using the opposite field reasonably well, and while he’s decidedly a fly ball hitter, he’s putting up strong line drive rates so far too.
Take a look at a few of his recent shots.
Kerry Carpenter homers again. It’s his 2nd of the night, and 19th of the year. pic.twitter.com/GWdF50IuIF— Tigers Minor League Report (@tigersMLreport) June 4, 2022
Unbelievable. Kerry Carpenter has gone deep again. This one is a 3-run shot. It’s his 17th home run of the year, and his 13th in May. pic.twitter.com/VMSVW64INC— Tigers Minor League Report (@tigersMLreport) May 31, 2022
Kerry Carpenter goes deep again, this time to center field. It’s his 16th home run of the season. pic.twitter.com/0y229B3VTj— Tigers Minor League Report (@tigersMLreport) May 29, 2022
Now, as exciting as the homers are, there are still reasons to maintain some skepticism here. Carpenter isn’t walking much, and his strikeout rate of 26.7 is a little higher than you’d like to see at Double-A, even for a power hitters. However, that rate has been coming down as Carpenter’s swing changes get ingrained. The trend is looking very positive. If he can maintain this approach and continue to drive the ball, he’s going to earn a look in the majors despite a very limited defensive profile.
Our own Trevor Hooth took a look at some swings last week and went more in depth than we will here. However, we will discuss a key piece of information about Carpenter’s success. Mud Hens outfielder, and long-time Tigers farm hand, Jacob Robson, known to us all as the Maple Hammer due to his London, Ontario roots, set Carpenter up with his swing coach, Richard Schenck, this offseason, with the goal of re-making his swing. So far, so good.
Back in February, I wrote about Tigers players and prospects using private hitting coaches to improve their mechanics during the offseason. Doug Latta and Craig Wollenbrock were the featured names there in discussing Ryan Kreidler, Jake Rogers, Derek Hill, and others, but Schenck was also featured heavily in Jared Diamond’s recent book, Swing Kings, documenting the hitting revolution over the past decade. That book was referenced heavily in the article, but Schenck didn’t appear to have any Tigers’ ties at that point.
Schenck is best known for his work with New York Yankees star, Aaron Judge. You can get a feel for his story and his philosophy on developing bat speed and proper hitting mechanics in this piece from the New York Daily News back in 2018.
So, there remain questions about Carpenter’s ability to continue improving, but he clearly went all-in on some adjustments with a new coach, and so far the dividends have been pretty incredible. As Austin Meadows prepares to re-join the Tigers, with Riley Greene likely not far behind him, a spot should open up for Carpenter with the Toledo Mud Hens shortly, and we’ll be following along with keen attention after his spectacular start to the year.
Infielder Wenceel Perez probably feels like he’s been around forever if you’re a Tigers’ prospect hound. Yet he’s still just 22 years old. He made our top 30 list for a couple seasons, but after a lackluster return from the COVID layoff in 2021, he slipped down into fringe prospect status.
Perez has always had good speed and good contact ability. He’s not a particularly good infielder on the left side due to a pretty average throwing arm, but he’s a solid defender overall, playing mainly second base these days. The problem with Perez was a total lack of power. Not just home run power, but even extra base power. Entering the season, he was just a slap hitter who rarely impacted the ball with authority, and basically just put the ball in play on the ground and tried to beat out hits with his legs.
Things have changed somewhat dramatically for the better, as Perez showed up this spring with a little more muscle on his previously wiry 5-foot-11 frame, and is suddenly hitting for unexpected power, smacking nine home runs in 48 games when he’d never topped four in a season previously. He’s still drawing walks, and rarely strikes out, holding an 11.1 percent walk rate and 16.8 percent strikeout rate. If he can continue to do more damage than in previous years, the Tigers should have a viable utility infielder with the speed to steal some bases on the way.
Perez, like Carpenter, is still pretty unlikely to be a major league regular at any point, but his development may be another hint that the Tigers new coaches are making an impact.
22-year-old Carlos Mendoza is another one who was interesting last season, but didn’t land on prospect radar because of his total lack of power. Chris Brown’s mention over at Motor City Bengals was the few times his name even came up over the last year. There still isn’t much power potential in the 5-foot-7 2B/OF prospect, but he has continued to show rather incredible plate discipline and contact ability, and he has a little speed to boot.
The left-handed hitter currently holds a 22.1 percent walk rate against a 16.6 percent strikeout rate for the Low-A Lakeland Flying Tigers. We’d like to see him tested against High-A level pitching soon. With his frame, the odds of a major power surge are quite slim, but he can certainly hit. With the shift bound to be banned, or at least limited, starting next season, and the league potentially tampering with the ball to take a little home run power out of the game, there may be a viable future here as a utilityman down the road if he can start driving the ball a little more effectively in the years ahead.
Myers is a particularly interesting test case. The Tigers drafted him way back in the sixth round of the 2017 draft as a two-way player out of Rice University. The player development staff made him a pitcher full-time, but it never went all that well. Myers had a solid but lean 6-foot-2, 205 pound frame that looked pitcherish. He had the athleticism to develop better command, but the feel for secondary pitches never evolved and the heater remained underwhelming despite showing mid-90’s velocity at times. A rough transition to facing better college hitters at the High-A level in 2019 apparently brought the attempt to make him a pitcher to an end.
Then came the pandemic off year.
When minor league ball returned in 2021, Myers had been converted back to playing the field, mainly at first and third base. It went reasonably well considering the layoff in terms of his hitting ability, and so far in 2022, Myers has been a minor revelation, if perhaps too late to turn him into a legitimate role player prospect.
The Tigers’ new development chief was pretty direct about the early attempt at a pro pitching career.
“I don’t know why they made him a pitcher — he’s a hitter,” said Ryan Garko, the Tigers’ vice president of development.
Gabe Alvarez, Myers manager with the Double-A Erie SeaWolves, sounded even more optimistic notes last month.
“I’ll tell you what,” Alvarez said, “the ball absolutely explodes off his bat. It has a different sound. I think he has a chance to be a pretty good hitter, actually an elite hitter, just because of the velocity the ball comes off his bat.
“He’s able to go line-to-line. He doesn’t just have power to the pull-side. He has power the other way, as well.
Now, don’t go getting all excited just yet. Myers’ lack of plate discipline doesn’t make a case for a major league career. But he has shown some power, racking up six homers in 111 plate appearances for the SeaWolves, and hit the ball hard quite a bit overall. He doesn’t walk much, and remains a free swinger, but this is only his second season back to hitting, and he’s doing this in the upper levels after rarely taking a swing in his first few years of A-ball. At very least he’s been interesting.
Dane Myers with a 2-run blast to put Erie back up by two runs. It’s his 6th home run of the season. pic.twitter.com/nz7RMeCR8A— Tigers Minor League Report (@tigersMLreport) June 2, 2022
Myers doesn’t run particularly well, but with that arm, could potentially play decent corner outfield in a utility role, and has played mostly first base and a bit of third this season. Is he going to show up on prospect lists this summer? Probably not, but after looking like his pro career was going to come to a typically short conclusion, the 26-year-old has found new life as a decent power hitter whose arm helps makes up for some minor defensive shortcomings at the corner positions.
No matter how good a team is at player development, most of the 40-50 young players they add every year through the draft and international free agent market won’t make the big leagues. In Myers’ case, he had some legitimate two-way ability when the Tigers drafted him, and when one path closed, they tried another with some modest success. It’s not always about trying to find the next superstar. It’s about identifying innate ability and drive and helping a player fulfill their own potential at any level.
The farm system focus is going to remain on the guys with more opportunity to be an impact player in a starting or backup role in the major leagues. Dillon Dingler, Izaac Pacheco, Colt Keith, Cristian Santana, Ryan Kreidler, these are the key names, but you still won’t find any of them on top 100 lists. Hopefully some of the improvements around the fringes of the system are indicative of an evolution in the development of position players. For now they’ve at least given us some players to pay attention to beyond the top prospects.