The High-A West Michigan Whitecaps had quite a week. On August 5, the Tigers’ 2022 first-round draft pick Jace Jung and fellow prospect Izaac Pacheco were added to the roster and put up an 11-run offensive showing against the Lansing Lugnuts. Jung’s night ended with an opposite-field hit, but it was Pacheco who captured the spotlight with a solo shot to cap off West Michigan’s scoring. He put on a repeat performance the following night, bombing off against another Lansing reliever. After going most of the season with the high-end prospects largely in the upper levels, or down in Lakeland getting their feet wet, the spotlight now becomes a good deal brighter on the Whitecaps down the stretch.
Prior to those fireworks, Pacheco probably isn’t a name that most Tigers fans had thought of in a while. The Tigers’ second-round draftee in 2021, he was a big-time prep talent who was expected to be a first-rounder but slid to the 39th overall pick due to festering concerns about his ability to make contact against advanced hitting. That pick led to some amount of eye-rolling among Tigers prospect fans who have seen the organization fail to fix messy but powerful swings.
In his first full season as a pro, Pacheco has done nothing but rake. With the Low-A Lakeland Flying Tigers, he assembled a .267/.342/.415 line with 8 home runs and a 10 percent walk rate, good enough to register 18 percent above average, per wRC+. That’s an impressive performance for a teenager at Singe-A, but now he’s an under-ager with the ‘Caps in High-A and facing a real challenge. As a 19-year-old third baseman in High-A, some will inevitably draw a comparison to Vlad Guerrero Jr., which is wildly unfair for a number of reasons. However, the fact that Pacheco’s name can be uttered in the same breath as Vladdy’s in terms of the pace he’s on developmentally helps to contextualize how impressive his growth in pro ball has been.
How the Whitecaps manage positional deployments down the stretch will be tricky. They’ve got Jace Jung, Trei Cruz, and Izaac Pacheco on the roster, all of whom demand playing time for developmental reasons, and are switchable between third base and the middle infield. Shortstop Corey Joyce isn’t generally regarded as much of a prospect but certainly has been hitting the tar out of the ball, earning himself a promotion to Erie, serving as a pressure valve to some extent. Additionally, Pacheco was put on the 7 day IL for a laceration suffered in a strange in-game incident. Still, he should be back soon and playing time at premium positions will be up for grabs as the Tigers try to get the best from their prospects.
Izaac Pacheco absolutely demolishes this baseball for a 2-run homer. It’s his 10th of the year, and his second in as many games at the High-A level. pic.twitter.com/goDSY4HHsl— Tigers Minor League Report (@tigersMLreport) August 6, 2022
RHP Wilmer Flores
Detroit’s overhauled pitching development system has demonstrated its worth time and time again this season, and they may have another success story in the works with Flores. The 2020 undrafted free agent leaped onto the radar with an impressive run of six outings in West Michigan, earning an early promotion to Double-A on the strength of a 1.83 ERA and over 16 strikeouts per nine innings.
With a fastball that pops in the high 90s, he mixes in a nasty curveball and a slider that keeps hitters off the heater. It’s not really much of a surprise that the talent in High-A wasn’t enough to keep up with him. More of a surprise, though, is how well his numbers have held up against high minors competition through a much larger sample size. In 14 starts spanning nearly 60 innings, he’s maintained a 2.26 ERA with an impressive strikeout rate while walking only 2.11 batters per nine innings. Tigers Vice President of Player Development Ryan Garko told The Athletic that Flores could even see time in Triple-A before the season is out.
The reliever risk inherent in a fastball/curveball profile is still present in Flores’ game. With each start, it gets dimmer and dimmer, but it won’t totally be put to bed until we see him succeed in a stretched-out role in the majors. The Tigers have helped Tarik Skubal develop another offspeed pitch and grow into a legitimate starting option, but plenty of pitchers just don’t have the feel for a splitter or changeup. Another advantage Skubal has over Flores is athleticism. Skubal has been a mean, lean machine since the day he was drafted, but Flores has a more middling body type despite the size and power.
Ultimately, what will define Flores’ role as a major leaguer is how well his command and control hold up as he faces smarter and more experienced hitters. Mistake pitchers get punished at the highest level, especially as high-90s heat becomes more and more common. If he hits his spots, he has plenty of other ingredients to make him a believable starting prospect.
LHP Joey Wentz
Wentz made his major league debut early this season, but he suffered a shoulder injury during the first week of June without a clear timetable for recovery. His eventual return to the mound was on July 29, pitching for the Whitecaps. The Tigers prescribed two rehab starts in High-A, during both of which he was on a strict innings limit. The first came against the prospect-laden but struggling Dayton Dragons. His two innings of work resulted in one run on one hit, one walk, and three strikeouts. On August 3, he squared off with the Lansing Lugnuts, this time striking out one batter but allowing no runs.
While Wentz was on the mound, the 18-second minor league pitch clock was not in effect, which is in accordance with a little-known detail of the MLB’s rehab rules. The same holds true for hitters coming back from injury; the clock was turned off for Ryan Kreidler and Dustin Garneau during their pit stops in West Michigan. Presumably, it was written into the rulebook to allow players to get back into the rhythm of the game and allow for a measure of discomfort.
Wentz looked more or less like his usual self during his time in West Michigan, getting the best results from his curveball and changeup, but struggling to dial in his fastball with an effective shape or location. The nearly 25-year-old Wentz looked much more refined than his much younger competitors, which is exactly how it should have been. Tigers representatives made it extraordinarily clear to media watching Wentz’s starts that this was a minor league rehab assignment, meaning he was added to the Triple-A roster once he could carry the workload.
Despite that, it’s entirely possible that Wentz will see the major leagues again before the year is out. Detroit’s pitching depth is sorely lacking for good options at this point, especially with Beau Breiske landing on the 60-day injured list. They could turn to Wentz to be part of the solution down the stretch if he hits his groove in Toledo.
OF Ben Malgeri
Don’t worry if this name doesn’t sound familiar. Malgeri was Detroit’s 18th-round draft pick last season. Taken from Northeastern University, he also took the field for Holy Cross and New Mexico Junior College during his amateur career. Players at that late stage of the draft are generally selected on the strength of one or two attributes, and for Malgeri, the selling points are his athleticism and defensive instincts. In his first full season, he’s taken to pro baseball smoothly.
Malgeri seized the starting center field job for the Whitecaps during the preseason and hasn’t given an inch away in the months since. He’s not the best performer on the roster, but he may be the most fun player to watch on gamedays, which is a sentiment that has been echoed to me by rival teams’ employees. Between his easy outfield defense and the spark plug energy he brings at the plate, it’s a joy to see him go to work.
Through 94 games, Malgeri has compiled a .243/.377/.336 slash line. What instantly sticks out here is the massive number of walks he draws. He manages a free pass in over 12 percent of his plate appearances. It’s on the strength of his batting eye that he’s managed to be nine percent better than the average High-A hitter, per wRC+.
When Malgeri pulls the trigger on a pitch, that’s when things can go wrong. He strikes out way too often and he doesn’t hit the ball in the air with authority often enough. His four home runs are proof that he can uncork some power from time to time, but he puts nearly half his batted balls on the ground. Those issues are correctable in some batters, but not all of them. Malgeri's aptitude and athletic abilities are points in his favor, but the odds are against him ever becoming a major league contributor. Despite that, there’s a charm about his game that has turned him into something of a favorite of mine.