Arizona Fall League play has been underway since early October, and things are going very well for most of the Detroit Tigers’ minor leaguers playing for the Salt River Rafters. Top pitching prospect Jackson Jobe has been the star attraction, with right-hander Wilmer Flores and infielder Jace Jung forming a pretty strong trio of young talent. Several other players are just trying to get some work in and get back on track after injuries limited their workload in 2023.
Jackson Jobe has been very good
Right-hander Jackson Jobe holds a 2.87 ERA through four short starts, carrying his strong finish to the 2023 season into competition with older, more experienced hitters than he’s faced before. His strike throwing and velocity continue to be excellent. Jobe has largely been able to work over lineups with the fastball even when he wasn’t locked in with the slider. He’s also worked hard on his changeup this year and that pitch has been the real eye-opener in recent weeks.
Where he’s struggled a bit is with the cutter/slider combination. The latter is still a lethal high spin breaking ball that is less a sweeper than a sharp slurve because let’s keep complicating the issue. He can shorten it up to throw for strikes in the zone, but it still has a tendency to get a little too big when he’s really trying to snap it off. The cutter is a newer pitch for him this season and it’s been pretty inconsistent. He’s using up in the zone a lot, more like a true cut fastball, but he’s occasionally gotten hurt up there when it drifts out over the plate. In his start on Friday night, Blue Jays’ third baseman prospect Damiano Palmegiani took Jobe deep for a two-run shot off the cutter, as a recent example.
Jobe only has a about a season’s worth of reps at this point, with just over 155 innings of pro ball under his belt since getting drafted out of high school in 2021, so questions are going to remain about his durability. That’s par for the course with pitchers, but especially a prep arm who hasn’t stretched out over 100 innings a year yet. On the other hand, despite the minimal reps, Jobe has taken a big leap this season and isn’t too far from the major leagues now. Based on the progress with his changeup and improved fastball shape and control, he’s on a fantastic trajectory. The Tigers could have a frontline starter ready to go as soon as next summer if he can refine his command a bit more.
Wilmer Flores struggled to take the next step this season
After a breakout 2022 campaign as a raw 21-year-old that saw him often overpowering Double-A hitters, the right-hander Wilmer Flores crept his way into top 100 national prospect lists, and we ranked him the Tigers number one prospect entering the season. Maybe that will prove too bold, but we’re not deterred from our high opinion of his potential after a 2023 season that saw him spin his wheels somewhat.
For much of this season, Flores was effective but just not as sharp as we saw in stretches back in 2022. His velo was dipping more into the 92-93 mph range than the steady 95 mph with up to 98 in the tank that was common the year until late in the season. The Tigers were pretty strict with his workload until late May as a result. His numbers were still pretty good, and he continued to suppress home runs in a tricky park in which to do so. He just never was able to take the next step, and in mid-July, a hamstring injury shut the 22-year-old down until the end of August. He struggled a bit in a three-start rehab assignment in High-A West Michigan, and only seemed to put it together right at the end of the season.
Like Jobe, Flores blew up for a big inning in his most recent outing on Friday night, but he’d strung together three very strong appearances coming into that game. There are some positive developments with the split changeup he’s worked on this year, but at the same time the top velocity hasn’t returned and he’s still struggling to develop his fastball command. Right now, the Tigers are just trying to get him innings and hopefully get him to the offseason in a better place.
So far so good, but we’re going to have to wait until 2024 to see if Flores can finally build on the huge momentum he had at the end of the 2022 campaign.
Jace Jung is handling third base pretty well
After an excellent full season pro debut that saw Jace Jung blast 28 home runs across two levels, including 14 of them in his 47 game stint for the Double-A Erie SeaWolves, the Tigers sent him to the Arizona Fall League not so much to work on his hitting, but to learn to play third base. So far, so good.
Jung was pretty poorly regarded as a defender in post-draft scouting reports coming out of the college, and that led to some real consternation with the 12th overall selection in the 2022 draft, Al Avila’s final one as GM. However, at least at second base Jung made the more dire prognostications look a bit silly, playing a very solid second base and showing much better footwork and agility than expected.
The problem now is that Colt Keith’s throwing has declined since his 2022 shoulder injury and the Tigers appear to have given up on him at third base regularly for the time being. He still got some time at 3B throughout the season, but was mainly playing second base in the second half of this season. Yet Keith’s bat is basically major league ready right now. Jung has further to go as a hitter to reach the major leagues, but if things go well this year, could find himself blocked by Keith. As an alternate option, he agreed to go to the Fall League and try third base, saying he was up for anything that could get him to the major leagues as soon as possible.
We haven’t seen Jung make a lot of tough throws in Fall League play, but he has uncorked a couple with enough juice from slightly awkward angles to think that he should have the arm strength to handle it. The hands and footwork are enough to make him a solid option there, even if he’ll never have the great range nor the prototypical huge arm of the ideal third baseman.
At the plate, Jung hasn’t really done much but he’s only had 38 plate appearances. The high strikeout rate is still present and he’s swinging and missing a fair amount. However, the Tigers continued harping on plate discipline is seeing better results, as Jung has also walked 11 times and holds a .462 OBP.
There is still work to be done on both sides of the game for Jung, but defense isn’t going to hold him back the way it might with Keith and Justyn-Henry Malloy. Jung has plenty of pop and is a good fastball hitter, so improving against breaking balls and developing better plate coverage down are the two keys for him to take the next step in 2024 and reach the major leagues. He should be able to handle either second base or third as long as the bat carries the profile as expected.
Hao-Yu Lee is off to a hot start
This 20-year-old from Taiwan was acquired by the Tigers for Michael Lorenzen at the trade deadline, but a quad injury limited him to just eight games for the High-A Whitecaps after he came over. He’s a precocious right-handed hitter with limited athleticism, who looks bound for second or first base, with left field a possibility. Lee also has some familiarity with the Detroit area from playing in the 2017 Junior Leagues World Series in Taylor, Michigan.
I had actually been hoping the Tigers could include a reliever with Lorenzen and pry center fielder Josh Rojas away in the deal, but in Lee, President Scott Harris and his staff landed a good young hitter who was in the middle of a modest breakout for the Phillies High-A club. His strikeouts came way down and his walk rate spiked this year, but he still struggled to get to his power. Stylistically he’s more of a spray hitter who is very comfortable drilling ground balls and line drives to right field. Lee can drive the ball and shows potential plus raw power in flashes. It’s more a question of whether he can learn to drive enough balls in the air without losing his solid all-fields approach.
Overall, Lee looks like a potential bat first utility type the way the Tigers are running things, and a lot would have to change to move that projection. However, he’s handled High-A already at 20 years old and is off to a nice start in the Fall League, posting a .957 OPS so far against much older competition. There’s a chance the Tigers could end up with a good everyday hitter here who gets on base plenty, provides some thump, and hits for average.
He hasn’t played a ton in the Fall League yet, but he did showcase the power back on October 18.
Justice Bigbie is still proving a tough out
The 24-year-old Bigbie was the breakout story of the year among Tigers minor league hitters in 2023. Drafted in the 19th round, just like Kerry Carpenter, in the 2021 draft, the first baseman transitioned to left field this season, and otherwise did nothing but rake. His late season run in 2022 carried right over as he hit .362 with 18 home runs in 100 games and really hit his stride after moving to the Double-A level in early June. If the Tigers have ultimately managed to get two major league regulars out of the 19th round, that would be one of the better coups in draft history for former GM Al Avila’s group.
The Tigers started moving Bigbie from first base to left field late in 2022, and he was a full-time outfielder this season. It wasn’t all that pretty early on, but he improved quite a bit as the season progressed. He’ll probably grade out below average but there’s a chance his feel out there improves enough to make him an average left fielder.
Bigbie has 51 plate appearances in the Fall League so far. While he hasn’t gotten to much power yet, he’s still been putting together good at-bats. After struggling late in the season with a promotion to Triple-A Toledo, Bigbie is back to his low strikeouts, good walk rate stylings out west. The batted ball luck and the quality of contact hasn’t been quite as good, and so despite a ton of balls in play, the hits haven’t been dropping for him yet.
With a good approach, good hands, and all fields approach, and plenty of raw power, there is an awful lot to like here. Bigbie has more to prove, but the tools of a pretty good power hitter are in place if he can put it all together at the next level.
Dylan Smith tries to build some momentum
The 2023 season was another injury plagued one for the Tigers 2021 third round pick. The Alabama right-hander was shut down in 2022 for arm fatigue, and then went down with a forearm strain in April 2023. He never really got on track the rest of the way and the Tigers shut him back down in early September.
His Fall League performance hasn’t been all that encouraging by the numbers. Smith has a 5.65 ERA through four starts and 14 1⁄3 innings. On the plus side, the 24-year-old has hit 95 mph quite a bit with his fastball and has 19 strikeouts. On Saturday, he racked up nine punchouts in four innings of work. However, he did allowed two runs, one earned. A start prior he’d struggled with his control somewhat and gave up a pair of solo shots in a four inning outing.
Overall, Smith just needs to stay healthy and get the work in right now. Since draft day, the selling point on Smith was some velocity projection left and pretty good strike throwing that argued for future average or better command. He has a solid short slider and is growing more adept at spotting it for strikes and breaking it off a little more when he’s ahead in the count. His changeup flashes plus and he’s pretty aggressive using it against lefties. What he needs, is to be more durable and maximize his fastball as much as possible. On the latter score, early reports have been pretty good from the Fall League.
Smith is reaching back for 95-96 mph regularly since returning to action. We haven’t see too much of that so far in Smith’s pro career. Without a dominant secondary offering, Smith needed to tune up and amp up his heater as a professional. After some issues with arm health, he suddenly looks like he’s made some progress in that regard. If he can build himself up this offseason to hold that velocity and stay healthy, the Tigers have themselves a solid starting prospect here. It’s been a less than ideal start to Dylan Smith’s pro career, but there are some reasons for optimism going forward.
This right-hander was thought a top relief prospect when the Tigers took him in the fifth round back in 2021 out of Notre Dame. Unfortunately, he blew out his elbow and had a tough time getting back. The 24-year-old didn’t make his official pro debut until June of this season.
Kohlhepp has a quick arm and throws almost from a sidearm angle. A pretty nasty slider was his calling card, but it’s a fairly sinking fastball at 92-93 mph as well. If he can finally stay healthy he could still make a good late innings reliever. He’s racked up whiffs and strikeouts since returning to action, and that’s continued in the Fall League. So has the wildness, as Kohlhepp has issued plenty of walks and hung too many pitches.
Things aren’t looking that promising, but Kohlhepp missed a lot of time. It’s worth seeing what a normal offseason’s work instead of rehab can finally do for him in 2024.
The Tigers 14th round pick in 2021, Petit’s calling card is ironically that he’s 6’8” tall and weighs in around 300 pounds. He also has a solid sinking fastball that he can run up to 98 mph at peak level. His slider is solid, but neither pitch is particularly overpowering. The whiffs aren’t quite there, but if he can stay healthy and pump his best fastball with better command there could be a role for him eventually.