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Tigers set minor leagues rosters in advance of Opening Day

Here are your starting rosters for the Erie SeaWolves and West Michigan Whitecaps, along with Lakeland Flying Tigers notes.

2022 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

While the International League got Triple-A action underway this weekend, the lower levels don’t begin the 2023 schedule until Thursday, April 6. So teams take the bit of extra time, as usual, to think about their prospect assignments. Both the Double-A Erie SeaWolves and the West Michigan Whitecaps released their rosters on Sunday. There were a few interesting assignments, but by and large they’ve drawn it up as expected.

The Erie SeaWolves will have several of the organization’s top prospects on hand when play begins later this week. The Tigers top preseason prospect, right-hander Wilmer Flores, will lead the way in the SeaWolves starting rotation. Our 11th ranked prospect, starting right-hander Ty Madden will be the number two man in that rotation. He and Flores should be a pretty formidable 1-2 punch.

The rotation depth is pretty strong overall. The SeaWolves will also have right-hander Dylan Smith and left-hander Brant Hurter, who we ranked 18th and 19th overall respectively. Smith’s first full season was marred by an injury, but he and Hurter are both talented young starters who are among our top picks to break out among the pitching group. Sawyer Gipson-Long, a right-hander acquired from the Minnesota Twins last summer for Michael Fulmer, will round out the starting rotation.

There aren’t really any surprises there, though Flores is basically ready for Triple-A and we’d expect him to get there before midseason. He’s still just turned 22 years old, and the Tigers have some project starters they’re working on at Toledo to support the major league club. So it’s understandable to give Flores some time to work on things, but he was pretty good in 19 starts at Double-A last season. It would be of minor concern if he’s not able to take the next step by midseason.

Overall that’s a very good minor league rotation with plenty of eventual major league potential.

Notables in the bullpen will include right-hander Angel De Jesus, lefty Adam Wolf, who could get a look this year, right-hander Dario Gardea, who has a pretty interesting repertoire of pitches, and Aneurys Zabala, a minor league free agent signing this offseason who throws 100 mph but needs work to throw strikes more consistently. Lefty Jake Higginbotham, acquired as the second piece in the Joe Jiménez trade with Atlanta, will be worth keeping an eye on. Chance Kirby, Yaya Chentouf, and Billy Lescher will provide depth to the bullpen.

The key position players start with third baseman Colt Keith, the Tigers’ top hitting prospect, and our second-ranked preseason prospect in the system. Gage Workman, a fine defensive infielder with speed and plenty of power, is really the player to watch closely though. Keith is going to mash. Workman has really struggled badly at the plate, particularly hitting right-handed, since the college teammate of Spencer Torkelson was selected back in the short 2020 draft out of Arizona State. He’s finally started to make some real swing changes, but after two brutal years at the plate, the clock is starting to tick a little loudly for him to make a move.

Behind the plate, Josh Crouch will be the key name to watch until Dillon Dingler returns from knee surgery sometime in May. Crouch really put together a nice season at the plate with the West Michigan Whitecaps. He showed an excellent approach and improved power numbers, while upgrading his game a lot defensively. To begin the year, Crouch will be joined by catcher Mario Feliciano, who the Tigers picked up as a claim from the Milwaukee Brewers last fall. He’s a decent hitter with some power, but the Tigers would really like to see if they can upgrade his game on the defensive side. He and Julio Rodriguez will be sharing backup duties.

Beyond Keith and Crouch, the offense isn’t set up for success. Infielders Corey Joyce and John Valente each put the ball in play a lot, and Joyce has speed and ability to play shortstop. Infielder Trei Cruz has been a disappointment and isn’t really a prospect at this point. Nor are outfielder Daniel Cabrera and Bryant Packard, neither of whom has been able to prove themselves convincingly at the A-ball levels. Packard can hit, but back issues have snuffed his progress. Hope for a healthy season, and maybe there’s a glimmer of hope for the bat remaining. Outfielder Grant Witherspoon, just acquired for cash for the Tampa Bay Rays, will round out the outfield along with another free agent pickup, Diego Rincones.

West Michigan Whitecaps

Reflecting the lack of depth lower in the system, the High-A West Michigan Whitecaps will have several of the Tigers better prospects, but things thin out quite quickly beyond them. Manager Brayan Peña will have a pretty wide range of talent levels to work/deal with.

The key attractions are 2022 first rounder Jace Jung, who should be at second base most days and batting in the middle of the order, and third baseman Izaac Pacheco, who carries one of the most power packed bats in the system. We had them ranked seventh and tenth, respectively, in the preseason. Finally, outfielder Roberto Campos, one of the Tigers better international free agent signings under Al Avila, which admittedly isn’t saying a lot, will be a key name to watch this season. Campos has pretty good discipline already, and has displayed huge raw power at times. He’s in need of a swing change to get him driving the ball in the air more. If that happens, Whitecaps fans should see some real fireworks from the talented young right fielder. Campos was our 15th ranked prospect in the preseason.

Infielder Danny Serretti wasn’t very heralded coming out of North Carolina, but he showed off a disciplined approach in his first brief look at pro ball late last summer. Another college bat drafted in 2021, outfielder Justice Bigbie, packs raw power but didn’t show many signs of getting to it during his first full pro season in 2022.

That’s about it on the positional side.

In terms of pitching, Jackson Jobe was supposed to be the featured attraction, but a back injury has him on the shelf at least until July and probably longer. Right-hander Wilkel Hernandez is working his way back from Tommy John surgery after returning briefly late last season. Now 23, Hernandez could really use a solid year to kickstart his career. Right-hander Keider Montero is another talented young pitcher with a good fastball and potential for a killer breaking ball that just hasn’t come together yet. He was our 20th ranked preseason Tigers prospect. Right-handers Chavez Fernander and Garrett Burhenn have at most relief upside in terms of possible major league futures, but both should be stabilizing forces for the ‘Caps rotation.

The most interesting pitchers otherwise are a couple of good relief prospects. Right-handers Tanner Kohlhepp and Tyler Mattison were both drafted with late innings work in mind. Kohlhepp immediately blew out his elbow, but is healthy now and worth watching for a nasty fastball-breaking ball combo from a tricky arm angle. Mattison is a power arm with a riding fourseamer that comfortably reached the high 90’s in college, and a pretty sharp breaking ball to back it with. Right-handers Andrew Magno and R.J. Petit round out the group with major league reliever upside.

Lakeland Flying Tigers

We didn’t get a full roster release for the Flying Tigers, so we’ll save that for later. Still, there are some assumptions we can make based on the Whitecaps roster. The two key prospects looking to start the year in Lakeland are infielders Cristian Santana and Peyton Graham. Our fourth and fifth ranked prospects preseason, Santana is probably bound for second base long-term, while Graham is a shortstop who will probably also get looks at third base, switching a bit with Manuel Sequera, who showed some power in his A-ball debut last year.

Santana had a good debut as an 18-year-old last summer, but the Tigers would like to see a little better approach before moving him up. Graham is very talented, but raw, and only got 27 games in last summer post-draft. Other than Jung, the Whitecaps infield is quite uninteresting from a prospect standpoint, so it’s not going to be a good sign if Graham and Santana aren’t moved up by June or July. For now, keeping them in the Tigers’ player development hub is sensible as they work on a few tune-ups.

2022 fifth rounder Luke Gold is the other bat worth tracking from the start. Gold has a pretty good eye, and enough pop to make him a legit prospect if he can get to enough of it. Defensively he’s likely going to play third base, but there’s a good chance he ends up a dedicated first baseman with a future entirely dependent on the bat.

Right-hander Troy Melton was the Tigers fourth round selection last year, so he’ll be the key name on the pitching staff to start with. Right-handers Carlos Marcano and Marco Jimenez will also be worth watching initially. At this level though, there should be pop-up pitchers developing this season if the Tigers are doing things right.

We’ll see what else the roster might have in store in terms of recent international free agent signings this summer.