In writing up our annual reports on the Tigers farm system, I try to keep a wider reading audience in mind, who may not be as familiar with the players than our regulars or prospect hounds in general. As they say, prospects are a volume business, and volume is a bit of a theme of these reports. There’s a lot to read here, because we want to re-introduce these players before getting to their tools and recent trajectory.
As discussed in the introduction to this year’s list, the Tigers system is pretty good in terms of near major league ready talent. 10 of the top 12 on this list have at least a chance to contribute at the major league level this season. Beyond that, the system is largely composed of older prospects who haven’t performed and look bound for role player or relief status, and recent draftees and international free agent signings who aren’t that well regarded yet and haven’t gotten significant exposure.
It’s an above average system, and the player development system continues to improve, but sustainability will depend on how well new scouting chiefs Rob Metzler and Mark Connor did in 2023 and how well they do going forward without the benefit of the top picks Al Avila’s group had at their disposal. At least, we certainly hope they won’t have the benefit of those top picks...
#1 RHP Jackson Jobe
It was quite a year for the 2021 third overall pick in the MLB draft, Jackson Jobe. A bit dogged by the latent angst over the Tigers passing on shortstop prospect Marcelo Mayer, Jobe’s somewhat unimpressive 2022 debut didn’t calm anyone’s anxiety over that particularly draft pick. He was obviously very talented and we ranked him the Tigers third overall prospect in the preseason, but another shaky season would have been difficult to swallow
And things did not start off well in 2023. A back injury in spring camp put Jobe on the shelf for several months. The injury initially sounded like it might require surgery and Jobe’s stock took a real hit. Instead, he was eventually diagnosed with a lumbar strain. The 21-year-old right-hander profited from rehab work to develop better flexibility and further strength gains as he and the Tigers worked on his stride length and extension.
Ultimately, Jobe was able to make his way back to the mound by mid-June. It took a little while to get dialed in again, but after a few shaky outings it all came together and the young right-hander advanced by leaps and bounds to finish the season as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball.
Jobe threw a ton of strikes and had little trouble overpowering hitters in 2023. It was full-on aggression from him all year walking just six hitters while striking out 80 across 62 innings. Ahead in the count, he often didn’t bother to expand the zone for chases and went right after hitters. Occasionally that led to a home run on a fastball or cutter that ended up over the middle in swing counts, so a little more artful approach will be in order against upper level hitters this year. That lack of polish showed up in the Arizona Fall League as well despite a good run against the best competition he’s yet faced.
Jobe’s fastball profile has improved since draft day with adjustments to his release and continued work on developing his stride and extension. It’s generally an above average 95 mph fastball now and he can comfortably reach back for 97-98. He has a balanced, powerful delivery and the athleticism to continue to refine his command. Durability is the big question remaining. The young Oklahoma native is nearly big league ready, but because he hasn’t topped 100 innings and has yet to see many upper level hitters, there remains a little reserve about his future on that basis.
The big pitch development this year was with his changeup. By late summer, Jobe was serving up plus split-changeups with very good movement and deception and flashing even better at times. There were long stretches where Jobe was working over both left-and-right-handed hitters with well located fastball-changeup combinations and little else, and he looked unstoppable.
The other new offering in 2023 was a high 80’s cutter, giving him a pitch to jam left-handers with or spot for strikes. He had some cutters get crushed when they leaked back over the plate, but his command of it should improve with more reps. Currently it’s a change of pace pitch that he doesn’t throw a ton, but at its best the cutter is yet another plus offering and if he can spot it more effectively in 2024 will further complicate the task of opposing hitters.
Jobe’s top selling point has always been a high spin slider that leans to the slurve side of things rather a traditional power slider. He can vary between sharp frisbees and more of a wipeout version, but even as he dominated High-A hitters and comfortable threw breaking balls for strikes and for chases there were still outings where his command was pretty erratic. The flipside of the durability issue is that Jobe has clearly advanced a lot, but doesn’t have that many reps driving the whole package with these upgrades. As long as he’s healthy this spring, there’s a good chance he builds on the explosive progress he made last year.
Recently turned 21 years old, Jobe is now just minor refinements away from being a good major league starting pitcher with the potential to head up a quality rotation. His well proportioned 6’2” frame could handle further strength gains, he has a very composed upright delivery, and stays centered and balanced with good mechanics even as the Tigers had him working to develop more extension and better plane to the top of the zone this season. A move to the third base side of the rubber in the Arizona Fall League could pay dividends by helping him locate down to his gloveside more effectively with his fastball, opening up that lane for his slider to play off the velocity and generate more whiffs.
The Tigers' depth in older pitching prospects will likely keep Jobe in Double-A through the first half of the season, but if he gets much better, there will be little point in spending those innings on the Triple-A squad for too long. The Tigers have invited him to major league camp this spring, and we’re very interested to see how that goes.
#2 - 2B/3B Colt Keith
We had plenty of confidence in Colt Keith’s bat coming into the season and he didn’t disappoint. His brief 2022 breakout was short circuited by a right shoulder injury just as everyone was sitting up and suddenly paying attention, and that left some skepticism entering the 2023 season. However, he put the concerns about his bat to rest with a strong performance in his first major league camp, a monster half season in his first look at Double-A Erie, and reached Triple-A in July. After an adjustment period, he finished the season on a high note with strong numbers in August and September just as he was turning 22 years old.
At this point, Keith is as good a hitting prospect as Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene were in 2021. The left-handed hitter already possesses plus plate discipline and contact skills to go with huge raw power. He has a chance to be a real force in the major leagues as soon as 2024. Unless he struggles in spring training, he’s going to be on the Opening Day roster. Either way, his time is coming soon.
The concern remains his defense. Keith had a very strong arm coming out of high school, reportedly touching 94 mph prior to being selected by the Tigers with their fifth round pick in the 2020 draft. He and seemed a lock to play third base, but he hasn’t been the same since returning from the injury. In the Arizona Fall League in 2022, Keith’s arm looked incapable of keeping him at third base and while he looked better early in 2023, he still struggled to make the tougher, off-balance throws required from the position. He reportedly dealt with some soreness in his shoulder, and while the Tigers aren’t giving anything away, they moved Keith to playing more second base than third last summer.
It’s hard to know what to expect defensively, but it’s fair to suggest there isn’t going to be too much defensive value from his game. For now he’s destined for second base, where he will presumably be below average without some major improvements. Keith is one of the better hitting prospects in baseball and basically major league ready. The defense appears likely to limit his value somewhat, but he hasn’t even played 250 games total over his three years in pro ball, so there’s a chance that with more work he can level up a bit further in that department.
#3 - CF Max Clark
It wasn’t a great first showing for the Tigers 2023 first-rounder, but with a little experience under his belt you can expect much better in 2024. Clark showed off plenty of speed and the raw defensive chops to be an excellent center fielder. His eye for the strike zone is excellent. His pitch recognition needs work and he didn’t drive the ball much, but Clark is just getting started and has a lot of filling out to do. It wasn’t a terribly auspicious beginning for the now 19-year-old, but his talent is obvious.
Clark walked a ton and barely struck out in the Complex League. He was doing his thing, getting on base and spraying line drives, but there wasn’t much in the way of power. His 11 game look at Low-A Lakeland was rougher, as he had several really bad games at the plate. On the other hand, as one of the youngest players on the field, there was nothing so severe as to skew perceptions of Clark from where they were on draft day.
Offseason work for Clark is keyed around building himself up, adding good muscle, and making his smooth swing just a little shorter and more explosive. He already has good batspeed and an eye for the strike zone. The pitch recognition should come. His speed and defensive value are already bankable. Expect him to start in Lakeland but he should move quickly in his first full season.
#4 - CF Parker Meadows
After finally making serious progress at the plate in 2022, Parker Meadows struggled a bit early in the 2023 season in his first look at Triple-A. He got it going at the plate as the weather warmed up before making the leap to the major leagues late In August. He didn’t take the league by storm at the plate, but he was productive enough to play everyday and his outstanding range and defensive ability overall made him very valuable in center field.
It was only a short six week look with the Tigers, but getting Statcast data on Meadows really confirmed his reputation as a strong defender out there. He was worth four outs above average (OAA) in just 37 games. That pace over a full season that would put him among the league leaders. Meadows’ defense is going to buy him plenty of time to try and figure out major league pitching.
The question since draft day way back in 2018 was always whether the long-limbed left-handed hitter would tap into his plus raw power or not. That’s still something of an open question. Meadows made significant improvements to his swing mechanics and got shorter and quicker to the ball over the past two seasons after a prolonged struggle in his first couple seasons out of high school.
He finally started doing more damage in 2022, and last year the Tigers pushed Meadows to be more aggressive early in counts rather than just looking to get on base. That approach paid some dividends for him in terms of hitting for more power, but came with an uptick in strikeouts as well.
Meadows has always had a pretty good eye for the zone, but perhaps too much patience at times. Strikeouts have never been a big problem for him, but as he sees more major league quality breaking stuff and pitchers who have the fastball command to regularly challenge him inside, he’s going to have to adapt and do damage where he can. He’ll draw some walks, and he’s actually reasonably good at putting the ball in play in tough counts too. So as long as he can hit 12-18 home runs, he’ll steal you a similar number of bases, and isn’t under pressure to hit for high average to still be a productive offensive player.
There’s also a chance that the recently turned 24-year-old can tap into his full raw power more than expected. After a rough first few seasons to his pro career out of high school, Meadows made big improvements to his overall athleticism, his swing mechanics, and his approach over the past two seasons. His recent trajectory makes it easier to hope for a little further improvement at the plate.
We’re a little higher than some on Meadows, but his game got a lot more polished last season, and even many projection systems peg him in the 1.5-2.0 WAR range. That feels pretty close to his floor now, and there’s still a chance he taps into more home run power and becomes a very valuable player.
#5 - 2B/3B Jace Jung
Infielder Jace Jung didn’t impress too much post-draft in 2022, but he did everything required in 2023, putting together an excellent first full season in the minor leagues.
The Tigers' 2022 first round pick pumped 28 home runs in 128 games spent primarily with the High-A West Michigan Whitecaps, followed by a promotion to Double-A Erie SeaWolves in August and September. In the process, he dispelled concerns about his defense at second base and then looked decent in the Arizona Fall League trying out third base as well. He’s not a plus defender, but Jung plays a pretty fundamentally sound game all around.
Jung also has a lot of the attributes you want in a modern hitter, particularly a left-handed hitting one bound for Comerica Park. He pulled the ball 54.3 percent of the time in 2023, and he put 45.3 percent of balls in play in the air. He doesn’t have eye-popping raw power, but pulling the ball in the air a lot is significantly more important. The result was a steady barrage of home runs from Jung all season long, particularly when he reached the friendlier Double-A confines of UPMC Park.
Jung did strike out a lot against Double-A pitching as well. He didn’t handle velocity all too well, and was pretty beatable up in the strike zone. Jung should walk and pull some balls into the seats even if the strikeout rates remain on the high side. He has less concerns about defensive value than Colt Keith, but Jung is almost a year older and the bat has a lot further to go to be effective at the major league level. There's a world in which Tigers manager AJ Hinch, who values versatility in his regulars, develops a plan to play him at both second and third base to accommodate Detroit's defensively limited infield.
There are still areas for Jung to improve before we start penciling him into the Tigers infield, at least in 2024. Right now he’s tracking as a low average hitter with a solid on-base percentage and average power at the major league level. That’s a quality player, but the upside looks a little limited until we see him close a few more holes in his game.
#6 - RHP Troy Melton
Perhaps the most exciting fast mover in the Tigers’ system in 2023 was Troy Melton. They picked the lean, long-legged 6’4” power right-hander out of San Diego State in the fourth round in 2022 as a bit of hard-throwing project with a lot of relief risk. By the end of his first full pro season, Melton was starting to challenge for second best pitching prospect in the Tigers’ system.
Melton didn’t start pitching full time until college, and then saw much of his sophomore season cut short in 2020. He showed off some premium velocity in his junior year, but with limited experience was still struggling to find a workable breaking ball and didn’t have a good season. He returned for his senior year with significantly better control and the Tigers no doubt loved both the raw stuff and Melton’s projectability considering his frame and his relatively light pitching background.
Since draft day, the Melton and the Tigers have shortened his arm path and produced a simpler, more direct delivery with more deception and good enough extension to capitalize well on the shape of his fourseam fastball. He sat comfortably 95-96 mph this year, and in spring camp touched triple digits repeatedly, though in season his max was 98-99 mph. It’s an explosive fastball and he had extra juice all season long when he wanted it.
The game changer for him was the development of a sharp 88 mph cutter he learned in spring camp from Tigers’ Director of Pitching, Gabe Ribas. Melton was commanding it much better by mid-summer, shortening it up for strikes and snapping it off with more depth for whiffs. Whatever the grip, it’s basically a hard slider. He also packs a decent 79-80 mph curveball that he can turn to as a change of pace offering.
The other pitch that got quite a bit better this year was Melton’s changeup. He developed an above average changeup and showed he could be more consistent with it late in the season. Mixing in cutters and changeups to left-handed hitters made him even more effective against them than against right-handers. Melton was basically a pure fastball pitcher coming out of college, so he’s gotten a lot better in a short span, which bodes very well for future gains.
The Tigers kept Melton’s workload on the light side in his first season. He was on the mound all year and made 22 starts, but only totaled 92 innings. He did fade a little bit down the stretch as well, but for most of the season Melton was absolutely overpowering. His still lanky frame suggests he’s still got room to improve physically, so while he doesn’t really need more velocity, expect his command to continue to improve too. Melton entered pro ball with a lot to learn and has really taken to his craft. Expect him to do very well at the Double-A level this season.
#7 - RHP Ty Madden
Ty Madden didn’t manage a big-time breakout in 2023, but he made steady progress toward a likely 2024 MLB debut with a good campaign for the Double-A Erie SeaWolves. Over 118 innings of work, Madden punched out 29.7 percent of hitters faced and put up a solid 3.43 ERA/3.93 FIP combination. His big issue remains some vulnerability to left-handed hitters, which reared its head quite a bit this season because he saw just as many left-handed hitters as right-handed ones. Madden gave up an .871 OPS to left-handers with very poor walk and home run rates versus an absolutely dominant .557 against right-handers.
The Tigers scooped Madden out of the first competitive balance round with the 32nd overall pick in 2021. The 6’3” right-hander out of Texas had an impressive college career but slipped out of the first round over concerns about his fastball shape after looking like a mid-first round pick early in his junior year. Since draft day, Tigers player development has done a pretty good job helping Madden adjust his delivery to improve the fastball. It’s still pretty average movement on both fastball types but he’s comfortably 94-95 mph and tops out at 98 mph. Left-handers handled the fastball much better than righties, and finding a solution there is the main problem left for Madden to solve.
The major weapon for Madden remains his plus slider. He continues to rack up a ton of whiffs against the mid-80’s breaker. It’s a versatile pitch for him and he can throw it for strikes or chases and shape it a bit to his needs. The slider allowed him to dominate right-handed hitters all year long.
His changeup is a firm one, but he uses it effectively enough to keep lefties a little off balance. It’s not consistent enough to be a real weapon for him, but Madden will throw it to both right-handers and left-handers. A high-70’s curveball is just an average pitch, but he does mix it in consistently for another wrinkle in his game. Finally, Madden continues to work on a cutter that isn’t a big part of his approach yet, but could help him give left-handed hitters a tougher look if he can command it a little more effectively inside.
Other than the slider, the stuff he puts on tape is pretty average, but he can put that deep pitch mix to work and attack hitters in a variety of ways already. He may always be a little weak against left-handed hitting, but he has plenty of weapons to work with to figure it out. It's possible that a little more precision with the fastball is all that’s really required.
Madden and Keider Montero will both be stationed in Toledo this spring, looking for their call to the show. Montero is younger and less polished, but he’s already reached Triple-A and is now on the 40 man roster. He may have the inside track, but Ty Madden isn’t far behind him and should get an opportunity to pitch in Detroit this summer too.
#5 - 2B/SS Kevin McGonigle
There was plenty of praise for the Tigers competitive balance selection in July. Taken with the 37th overall pick in the draft out of Monsignor Bonner H.S. just outside Philadelphia, PA, McGonigle was pretty impressive in his first look at pro ball.
McGonigle’s approach and bat to ball skills are really advanced and he showed an eye and enough pure hitting ability to be a popular choice for the Tigers next breakout prospect. The Tigers sent him right into action post-draft and he split 93 games almost evenly between complex ball and the Florida State League with the Lakeland Flying Tigers.
The left-handed hitter posted a strikeout rate of just 11 percent while walking around 20 percent of the time. He hit .302 overall with a .438 OBP, so while he only hit one homer and a handful of extra base hits overall, he was a menace for A-ball pitchers, and that’s likely going to continue at High-A in 2024.
Standing 5’10”, 187 pounds, McGonigle doesn’t have much more power projection remaining and will probably fall short of average raw power, but his pure hit tool is so good he might make it work anyway. That becomes a tougher needle to thread if he can’t stay at the shortstop position and that will be a key question in his development. If he can balance building himself up more in the power department and still maintain the athleticism to handle shortstop, the Tigers are really in business. Otherwise, there’s a very likely backup plan as a valuable utility player who just doesn’t have the offensive punch to play everyday at second or third base.
#9 - RHP Keider Montero
While Wilmer Flores floundered a bit and Ty Madden spun his wheels at Double-A, right-hander Keider Montero had a pretty big year and looked massively improved by the season’s end. Montero started his season at High-A West Michigan, quickly jumped to Double-A Erie, and then leapfrogged the more heralded prospects, reaching Triple-A as a 22-year-old while leading the system in both innings and strikeouts.
Now 23 years old, Montero showcases some of the better non-Jobe stuff in the system when he’s on, but still has a ways to go in the command department. He crafted an improved split change as the year went along, adding it to a above average slider-curveball combination. He has the frustrating tendency to lose the feel for his breaking pitches at times and blur the slider and curve together, but when he’s sharp the slider is pretty filthy and the curve less often used.
Montero was a pretty steady 94-95 mph with the ability to sustain 97-98 mph in bursts throughout his outings. He’s improved his extension and tuned up his angle to the top of the zone to attack hitters with a lot of high fourseamers. He gets plenty of whiffs and weak contact in the air but he can get a little too predictable and isn’t capable of just blowing away hitters with high fastballs throughout an outing. It’s an above average pitch and plus when he’s dialing into his upper velocity band.
Montero stands a listed 6’1” and probably weighs 190 lbs or so now despite still being listed at 145 lbs on several sites. While he doesn’t necessary have the obvious frame of a future innings eater, he’s been durable and holds his velocity well. The reality is that he’s been healthy and topped 100 innings in both his age 21 and 22 seasons, holds good velocity and consistently has that extra 97-98 mph throughout an outing. He’s not likely to ever give you 180 innings a season, but few pitchers do nowadays.
One of the most interesting notes about Montero this offseason came from Tigers VP of player development Ryan Garko during his appearance on the Tigers Minor League Report podcast. Garko mentioned that a big factor in Montero’s improvement this year came from the fact that the Tigers had their development plans for native Spanish speakers professionally translated for the first time, helping them to communicate the plan and the reasoning for it, more effectively. He also noted that Tigers’ pitching coach Chris Fetter told him that Montero had the best stuff in the system at the time Garko took over.
The split change developing into a quality pitch this season really adds to an impressive set of weapons that just aren’t consistent enough yet. There’s more relief risk here than with Madden or Melton, but Montero’s raw stuff could still give him the edge in the end and he got a lot better in all areas of his game in 2023. If it comes together a little more the Tigers are going to have another good young starting pitcher. He should be ready to back up the Tigers pitching staff this summer in some capacity and now that’s he on the 40-man roster, the Tigers won’t hesitate to deploy him out of the bullpen if required.
#10- 3B/OF Justyn-Henry Malloy
Scott Harris made his first notable trade in November of 2022 when he dealt reliever Joe Jimenez to Atlanta for right-handed hitter Justyn-Henry Malloy. In his age 23 season, Malloy walked almost 19 percent of the time to post a monster .417 on-base percentage, and he mashed 23 homers in 135 games. Yet, he also remained somewhat vulnerable to breaking balls and struck out more than his plate discipline numbers would lead one to expect. He also struggled at third base and looks bound for a defensive career as a mediocre corner outfielder. So he’s a little tricky to project at this point, but as they say, if you can hit, they’ll find you a position.
Malloy has pretty strong tools at the plate. His eye for the strike zone is absolutely elite and he packs above average power. His bat-to-ball skills are less impressive, as Triple-A pitchers eventually figured out they could dump a lot of breaking balls in for strikes early in counts without fear of Malloy doing damage. His swing isn’t grooved like a pure power hitter, but he is oriented to a pretty flat stroke built to drive fastballs up in the zone to all fields.
Malloy is going to get on-base and should provide solid extra base power. The question is whether he can do a similar level of damage against MLB caliber arms who can spot breaking balls down in the zone more effectively. Without much defensive value and still trying to find a position to stick at, he’s going to have to get to every bit of his power to become an everyday regular.
#11 - RHP Wilmer Flores
After a breakout campaign in 2022, Wilmer Flores had a little injury trouble and saw his fastball back up throughout the season. His results were solid, but he dealt with some arm fatigue along the way and didn’t have the same pop on the fastball that we saw in 2022. The high octane 95-97 mph gas we saw last year was rarely in evidence as Flores sat closer to 92-93 mph and rarely topped 95. The engine didn’t run much hotter in the Arizona Fall League either, and his control issues continued late in the season after a mid-summer right hamstring injury.
Looking through his numbers, Flores was still too much for most Double-A hitters to handle, but the stuff and the level of dominance present in 2022 just wasn’t there except in bursts this season. He got off to a rough start in the spring, and what looked like a likely promotion to Triple-A Toledo ended up being a full year at the Double-A level.
In June, Flores finally hit his stride and pitched more like his 2022 incarnation. He carried that into July and then went down with a hamstring injury. He never quite found his groove in September and October, but he posted a 3.90 ERA/3.35 FIP across 80 2⁄3 innings on the regular season, so it’s not like he just fell apart either.
The problem is that Flores’ power fastball drove his 2022 breakout and just wasn’t the same weapon this season. In the upper velocity bands and with big time extension to the plate, Flores was really hard to handle. There were plenty of whiffs and hardly any hard contact in the air. The hard curve was pretty lethal in combination, and despite the lack of a quality changeup, his high 80’s cutter gave him another weapon against left-handers. With the fastball diminished in 2023, everything else played down a little in concert and his prospect stock has taken a real hit.
One down year doesn’t necessarily dim his hopes, as Flores won’t even turn 23 until spring camp begins in late February. But Flores already had to prove that he can sharpen his command and now he also has to recapture the pure stuff that led to his initial breakout. If he can, Flores will creep right back onto top 100 lists, but there’s a chance he just peaked early in terms of velocity.
#12 - C Dillon Dingler
The 2023 season was mildly encouraging for top catching prospect Dillon Dingler, but still not enough to see him projected as an everyday catcher in the majors. His skills behind the plate continue to develop well, and he got to his power more in the first half of the season, finally graduating from Double-A after two long years at the level. He still profiles as a high strikeout, low average backup catcher, so contributing some power at least is a must for him going forward. However, the strong presence behind the plate makes it a near certainty that he’s going to play in the majors, at least as a backup.
Dingler ended the 2022 season in the Arizona Fall League, where he was quickly shut down with knee soreness. In March 2023, he had to undergo a meniscectomy on that knee and didn’t get on the field until late April. Fortunately, he appeared generally unphased physically throughout the rest of the season. Dingler remains a really athletic receiver and defender behind the plate, and his pop times, arm strength, and accuracy continue to grade out very well. At this point, Dingler is pretty much ready to tackle catching at the major league level. He’s still less ready to hit major league pitching.
Dingler is 25 now, but he wouldn’t be the first college catcher to need extra time to figure out how to be productive enough at the plate to play in the majors. Jake Rogers makes for a pretty good example of a raw and limited hitter with power who had to figure out a workable approach at the major league level. So it’s entirely possible that after several years working hard on his defense and game calling, Dingler may finally refine an actual approach beyond simply trying to hammer fastballs while struggling to adjust to anything else. He has the skills if he can just take a small step with his decision-making.
This is a big season for him starting out just down the road in Toledo and presumably the first one on call if needed. Dingler appears to have earned a lot of trust in his defense from a team that highly values his work behind the plate. He just needs to prove he can keep his head above water against major league pitching. If he can, he’s got a long career ahead of him as a part-timer and will have more time to try and improve his approach and do more damage at the plate. He’s the Tigers top option beyond Jake Rogers and Carson Kelly, and you can expect him to get a look at Jim Price’s tall buildings this summer.
#13 - SS Peyton Graham
The Tigers second round pick in 2022 was a fairly well heralded young infielder coming out of Tennessee. I really overruled our staff on this one last year, ranking him fifth in the system. While it was an injury plagued season that never really got off the ground, we still have to bump him down a notch as little progress was made. Graham was always a bit of a longer term project. His reedy, 6’3” frame needs more muscle to leverage his power with a quicker stroke than he had in college, and to harness his overall athleticism in all phases of the game. So while there’s plenty of risk here to counter the upside, look for a bounceback season in 2024.
Graham got off to a slow start for Low-A Lakeland, saw some success through May and June, and then suffered an abdominal strain that he couldn’t get past the rest of the season. A rehab stint in late July lasted just two games, and a second attempt in early August was similarly brief before Graham was done for the year. No particulars were ever made public, which to a degree is par for the course in Low-A but still left his situation a bit clouded in mystery this offseason.
The outlook hasn’t changed much since last winter, but that’s also the trouble. Graham projects to plus raw power, has speed, a strong arm, and outstanding overall athleticism. He’s not quite a sure thing at shortstop and needs to keep cleaning up his fundamentals, but he has all the tools. Graham also has a solid eye for the strike zone and took his walks. However, he also struck out more than you’d like to see and while he does a good job keeping the ball off the ground with plenty of line drives and fly balls, too many of the latter were shallow high fly balls and pop-ups. It’s hard to know how much of a factor the injury was before he finally hit the IL for good.
Tigers VP of player development, Ryan Garko, offered some thoughts on Peyton Graham in his recent appearance on the Tigers Minor League Report podcast. He referenced the injuries as part of the reason for Graham’s inability to get much going at the plate. His season effectively ended on June 28 with only 54 games played for the Flying Tigers.
Garko noted that Graham already added a lot of muscle this offseason and has that as a top priority in his work. The young shortstop has a lot of upside, but he’s got to get stronger and quicker to the ball rather than leveraging his whole body for the good pop he had in college. If he can do that, he’ll handle breaking balls better and get back to hitting for power.
The range of possible outcomes here is very wide. Graham could be a 25 HR, 25 SB hitter who puts up low averages, gets on base a decent amount and plays above average shortstop. That’s a really valuable player. On the other hand, he could certainly stall out completely in the upper minors. The track record for college hitters who don’t reach Double-A in their second full season is ominous, so significant progress needs to be made in 2024.
#14 - 2B Cristian Santana
Another quite disappointing season in the Tigers system in 2023 came from infielder Cristian Santana. After a strong debut in the Dominican Summer League as a 17-year-old back in 2021, the offensively precocious infielder put together a strong stateside debut in 2022 but lost the plot in 2023 while trying to advance to the High-A level.
It wasn’t all bad. As a 19-year-old, Santana still hit 12 homers in 97 games and posted a 21.7 percent walk rate. The plate discipline and solid raw power are intact, but some swing adjustments designed to drive more balls in the air didn’t fully take hold. Santana continued to strike out a lot and when he did get the ball in the air, they were too often pop-ups and shallow high fly balls.
However, things did click for him later in the season, and his second half was much more in line with what we’d hoped to see. He got more selective and walked a ton, while the power showed up again. He still struck out a bit much and made a lot of weak contact, but the worst seems behind him and hopefully he’ll build on those adjustments this year.
Santana is still very young, but he has filled out his 5’11” frame to a good extent already. He should have average raw power, but the hit tool initially projected a good deal better than was in evidence last season. He has average speed, but isn’t a very quick or explosive athlete. That makes for a reasonably sure defender, but an average arm and somewhat modest range continue to project him best as a second baseman. He still played some third base and a bit of shortstop with Lakeland, but that looks somewhat wishful at this point. He should provide solid positional value but without much in the way of standout secondary tools, Santana needs to get back on track with the bat this year and the rest will take care of itself.
#15 - 1B/OF Justice Bigbie
Over the long history of the Detroit Tigers’ farm system, a breakout from a late round pick has been almost a generational event in its scarcity. So it was particularly eye-opening to see left-fielder Justice Bigbie, the Tigers 19th round pick in the 2021 draft, come out hot last spring and then really catch fire after the leap to Double-A Erie. Only a year after outfielder Kerry Carpenter, the Tigers' 2019 19th rounder, came out of nowhere to become an everyday player and power threat for the parent club, Bigbie is suddenly on the brink of the big leagues as well and looks capable of taking the next step.
As Ryan Garko, Tigers VP of player development, told the Tigers Minor League Report podcast, it was Director of Hitting Kenny Graham who was Bigbie’s biggest booster prior to this season. Graham was a believer based on the consistent hard contact and Bigbie’s ability to spray line drives to all fields with authority, despite the lack of home runs early in his pro career.
Late in Bigbie’s 2022 full season debut, he started to put it together and hit his way from Lakeland to West Michigan, where he hammered the ball over the final two weeks of the season with his whiff rate dipping sharply in the process. The lanky, 6’3”, 200 pound right-handed hitter started the 2023 season hot, maintaining his drop in strikeouts and still driving the ball hard to all fields. Even better, he started hitting the ball in the seats with some consistency.
Bigbie was promoted to Erie in mid-June, and by then people were paying attention. He really caught fire with the SeaWolves, dropping his already good strikeout numbers down to an outstanding 12.5 strikeout rate. He walked 8.6 percent of the time and was an OBP machine, putting up a .421 mark, though that was powered by a towering BABIP even considering the level. The power finally blossomed as well, as Bigbie mashed 12 home runs in 63 games while posting a .362 batting average. It was a heck of a run.
The Tigers moved him on to his third level of the year with a 15 game stint with the Toledo Mud Hens in September. There, Bigbie finally hit the wall a bit, but there wasn’t even time to for him to settle in before the season was over.
Bigbie’s breakout wasn’t due to any real changes in his hitting mechanics. He’s added some muscle since draft day and improved his balance and flexibility, but as he told David Laurila of FanGraphs this season, his breakout wasn’t fueled by a swing change, but by training intensively to hit high velocity pitching last offseason.
Bigbie has a quiet, balanced lower half and attacks pitches with just a short step. He looks like he did a better job staying on his back side and let his batspeed and good pitch recognition work for him in 2023. The main issue for him was a tendency to offer early at pitches he could only spray on the ground to the right side, rather than working on covering the inner half and pulling the ball in the air more often.
Defensively, Bigbie looks like a solid left fielder who may fall just short of average defense at the major league level. There’s still plenty of skepticism that Bigbie can hit for enough power as he faces top shelf pitching, but the Tigers have another good development story in Justice Bigbie. Whether he tops out as a role player or takes one more step in the power department and becomes an everyday part of the Tigers lineup, he’s going to get his shot. He’ll start the year at Triple-A Toledo and if can start pulling more balls in the air he’ll be on the short list for a call-up.
#16 - LHP Brant Hurter
Brant Hurter remains underpowered and is cruising under the radar compared to the rest of Detroit's pitching prospects., The lefty dominated the Double-A level in 2023, pounding the strike zone and racking up plenty of strikeouts and ground balls. Despite an imposing 6’6” frame, Hurter isn’t overpowering in terms of velocity, but a tough arm angle and improved command of his 91-93 mph sinker left Eastern League left-handers absolutely at a loss for how to handle him. Right-handers did better, but still didn’t put up very impressive numbers.
Hurter’s sweeping low-90’s mph slider and mid-80’s circle change both got better as the season progressed, and they mirror each other pretty well now. The slider is an above average pitch for him and collected plenty of whiffs on the year. From that low, long-armed angle to the plate, he’ll bend the pitch onto the outer edge against right-handers for strikes, but can backfoot them for whiffs as well. The changeup is more inconsistent, but it’s a solid third pitch for Hurter against right-handers and an above average pitch for him generally.
The issue remains a low powered sinker that gets a lot of weak contact but isn’t particularly versatile. Hurter mixed a lot of sliders and changeups into his approach, while tending to just pound sinkers down on the outer edge to right-handers. If he can get better at jamming right-handed hitters to keep them from cheating he’ll open up the outside part of the zone more effectively for his changeup to work.
Hurter put together a really good campaign overall and closed out the season by dominating in the Erie SeaWolves Eastern League postseason run in September. The big lefty made 26 regular season starts, throwing 118 innings and he finished strong with just eight earned runs allowed over his final eight starts of the season. His strikeout rates are pretty average, but his command has advanced nicely and his batted ball data shows very little in the way of hard contact in the air.
Because he doesn’t have the velocity or the dominant secondary pitch, there’s been a tendency to peg Brant Hurter as a future swingman type. That’s probably accurate, but he is a lefty with two quality secondary pitches and average command from a bit of a tough look arm angle. Even with only minimal improvement going forward, Hurter is going to get big league opportunities and could be a pretty valuable jack-of-all-trades even if his ceiling remains limited to something short of a full-time starting pitcher. With the Triple-A rotation looking pretty stacked, it wouldn’t be surprising for Hurter to move into a hybrid role early in the year, and he too has a shot at a major league debut this year.
#17 - LHP Paul Wilson
Another addition we really liked in the Tigers 2023 draft class was this prep left-hander out of Lakeridge High School near Portland, Oregon. The former Oregon State commit is the son of former major leaguer Trevor Wilson. The Tigers picked the lefty in the third round and signed him to a $1.7M bonus that was roughly $750,000 over slot.
Wilson is a pretty well-built 6’3, 205 pounds already, but has room to fill out and add muscle in pro ball. He sat around 92-93 mph in his senior year but has touched as high as 97 mph and has sound, repeatable mechanics already and easy arm speed. The Tigers clearly think he’ll be a pretty hard-throwing southpaw starter, and Wilson already features a full repertoire of slider, curveball, and circle changeup to go with the good heater and advanced control for a prep pitcher.
We didn’t get a look at Wilson post-draft, so he’s one of the players we’re most interested in seeing this spring. The Tigers will be a little cautious managing his innings, so a brief Complex League tune-up and then a season at Low-A Lakeland is the likely first step for him. There’s a lot of pitcher here already, and indeed he may well surprise us and move quickly to High-A by year’s end. He’s refined enough already to move quickly.
#18 - C Josue Briceno
The Tigers signed Venezuelan catcher Josue Briceno as a 17-year-old back in January 2022. He looked like an early-blooming hitting talent the Dominican Summer League, and then made even more noise as an 18-year-old in the Complex League this summer. Briceno mashed seven home runs in just 44 games and posted a strikeout rate of just 14.1 percent to a walk rate of 11.6 percent. A brief look with the Low-A Lakeland Flying Tigers saw him hit .293 with similarly strong K-BB rates.
Briceno is already a large-framed catcher standing 6’4” and 200 pounds, but the 19-year-old does have room to fill out and add strength. A left-handed hitter, Briceno already posts plus raw power marks and may be better off working on his overall athleticism rather than trying to add much more mass.
His plate discipline and pitch recognition are advanced and he shows pretty good breaking ball recognition for his experience level. He hits from an upright setup that keeps him free to cover the whole plate, though his bread and butter is certainly in turning on balls on the inner half.
Defensively, the problem is that Briceno isn’t particularly athletic and his throwing arm is just average for the position. It’s no surprise that his skills behind the plate are raw, but we’ll have to see if he can develop the receiving, blocking, and game-calling ability required to catch at the major league level nowadays.
The Tigers could possibly have their next starting catcher here if Briceno can continue improving on his current trajectory in both aspects of his game, but that’s probably a little greedy. If the defensive skills don’t get all the way to starting caliber, there’s still a possible path as a bat-first backup who could possibly moonlight at first base. The plate discipline and power in his bat are the real selling points right now. Briceno will have plenty of attention on him as he tackles his first full season of A-ball in 2024.
#19 - 2B Hao-Yu Lee
We didn’t get a lot of opportunities to see second baseman Hao-Yu Lee after the Tigers acquired him from the Phillies for Michael Lorenzen. A quad strain ended his regular season after only eight games of High-A ball with West Michigan, but the Taiwanese second baseman returned in the Arizona Fall League and was able to show off some of the good eye and bat to ball skills the Tigers valued in the trade against good competition.
Lee will turn 21 in a few weeks, so he’s still young, but he’s also ready to tackle Double-A this year. He sprays a lot of line drives, has above average raw power, and he can drive the ball into the seats to right field as well as to the pull fields. He struck out just 18.6 percent of the time and walked in 10.2 percent of his plate appearances. That leaves a pretty large piece of the pie for balls in play, and he strikes them with pretty consistent authority to go along with his walks.
Lee is already a good fastball hitter, and while he needs to improve against breaking stuff and offspeed, he doesn’t chase too much. He just doesn’t do much damage with an approach centered around driving fastballs out over the plate to center and right field. It’s hard to make a living that way. His defense should be enough to play second base, but not so well that he can survive there without at least average power production. Still, he’s a fairly advanced hitter for his age and was in the midst of a modest breakout in 2023 prior to the hamstring injury.
#20 - 2B Max Anderson
The Tigers second round pick in 2023 out of Nebraska, hard-hitting second baseman Max Anderson did a nice job living up to the billing in his 32 games for the Low-A Lakeland Flying Tigers. The Tigers snapped him up with the 45th overall pick, and were able to get him for $480,000 under slot value, which allowed them to pursue and sign most of their many prep selections as well.
Anderson combines good bat-to-ball skills and a solid eye at the plate with above average power potential. Without the arm strength or speed to play premium positions, Anderson might stick at second base, but left field or first base could be in his future as well. If Anderson can shore up his fundamentals he should be able to handle second base long-term as long as the bat plays.
The power is really the selling point and if Anderson reaches the major leagues, the power production will have been his ticket. He hits right-handed out of a crouch with a compact swing and very good batspeed. He does plenty of damage with an aggressive approach in the zone, but while his pitch recognition is decent, he’s beatable with high fastballs, and potentially that setup limits him when adjusting to pitches inside. He likes to reach out over the plate and drill the ball to right-center field, and that’s not really the recipe for success as a power hitter despite plenty of juice in his swing.
The plate discipline and raw power are pretty appealing. It’s up to the Tigers development staff to help him refine his approach to maximize that power and develop him enough defensively to stay at second base.
#21 - RHP Jatnk Diaz
We only got a brief glimpse of the Tigers 2023 eighth rounder in the Florida Complex League, but it was a tantalizing sight to prospect watchers. Straight out of high school, and with minimal pitching experience after being ineligible his senior season, Diaz is a budding talent who may make a Tigers area scout look very good in the years to come.
The 6’4” right-hander basically made himself into a good pitching prospect on his own during his senior season, working out on his own program and throwing bullpens in a local rec facility where he had a part-time job. He went from throwing 88 mph and being viewed much more as a hitter during his sophomore and junior years, to touching 97 mph this spring, ripping off 2800+ rpms with his best breaking balls, and showing some feel for a changeup. Impressive enough as it would be for someone who spent years on the youth circuit, Diaz harnessed his own potential with minimal pitching experience to speak of.
Because he was ineligible to play his senior year due to getting caught out of the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, it wasn’t until Diaz went to the MLB draft league in June to play against other draft eligible hopefuls looking to boost their standing that teams started to take notice. Soon, he became a featured attraction in his starts leading up to the draft in July, but for most teams, it was too late in the process to move Diaz far enough up their boards. The Tigers paid him $247,500 in the eighth round, slightly over slot, and no doubt they’re happy that they did.
It’s a great story, well told by Evan Petzold of the Detroit Free Press.
Diaz only made two short appearances in the Complex League post-draft, but they only confirmed impressions that, while raw, the Tigers may have a whole lot of pitcher here. Diaz has the look of a pitcher whose value will skyrocket over the next 18 months. The big right-hander’s mechanics are inconsistent, and the organization will no doubt put a lot of work into getting him where they want him this spring. He may be a little wild, but he attacked the zone with head-turning stuff for his age and experience level. Most impressive was the easy armspeed even when he was hitting 96-97 mph.
He’s already pretty well filled out, so there probably isn’t a lot of physical projection left, but gains will come with more reps and consistency. Diaz just turned 19 in August, still has very little experience pitching and yet he looks like a very talented young pitching prospect already. There was a lot on his plate last summer and the Tigers just eased him into pro ball. Expect Tigers player development to implement a lot more adjustments with him this season. It’s wise to be patient and see how he holds up to his first full year of pro ball, but it’s hard not to be excited about Jatnk Diaz’s potential.
#22 - INF Eddys Leonard
One of the more efficient moves Scott Harris has made to date was the acquisition of infielder Eddys Leonard this summer. The Dodgers' 40-man roster was a little crowded in July as they hunted for trade deadline help and the Tigers were able to trade cash for the young infielder. The current consensus has him slated for third base due to subpar range for the shortstop position, but Leonard just turned 23. It’s still possible he might make a decent enough defensive shortstop with more work. The growth in his hitting after coming over in the trade may make either position viable considering the Tigers' needs on the left side of the infield.
In the Dodgers’ system, Leonard was pegged as a tweener without either the skills to stick at shortstop and or enough power projection to stick as a full-time third baseman. Generally that’s led to part-time utility player projections, hence the minimal trade return for him in July. However, things look a little different after his run at the plate with the Triple-A Mud Hens in August and September.
Leonard hit 11 home runs with the Dodgers Double-A affiliate in 92 games, fitting his average power projections at the time. He put the ball in the air a fair amount, but his infield fly ball rate was extremely high. The Dodgers are pretty well known for teaching guys without huge raw power to pull the ball in the air more and maximize their power, but 46.6 percent of his fly balls were pop-ups this season. He came to Detroit, was promoted to Triple-A Toledo, and the fly balls gave way to more line drives. Of the remaining fly balls, far fewer were popped up as well. He hit eight homers in just 40 games, posted an impressive 0th percentile exit velocity, and drove the ball up the gaps for extra bases more often.
Leonard has some ability to spray the ball around, but he is decidedly a pull hitter and has some vulnerability on the outer half. He’ll chase a few too many breaking balls, but his walk rate and strikeout rates have consistently been average or better, and moved in positive directions with the Tigers too. The final step for Leonard might be the toughest, but with his development trending in a positive direction, it’s easier to believe he can do enough damage against major league pitching to stick around. He just doesn’t have the defensive ability to be an everyday player unless he can squeeze the most out of his bat.
Leonard can hit a bit, and he showed more juice than expected in Toledo. It’s plus raw power. He just isn’t so likely to get to enough of it at the big league level to find a home on the infield. Shortstop just doesn’t look like a fit. Still, if he find the barrel enough he could be a useful part-time player. He’s young enough that he isn’t a finished product yet, and his improvements in the second half last year got our attention. Hopefully he can build on that a little more in 2024.
#23 RHP Andrew Dunford
The Tigers leaned heavily into the prep pool of talent in the 2023 draft. We’ve discussed Max Clark, Kevin McGonigle, and Jatnk Diaz already, but the Tigers' 12th rounder out of Houston County HS in Georgia is another quality teenaged prospect the club was able to draw away from his commitment to Mercer for an overslot bonus of $367,500.
Dunford is a huge specimen, standing 6’7” and listed at 235 pounds with plenty of room to add muscle to his slender frame. He didn’t get on the mound much post-draft, throwing just a handful of Complex League innings, but the tools are pretty compelling. Dunford has a power sinker with a lot of depth that sits around 93 mph and touches 95 mph. The Tigers understandably believe that there’s more to come as he gets stronger. He backs that with an inconsistent slider that now sits about 80-81 mph, but the breaking ball will need work to become a quality out pitch in pro ball.
There is a lot of potential here for the Tigers to work with here. As with Melton and Diaz, we’re seeing the newish Tigers player development group get plenty of opportunities to work with some raw but talented young hurlers from start to finish, and Dunford will be an interesting project to follow. If the early dividends from Melton are any indication, the team could shape Dunford into an exciting player.
#24 - RHP Dylan Smith
Dylan Smith has become a bit of a forgotten man after an injury plagued 2023 season. The Tigers 2021 third rounder was coming off a decent first pro season, but was still drawing depth starter/middle relief projections coming into the season. A forearm strain in April derailed his season at Double-A Erie. He got back on the mound in July but the Tigers were pretty cautious with him until the final few starts of the year. He then went on to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, but while the stuff was a little hotter, his control was uncharacteristically poor.
Smith had some projectability with a lean 6’2”, 185 pound frame coming out of Alabama. He was viewed as a slightly underpowered strike-thrower with a pretty good slider coming out of college, so seeing him pump 97 mph occasionally in the Fall League was encouraging despite the fact that he was less in control of it. Adding max velo is good. Typically he’s been 92-93 mph and topped out at 95 mph. We’ll see next year if he can sustain a little better cruising speed and still refine his fastball command further.
Smith’s best weapon is an above average slider that he locates well. At its best the slider will flash plus and a developing split-change that could be an average major league offspeed offering with a little more consistency as well. A fringy curveball is useful as a change of pace, but not a big part of his repertoire. His control has been pretty good as a starter since draft day, and while he was more erratic at times this season, the injuries may have played a role.
After a lost season in 2023, Smith really needs to make progress this year. If he’s healthy, that shouldn’t be a problem, but in a system fairly stocked with better pitching prospects, a future starting role is increasingly unlikely. An awful lot will have to go right this year to change that assessment.
#25 UT Wenceel Perez
Utilityman Wenceel Perez has slipped through the cracks a bit, but maintains the bat to ball skills and speed to be a useful bench player. Only recently turned 24 years old, the slightly undersized but fairly speedy switch hitter has made some real gains with the bat, but has to shore up his defensive abilities to stick at the major league level.
Perez doesn’t strike out much, posting rates of 15.2 percent at Double-A in 2023, and 18.1 percent at the Triple-A level where he played the final 35 games of the season. That, along with above average speed and pretty sound base-stealing instincts, have been his calling cards all along. He’s added muscle over the past two years, sparking a modest power surge at least hitting left-handed that finally made him a viable major league hitter, but he’s still below average in that department and doesn’t really have much chance of playing everyday.
That would be fine if he was a plus defender, but Perez and the Tigers haven’t been able to put that together yet. He’s still a little too error prone, particularly in his throwing, when playing the infield. His speed has always made him look like a viable outfielder, but actually playing out there is still a fairly recent experiment. The Tigers finally started putting that theory into practice last summer, but he still played a lot of second base.
Perez can cover enough ground to play center field, however, he hasn’t really thrived out there either yet. The jumps may improve with more reps, but it wasn’t quite the revelation we were hoping for. He may get a look at the major leagues this year, but he’ll have to become a little more dependable defensively to envision a lengthy run as a major league utility player. Fellow shortstop-turned-utility prospect Trei Cruz doesn’t have Perez’s pure hitting ability, and so we have him a tier lower, but Cruz’s defense may make him a little more valuable to major league clubs in the long run.
#26 RHP Tyler Mattison
This 6’4”, 235 pound right-hander is the Tigers best pure relief prospect now that Brendan White has gotten significant MLB time. Mattison was the Tigers 4th rounder in 2021, and dealt with some injuries, including a shoulder issue early in his pro career. He came back this year and tossed 59 2⁄3 innings of outstanding relief with high strikeout rates at both High-A and Double-A.
Mattison features a good riding fourseamer from an overhand delivery and sits 94-95, reaching 98 mph with max effort. Mattison stands tall and throws on a downhill plane as he falls off to the first base side of the rubber. As a result, he doesn’t always take advantage of his fourseam movement as well as he could. Still, he racks up a good amount of whiffs and gets plenty of weak contact in the air against the heater as it is. He’s a pretty good fit for Comerica Park in particular.
Mattison came out of college with a 12-6 power curveball as his main secondary, but the Tigers have had him work on a cutter around 86 mph that has a little more tilt, but is still very much a north-south style breaking ball. He gets an average amount of whiffs on it, and with more consistency the results should improve. Still, his best secondary is probably a fading changeup that gets a lot more horizontal movement than anything else in his repertoire.
That changeup is a real weapon for him, and that third pitch gives him the ability to handle a lot of different types of hitter. He has the makings of a solid setup man, but the starter’s arsenal and background makes him a good candidate to handle multiple innings as well. If his command improves a little further, AJ Hinch will have a versatile reliever to deploy in a wide variety of scenarios.
#27 - RF Roberto Campos
20-year-old Robert Campos spun his wheels in 2023, but he remains young enough and talented enough to stick with. There are major adjustments required at the plate, but his batspeed and raw power still say he’s a player worth watching next season. He wasn’t overwhelmed with his High-A assignment, but he was back on his heels at times and just didn’t do much damage.
Campos is a decent fastball hitter and handles velocity on the inner half well, but efforts to get him to pull the ball in the air more while still covering the outer half of the plate effectively haven’t come to fruition. Still, he packs plus raw power, manages to keep the strikeouts reasonably in check, and doesn’t chase out of the zone that much. On the other hand, he’s still pretty vulnerable to good breaking balls and changeups, and while he doesn’t chase wildly, he also doesn’t have much of an approach and will offer at pitcher’s pitches too much rather than looking for something he can drive.
Defensively, Campos had a weird year. He has all the tools to be a solid right fielder, but doesn’t run good routes at times and is prone to the occasion baffling mistake. He has the throwing arm and enough speed to handle the position, but he remains a bit stiff out there, struggling to adjust in-flight if his initial read isn’t on point.
The Tigers deployed him in center field pretty frequently in 2022, and while that position would take the pressure off his bat, he doesn't have even remotely enough footspeed to play up the middle. There’s plenty of improvement required in right, but I still think he can get close enough to average out there as to not matter as long as the bat develops as hoped.
Campos is still only 20 years old, so while it’s been a disappointing start to his pro career, there remains plenty of potential. However, another tough year without tangible growth is going to leave him clinging to bare shreds of prospect status. Hopefully 2024 is the year he starts to refine his game and tap into his power more effectively.
#28 -INF Carson Rucker
As we’ve noted, the Tigers went heavily toward prep players in the 2023 draft, and while Max Clark and Kevin McGonigle rightly get top billing, Carson Rucker is another interesting young hitter for the organization to try and develop.
The Tigers took Rucker in the fourth round, and were able to convince him to forego his commitment to Tennessee for a $772,500 bonus. Standing a lean 6’2” and 195 pounds, Rucker has pretty good pop already and projects for plus raw power in time. However, he does have some length to his swing that needs to be trimmed down and his overall plate coverage is going to need a lot of work in pro ball.
Still, Rucker showed an advanced approach and a pretty good eye in his brief run in the Complex League after the draft. He has a good arm, but lacks the quickness to stick at shortstop, and so he’s expected to play third base full-time as he fills out. He’ll need plenty of time, but the Tigers got quite a bit of potential for Rucker’s price. We’ll see how well they develop him in Lakeland as he prepares for his first full year of pro ball.
#29 - 2B/3B Luke Gold
The Tigers' fifth rounder in 2022 out of Boston College, infielder Luke Gold took a nice step up with the bat in his first full year. His numbers this far won’t wow anyone, but Gold has shown signs of getting to more of his above average raw power, puts the ball in the air quite a bit, and improved his approach last summer as he made the jump to High-A West Michigan.
Defensively, Gold is more suited to second base than third base, though he has just enough arm for the latter position. Overall, his mediocre speed and athleticism aren’t going to make him even an average defender at either position. He’ll have to mash, but he has the contact ability and raw power to reach the majors as a bat first, part-time player. He has a lot further to go than a similarly aged, bat-first player like Justyn-Henry Malloy despite similar defensive liabilities in the infield.
#30 - RHP Jaden Hamm
The Tigers selected this 6’1” right-hander in the fifth round of the 2023 draft out of Middle Tennessee State. Hamm has a pretty compact delivery, throws from a high three-quarters slot, and has some carry on his fastball. He’s touched as high as 96 mph, and while he was typically around 92 mph in his junior season, he has some physical projection remaining and should add velocity in pro ball.
He shows a solid curveball and some feel for a changeup, but the secondary pitches overall need work. Hamm is a project, but he repeats his mechanics pretty well and throws a lot of strikes already. The Tigers will presumably shorten that arm path a bit, but Hamm already gets down the mound with good stride length and extension. There is plenty to work with, and Hamm was young for his draft class. He may take a little longer to come into his own, but there’s some potential here and the Tigers should be able to tune his stuff up significantly.
#31 - UT Trei Cruz
The Tigers 3rd round pick back in the short 2020 draft, Trei Cruz arrived as a decent shortstop prospect with some polish to his game and an effusive personality. That was to be expected considering his lineage in the game. Long-time Astros outfielder Jose Cruz Sr. is his grandfather, and his father played as well before moving into coaching.
Cruz has a disciplined approach at the plate and draws plenty of walks, but lacks the power and contact skills to project him to do any real damage at the major league level. It took him two seasons to reach Double-A after a good college career at Rice, and he continues to whiff too much and drive the ball too little to envision a long major league career as a bench player.
Honestly, the lack of power he's shown in professional ball is a bit puzzling. He was billed as having notable thump for a shortstop during his draft cycle, and he has the dense, statuesque physique to back it up in theory. You can't argue with the results, though, and he's made hitting look very difficult throughout his time as a pro.
He came to the Tigers as a shortstop and he’s still a solid enough defender there or anywhere in the infield, but the big development for him came with a move to center field, where he has thrived defensively. The offensive tools remain pretty light, but he can get on base and put a few balls in the seats. Still, it’s his ability to handle premium positions on the field competently that gives him a path to the majors as a bit of a jack-of-all-trades who can handle the bat without being a complete black hole offensively, and can handle just about every position on the field.
#32 - 3B Izaac Pacheco
It was a rough year for the Tigers' 2021 second rounder. After a solid Low-A debut in 2022, Pacheco really faltered when he reached High-A, and that continued in 2023 as Pacheco posted abysmal numbers for the West Michigan Whitecaps. The raw power remains impressive, but it scarcely made an appearance this season as he was well overmatched by High-A pitching.
Pacheco can crush some tape measure shots, but his long-levered swing just isn’t quick enough to get to good fastballs, particularly up in the zone. That leaves him cheating and very vulnerable to good breaking stuff. He still judges the strike zone pretty well, but the batspeed and plate coverage have to improve a lot this offseason to envision him handling Double-A pitching with any real success in 2024. It’s hard to survive as a pure mistake hitter in the upper minors, and to this point, Pacheco’s grooved swing and basic approach don’t convey much optimism that he’s going to put it together and hit for the kind of power his likely low average and modest OBP will require to play in the major leagues.
On the other hand, Pacheco played the 2023 season as a 20-year-old, so it’s not like he’s out of time here. Still, something has to change dramatically. Defensively, Pacheco is a decent third baseman with more range than his frame and speed might lead one to expect. The raw power will continue to earn him plenty of leash to try and figure it out. There’s still a chance Pacheco taps into that power and becomes a low average, slugging third baseman, but it’s a slim one and there isn’t a fallback plan if he can’t make major strides with the bat.
#33 INF Gage Workman
Little changed for the now 24-year-old Workman in 2023 and he’s now running out of time to establish himself in the upper minors. He’s still a pretty good shortstop with above average speed and raw power, but the hit tool just hasn’t developed enough to let the power play, despite a little more patient approach last year. The potential here remains so tantalizing and hard to give up on, but it’s just not happening.
Workman was stubborn about making adjustments in his swing mechanics and approach during his three years of pro ball. The word on the street was that he was finally more open to making some changes last spring, but apart from a little more patient approach that led to more walks, nothing much happened. He continued to struggle mightily hitting right-handed against lefties, and remained mediocre on the other side of the plate. The Tigers sent him back to High-A for two months later in the summer, and he was only marginally better there than he’d been during his first go-around at the level back in 2021.
His defensive ability and raw tools make it impossible to fully give up on him, but Workman’s hitting just hasn’t improved nearly enough to even be confident of a bench role in his future. Something drastic will have to happen to change projections, and it looks pretty likely that he’ll basically top out in the upper minors. There’s still a chance he figures out how to get to a little more power and plays in the majors off the bench for a few years. Much more likely he’s a back of the 40-man roster guy who sees the majors as an injury call-up here and there, and continues to tease everyone with the occasional great play or long home run.
#34 C Brady Cerkownyk
The Tigers put together a quite intriguing draft in 2023, aggressively pursuing their guys without regard to signability issues, trusting that they could make it work as they inked the contracts and allocated their bonus pool. One more result of that approach was the selection of catcher Brady Cerkownyk from Connors State College, a small town junior college in Oklahoma.
Cerkownyk wasn’t exactly off the radar, as numerous teams had taken note of the rapidly blossoming young catcher who didn’t even abandon his hockey dreams to focus on baseball until he graduated high school. However, the Tigers area scout, Steve Taylor, had a decades long relationship with Connors State coach Perry Keith, and Keith was adamant that the Tigers’ scout needed to come see his catcher. The rest is history.
What the Tigers found is a young catcher with the athleticism to develop into a quality major league backstop. He packs average raw power already and showed pretty good bat-to-ball skills in nearly winning the junior college Triple Crown. There has to be some reserve, as he didn’t face much high caliber college pitching, but the Tigers seem pretty confident in the tools.
The Tigers got a lot of player here for a 15th round pick, and they paid him like it with fifth round money. Cerkownyk had a firm number in mind and after day two of the draft, didn’t expect anyone to offer it to him. He was heading off to the Cape Cod League and planning on returning for his senior season when the Tigers picked him and were able to meet his $400,000 signing bonus demand through creative work with the the rest of their class.
Cerkownyk didn’t get to show his stuff post-draft due to a right meniscus tear, and so we’re still waiting for our first real look at him. His stock may well skyrocket in his first full pro season, and he’ll have plenty of attention on him this spring as he starts out with the Low-A Lakeland Flying Tigers.
Brady Cerkownyk C for Connors St drives a bases loaded double off the RF wall to clear the bases driving in 3 runs to put the Cowboys in the lead 9-6 v Crowder in the bottom of the 8th. It was a big blast for one of all of JUCO hottest hitters @ConnorsBaseball pic.twitter.com/XJnJusnmDx— Tad Slowik (@TadSlowik_DBA) March 15, 2023