For Tigers fans, even if the first six weeks of the season have been a bit of a disappointment, the short-term future is bright. While the team has some holes, they still have an offense built around Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder and one of the best young starting rotations in the game.
Can they fill those holes from the minor-league system, either this season or next? Is the next Cabrera or Justin Verlander lurking in Erie or Lakeland? Or is the cupboard as bare as it was a decade ago? After all, the Tigers have used a lot of prospects in trades over the past few years.
To answer that, let’s take a team-by-team look at Detroit’s minor-league system:
TOLEDO MUD HENS – TRIPLE-A INTERNATIONAL LEAGUE
If you are looking for a solution to the Tigers’ offensive woes, you’ll have to look somewhere other than Toledo. The Mud Hens’ best hitters this season have been Brad Eldred (.350 BA, 14 HR, .890 SLG) and Danny Worth (.309 BA, .387 OBP). At 31, Eldred isn’t a part of Detroit’s plans, although he did get a short audition during Delmon Young’s suspension, and Worth is already with the Tigers.
Beyond them, the Mud Hens roster is mainly made of older roster-filling player and younger players who aren’t ready for the big leagues. Middle infielder Argenis Diaz is just 25, but hitting .250 with no power – literally. He doesn’t have a single extra-base hit in 64 at-bats. Third baseman Audy Ciriaco is also 25, and has a little pop in his bat, but has a .184 batting average with more strikeouts than hits.
Things are a little better on the pitching side, as the Mud Hens have some of the pitchers who lost to Drew Smyly in the competition for the fifth-starter job. One of them – Adam Wilk – has already been to the majors with poor results, but is pitching well in Toledo. Andy Oliver is 2-1 with a 3.78 ERA, but is walking almost one batter every inning, while Casey Crosby has an ERA of 4.55 and control almost as bad as Oliver’s.
There’s one pitcher that has been starting for the Mud Hens and pitching very well. Yes, Fu-Te Ni could make an appearance in Detroit this season, this time as a starting pitcher. Ni hasn’t been in Detroit since 2010, and has never started a major-league game, but he might be the Tigers best option in an emergency.
Almost all of Toledo’s good relievers have already been to the majors, but 33-year-old Chris Bootcheck has been doing well as the Mud Hens closer, and could get a shot in the case of an injury.
ERIE SEAWOLVES – DOUBLE-A EASTERN LEAGUE
The hitter to watch in Erie is Rob Brantly, Detroit’s 3rd-round pick in 2010. He’s a catcher, and he’s hitting .378 with power for the SeaWolves. At 22, the Tigers don’t need to rush him to Triple-A, but don’t be surprised if he gets some at-bats with the Mud Hens by the end of the season, and a long look in major-league camp next spring.
First baseman Jordan Lennerton is hitting well, but at 26, he should be dominating Double-A, and he’s a first baseman. The Tigers aren’t exactly shorthanded at first base.
When it comes to pitching, well, Detroit had to trade for Zach Miner, just to fill up the minor-league staff. He started in Erie and got called up to Toledo. The SeaWolves don’t have anyone that is going to threaten a rotation of Verlander-Fister-Scherzer-Porcello-Smyly any time soon.
LAKELAND FLYING TIGERS – HIGH-A FLORIDA STATE LEAGUE
This is where Detroit keeps the prospects. First is the prize of the minor-league system, third baseman Nick Castellanos. The 2010 first-round pick is chewing up the FSL, hitting .410, drawing walks and hitting for decent power. Baseball America ranked him as baseball’s 45th best prospect coming into the season, and that hasn’t changed.
James McCann doesn’t have the flashy numbers of Castellanos, but he is in his first full year of pro ball after being drafted in the second round last season. As another catching prospect, either he or Brantly give the Tigers a nice chip if they decide to roll over another young player for a veteran late in the summer.
Venezeulan Avisail Garcia is in his third year at Lakeland, but that’s excusable at the age of 20. He’s hitting .333 and actually has speed – a rarity in the Tigers system. More importantly for him, he caught the eye of Miguel Cabrera in spring training, giving him a pretty good ally at the major-league level.
Finally, there is Dixon Machado. At 20, his defense at shortstop is already good enough for the majors. His bat is probably never going to get there. Playing in A-ball, Machado is batting .204 with a shocking .265 slugging percentage. That’s actually an improvement – last year in West Michigan, his slugging percentage was .247 after he managed just one double and two triples in 429 at-bats.
On the pitching side of the ledger, there is one crucial name: Jacob Turner. After shoulder problems knocked him out of the fifth-starter battle, Turner has been rehabbing in Lakeland. In four starts, he’s done very well, posting a 1.66 ERA and striking out 17 batters in 21 2-3 innings. He’ll be back with Toledo soon, and the injury hasn’t changed his status as Detroit’s number-one prospect.
In further installments of Minor League watch, we’ll look at Detroit’s 2012 draft class, examine the low minors for hidden gems and, of course, keep tracking players like Castellanos, Brantly and Garcia as they make their way through the system.