Last summer marked the first time in a while that Detroit had a high selection in the MLB Draft. They took advantage of their protected No. 9 overall pick in selecting right-hander Matt Manning out of Sheldon High School (Sacramento, CA).
Manning eventually made 10 starts for the Tigers' rookie level club and compiled a 3.99 ERA. Having just turned 19, there's a good chance he will begin the season with Detroit's short-seasoned Class A team in Connecticut, with the possibility of moving up to Low A West Michigan later in the season.
Manning headlines the list of top 10 prospects in the Tigers' farm system, one of 10 players that Detroit fans should get to know a little more. Among the top 10 are also two currently playing in the show for Detroit – outfielder JaCoby Jones (No. 9 according to MLB Pipeline) and shortstop Dixon Machado (No. 10).
The rest of the crop has kicked off their 2017 campaigns, some better than others. We will give you a quick update on how everyone is doing thus far. For the sake of this exercise, we will exclude both Jones and Machado, and plug in Detroit's No. 11 and 12 prospects.
CHRISTIN STEWART – No. 2
Christin Stewart, a first-round pick back in 2015 out of Tennessee, has performed very well in his first two minor league seasons, hitting .266 and clubbing 40 homers, 30 of which came last season in time with High-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie.
He's opened up this season in Double-A once again and he's off to another solid start. The average sits at just .238 through 12 games but he's slugging over .570 and his OPS is approaching .950. Six of his 10 hits are for extra bases and he's already driven in nine runs, good for second on the SeaWolves.
Arguably the most impressive thing with Stewart is his plate discipline. He's fanned just nine times in 42 official at-bats, a 21.4 percent K-rate that is down from a year ago when it was nearly 30 percent.
Should Stewart continue his strong start to 2017, he may force his way up to Triple-A Toledo sometime during the summer. The Mud Hens are off to a good start as a team but are getting little production so far from their outfielding corps. An addition of Stewart could inject some life into that.
BEAU BURROWS – No. 3
Beau Burrows, another first-round pick from 2015, has been superb on the mound in his first two seasons and he too has continued that.
So far down in Lakeland, Burrows in three starts has allowed just two earned runs in 15.1 innings, good for a 1.17 ERA. It's coming on the heels of a 2016 season where in 21 outings (20 starts) with West Michigan, he registered an ERA just over three.
Overall in the minors, Burrows has a 2.63 ERA in 34 appearances (32 starts) and a 1.16 WHIP. Opponents are hitting just .230 off Beau and his K:BB ratio is roughly 2.5 to 1.
The 20-year-old out of Weatherford High School (TX) still has a long way to go. Though if he continues on this path, there's a good chance he finishes the season in Erie, or perhaps in Toledo, depending on how things shake out.
TYLER ALEXANDER – No. 4
Tyler Alexander is another Tigers draftee from the 2015 class, a fourth-rounder out of Texas Christian University. He too is beginning his third minor league season, after making 24 starts (25 games total) with Lakeland and Erie.
Alexander is starting 2017 with the SeaWolves again and it's been a bit rocky. The 22-year-old southpaw has yielded nine earned over 13.2 IP. Don't let the small sample fool you, however. Tyler in 40 career games has an ERA of 2.41 and a K:BB rate of better than 5 to 1.
Given his promise and track record, one can safely assume to see Alexander bounce back from his first three starts. He's been heralded, not so much for his ‘stuff' and arsenal of his pitches, but his ability to command the strike zone and force weak contact, aided by a deceptive delivery.
If Tyler can put together numbers like he did in the previous two seasons, he too along with Stewart could be forcing his way up to Toledo before seasons' end.
JOE JIMENEZ – No. 5
Joe Jimenez has already made his big league debut this season, when he appeared in the 9th inning of an 11-5 blowout loss at home to Minnesota. The 22-year-old native of Puerto Rico pitched a clean frame and struck out one batter.
Jimenez was promptly optioned back to Triple-A Toledo following the game, mainly for baseball personnel reasons with a hint of a business mindset. But Detroit has a late-inning guy for the future it appears, especially after a dominant 2016 season when he posted a sparkling 1.51 ERA, converting in 30 of 31 save chances, and compiling a K:BB ratio of better than 4.5 to 1.
After his outing on Thursday for Toledo, Jimenez now has thrown five scoreless innings, allowing just five total base runners (three hits, two walks) and punching out 10 hitters, picking up two saves along the way.
It's evident the Tigers are proceeding with caution with him. They clearly are adamant about his development and gaining consistency with his repertoire of pitches. Given his nature of a late-inning, “one inning per outing” player, there's no immediate spot for him in the Detroit bullpen. But expect him to make pockets of showings this year, hopefully continuing his red-hot pitching.
KYLE FUNKHOUSER – No. 6
Other than owning the best last name on the list of prospects for the Tigers, right-hander Kyle Funkhouser appears to be on the same track as someone like Burrows and Alexander.
The fourth-round pick in the 2016 Draft out of Louisville started 13 games for short-season Connecticut a year ago and logged a solid 2.65 ERA. So far this season, he's had two great starts — combined 9.2 IP and one earned runs — and one bad start sandwiched in between — seven earned in two innings of work.
Given his rather bulky stature of 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Funkhouser has a relatively free-flowing delivery that allows him to throw some easy gas with still plenty of room to improve. A heavy dose of sliders going back to his relief days in college, and a heightened usage of changeups make for a very intriguing prospect in the Tigers' system.
MIKE GERBER – No. 7
Outfielder Mike Gerber is turning himself into a quality talent in the bushes. In his first three minor league seasons plus a dozen this year, he's posted a solid .286/.352/.471 slash line in 344 career games, with nearly 40 percent of his 377 career hits going for extra bases.
And he enters the season as the Tigers' No. 7 minor league prospect.
To the 12 games Gerber has played this season, he is currently hitting .275 at Double-A Erie with a .778 OPS. He and Christin Stewart are anchoring down the corner outfield positions for the SeaWolves.
But like Stewart, Gerber too could very well be called on down the road to be promoted to Toledo and add some life to the offense.
DEREK HILL – No. 8
With all the players in front of him making significant jumps through the minors and improving their standing with the Tigers, many people have seemed to forgotten about Derek Hill, a first-round pick back in 2014.
Hill's career early on has been marred by injuries, and he currently sits on the shelf after undergoing UCL surgery last August, effectively putting him out of commission for 9-11 months. Hill has also suffered concussion and leg problems in previous years, ultimately slowing his development as a prospect.
It seemed that last season was going to be a solid building block for Hill moving forward, despite having it end prematurely. He hit .266 with a .661 OPS, racking up 35 stolen bases. His speed and defense are first-class in the eyes of many, but the Tigers are hoping he can add some power. He showed some modest improvement in that area as well, upping his XBH total from 11 (in 53 games) in 2015, to 24 (in 93 games) last season.
It remains to be seen when Hill will return, and where he will open the season at. He's spent each of the last two seasons at West Michigan. Still just 21 years old, there is still plenty of hope for Hill.
SANDY BAEZ – No. 11
Sandy Baez is a pitcher that has shown gradual improvement over the last two seasons in the farm system. He has a combined 3.93 ERA in 35 combined starts with Connecticut (2015) and West Michigan (2016).
|2015 (Short A)||3-4||4.13||14||65.1||30||2.36||1.45|
|2016 (Low A)||7-9||3.81||21||113.1||48||3.14||1.30|
Baez had a chance, like a number of these prospects, to partake in big league spring training with the Tigers last month. And in his five appearances, he allowed two earned over seven innings, striking out nine and picking up a save. A small sample, but he left a positive impression on Tigers skipper Brad Ausmus.
Baez opened the 2017 season with High-A Lakeland and has made just one start (Apr 9), when he allowed three earned on six hits over four innings. Unfortunately for Baez, he was placed on the 7-day disabled list a day later. He's one of two players on this list (Joe Jimenez) on the Tigers' 40-man roster, and it does not appear the injury will affect that status.
Take the first few starts post-DL for Baez with a grain of salt, but considering his gradual improvement each of the last two seasons, look for him to be a regular for Lakeland, and potentially flirt with a promotion to Erie late in the summer.
JOSE AZOCAR – No. 12
Jose Azocar has the makings to be a player eerily similar to Derek Hill, a center fielder with plenty of speed that can play above-average defense, and has a high ceiling for production at the dish.
Azocar found regular time in center field whenever Derek Hill was injured, and he took advantage. The 20-year-old native of Venezuela hit .251 with a .680 OPS for West Michigan last season, about right on par with his career minor league numbers (.287/.316/.364 in 327 games).
Azocar this season is 15-for-59 (.254 BA), with four extra base-hits. Again, a small sample size, but he's on a pace to double that output in 2017. Unlike Hill, stealing bases has never been a part of Azocar's arsenal. He has just 39 swipes in 327 career games. (Hill has 60 SB in 146 games over the last two seasons). Azocar does pride himself on putting together quality at-bats every time and putting the ball in play.
Lakeland is carrying four outfielders with them in 2017, as it stands now. Azocar should be getting the bulk of time in center field, along with Ross Kivett. If he continues to improve and develop, and there are openings in Erie as the season progresses, he could be earning a phone call mid-season for a promotion.