Future Tigers: 5 Storylines to watch as the 2018 minor league season begins

With the Detroit Tigers going through a rebuilding phase, many of the club storylines will revolve around the top prospects sprinkled throughout their minor league system.

Throughout the baseball season, we will keep you up to date with our new minor league centric series “Future Tigers”. In addition to prospect-related news, we will be providing farm updates twice a month, highlighting the prospects who have either helped or hurt their stock. To kick off the season, which officially began this past Thursday, we give you the five biggest storylines surrounding the Tigers’ minor league system.

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(Note: Number in parentheses next to play denotes prospect rating, per MLB Pipeline)

Closest to The Show

The Tigers’ rebuild is expected to be a multi-year project, give or take, depending on how some of their higher-level prospects develop over time. The team really replenished their system a year ago with a flurry of trades, however, the majority of them were playing at the Double-A class or lower.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some who could find their way to the roster throughout the season. Two names that stand out right away actually start the season at Triple-A Toledo: infielder Dawel Lugo (12) and outfielder Mike Gerber (11).

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Lugo, part of the three-player package Detroit received in the J.D. Martinez trade with the Diamondbacks, is probably the closest to the big leagues. He is a career .276 hitter in just over 600 minor league games and has evolved defensively into a utility man of sorts.

Originally the property of the Blue Jays, he was exclusively a shortstop his first four seasons (2102-15) before transitioning primarily to third base in 2016. Since Detroit acquired him last year, they have slowly shifted him to second base. In fact, of his 15 career games as a second baseman, 13 came in 2017 down the stretch with Double-A Erie. Lugo also played all five of his spring training games with the Tigers at second.

As for Mike Gerber, the former 15th round pick in 2014 could very well be the Tigers’ first outfield call-up if/when an injury occurs and/or someone with a short leash is not performing. Gerber has been terrific in the minors, a career .291 hitter while adding defensive versatility. He started out exclusively as a right fielder but is penciled to be the Mud Hens’ starting center fielder.

What heightens the chances for Lugo and Gerber to earn mid-season promotions, assuming they’re doing their part and exceeding expectations, is that they are on the Tigers’ 40-man roster. When talking about the prospects closest to playing in the majors, these two top the list.

Loaded Pitching

Even before the Tigers began their tear-down, they’ve always been recognized as an organization who loves to draft and develop pitchers. While they emphasized adding position player depth in recent trades, pitching still reigns supreme down on this farm.

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When we focus on the pitching in 2018, we turn our attention to two teams: the Erie SeaWolves and Lakeland Flying Tigers. Detroit’s Double-A and High-A affiliates, respectively, both carry two top-10 prospects in their rotations.

Erie by far is the most intriguing team in the organization from a pitching standpoint. Four of the five starters are top-20 prospects, including Beau Burrows (4) and Kyle Funkhouser (6). Tyler Alexander (19) and Sandy Baez (20) also join the mix. The SeaWolves also have Matt Hall (24), who will transition to a relief role after spending his first three pro seasons as a starter.

Dropping down to Lakeland, we find two fascinating players to watch. The Tigers’ first-round pick in 2017, former University of Florida pitcher Alex Faedo (3) is starting his career with the Flying Tigers. Joining him is Gregory Soto (8), who earned Detroit’s “Minor League Pitcher of the Year” honors in 2017 with a 2.25 ERA in 23 starts between Lakeland and Low-A West Michigan.

For those extra curious about determining what the Tigers’ starting rotation could look like in the near future, pay close attention to Erie and Lakeland early on and see how these arms progress.

Last Stand for 2014 Class?

What once seemed like a promising draft class for the Tigers could very well be in a make-or-break point, both individually and collectively.

Of the 40 draft selections Detroit made in 2014, only 11 of those still remain in the organization. O those 11, only two still hold legitimate “prospect” status.

Obviously, Mike Gerber has performed the best out of this group, his standing in the Tigers’ system remains the highest. However, some of these players could be making a last stand.

Once upon a time, Derek Hill was Detroit’s No. 1 prospect but the 23-year-old, for a number of reasons, (injuries, inconsistent play, etc.) has struggled to keep that budding star bright. Hill has been heralded for his defensive prowess in center field as well as his speed, particularly on the base paths (100 career stolen bases in 251 career games).

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However, despite posting career-highs offensively across the board in 35 games at West Michigan in 2017, the biggest question with Hill continues to be, “can he hit and get on base enough?” Detroit is hoping he can continue what he did with the Whitecaps to High-A ball.

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As far as players who could see time with the Tigers in 2018, there are three that stick out. Catcher Grayson Greiner is the No. 1 backstop down in Toledo. Right-hander Artie Lewicki made his major league debut last September. And Spencer Turnbull will be a part of that prospect-filled rotation in Erie. All three of these players are also on the 40-man roster, meaning they can be freely optioned between the majors and minors.

Expectations for Faedo

A lot of eyes will be on the Tigers’ newest prospect and 2017 first-round pick (No. 18 overall), former Florida Gators hurler Alex Faedo.

Many “experts” believe Detroit had one of the bigger steals in the first round of last year’s draft when Faedo fell to their spot. The 22-year-old was dynamite in his three seasons down in Gainesville, compiling a 2.80 ERA in 56 games, 48 of which came as a starter. His junior year was, by many accounts, his best season at the collegiate level, posting a 2.26 ERA in 20 appearances (19 starts).

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Faedo’s stock really improved late in the season when he put together 14.1 scoreless innings of work during the College World Series. Not long after Detroit drafted him, they decided to shut him down from pitching for the remainder of the season, mostly for precautionary reasons.

MLB Pipeline rates Faedo as having an above-average fastball (sinker variety) and slider, with a changeup that’ll surely need to be used more as he begins the quest to be a big league starter. The former Gator will open the season down in Lakeland and it would not be out of the ordinary to see him end up in Erie by season’s end, maybe even flirt with reaching Toledo if he excels.

Early Injury Woes

The worst thing that can happen to a rebuilding team is seeing their top-tier prospects suffer significant injuries that set back their development as players. The Tigers will enter 2018 with two of their top pitching prospects on the shelf.

Specifically, it is their top two overall prospects in Franklin Perez (1) and Matt Manning (2).

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Perez was the prized piece in the trade that sent Justin Verlander to Houston last season. The Tigers sent him — along with outfielder Daz Cameron and catcher Jake Rogers — to instructional league play post-trade.

Unfortunately, fans didn’t get to see or hear much regarding Perez in spring camp after suffering a lat strain in a game on March 18. The Tigers said he should avoid surgery and are looking at a timetable of roughly 12 weeks. It almost certainly slows down his trek to the majors. Emily Waldon of The Athletic shared with us that, weeks prior to this injury, she believes Perez will be the first of the many pitching prospects for the Tigers to reach the majors. Perez is currently on the SeaWolves’ roster, on the 7-day disabled list.

Then there is Matt Manning, who suffered an oblique strain just days after the injury to Perez was disclosed. The Tigers’ first-round selection (No. 9 overall) in 2016 finished last season with a 3.18 ERA in 14 starts between West Michigan and Class-A short-season Connecticut. Manning recorded a 5.60 ERA in five starts with the Whitecaps but finished the season strong by turning in back-to-back scoreless outings (11 IP).

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It doesn’t appear that the oblique strain for the 20-year-old Manning is too significant, but the Tigers are erring on the side of caution with the No. 55 overall prospect in baseball. The team will reportedly keep him in extended spring training before re-joining the Whitecaps.

It’s been some time since Tiger fans have had a respectable farm system to be excited about. Now that a full rebuild is here, the overall team success of the parent club may take a backseat to the individual development of the club’s top prospects.

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