November 18, 2015
Detroit Tigers Top 10 Prospects
The State of the System: It’s amazing what trading two national treasures and not strictly drafting from “Hard-Throwing Reliever University” will do for a system. This is still a troubled group—particularly in terms of offensive potential—but this is a system that’s on the right track.
The Top Ten
1. Michael Fulmer, RHP
The last few years saw Fulmer show glimpses of what made him a top-50 draft prospect back in 2011, and he finally put it all together in 2015. More than one scout told me that Fulmer was not just the most improved pitcher in the Mets system, but in all of baseball.
His fastball took a step up, going from 91-93 mph to consistently sitting in the mid-90s, touching 97. The slider is another plus pitch, an 86-88 offering with hard, downward tilt that he threw for strikes more consistently in 2015 than in previous seasons. He’ll also show an average curveball with some spin and 11-5 break, and a fringe-average change that is the weak link in his development. He’s always thrown strikes, as suggested by his 2.9 BB/9 career mark, but his command experienced a bump up, thanks to an improved ability to repeat his high three-quarters arm slot and delivery.
The question marks going forward for Fulmer are whether he can show the same stuff and produce the same results at higher levels while handling a bigger workload (he hasn’t topped the 125-inning mark). If he can, he’s a potential no. 2 starter, with high-leverage reliever a more likely possibility if his health and consistency issues persist. As bad as the Tigers farm still is, Fulmer is a legit top-of-the-system option, and represents a strong return for an impending free agent in Cespedes.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: Leading a list with a pitcher who is not a lock to be a top-100 fantasy prospect will surely cause some yawns for those of you who play in leagues with shallower farm systems. Fulmer could be a potential SP3 without a carrying fantasy tool, but the present risks depresses his value.
Major league ETA: 2017
2. Derek Hill, OF
Hill’s first full season in the Tigers system had highs and lows. He struggled during the first two months, posting a .216/.287/.250 line. He appeared to pick things up afterward, hitting .276/.338/.448 over the next two months until a knee injury ended his season prematurely.
Hill’s swing is simple; he is short to the ball with very little involvement of the lower half, but his above-average bat speed and long limbs allow him to hit line drives to all parts of the field. He works counts into his favor, draws his share of walks, and rarely swings at pitches outside of the zone. While he’s added some strength, he doesn’t have the swing path nor the frame to suggest he’ll ever hit for power, with a 40 grade representing his likely peak.
Where Hill excels is on the bases and with the glove. He’s a plus-plus runner who reads pitchers well, and he excels at getting good jumps in the outfield. His throwing arm is only average, but it’s accurate and certainly good enough to handle center field. One scout compared him defensively to Lorenzo Cain, so he’s got that going for him, which is nice.
Hill’s ceiling is a leadoff hitter who wins Gold Gloves in center, with fourth outfielder who can steal bases and win games with the glove a solid floor.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: This has always been a more valuable real-life profile than fantasy one due to the defensive value, but anyone who can potentially provide 40-plus steals is plenty interesting in our realm too. He's also not a zero in the other categories, and if he stays healthy in 2016, he could take a big step forward.
Major league ETA: 2018
3. Beau Burrows, RHP
The Tigers love hard-throwing right-handers, but unlike some of the other early picks they’ve made, Burrows was actually solid value toward the back end of the first round. He has impressive arm strength and one of the quicker arms from last year’s class, sitting 92-94 with his fastball and touching 96. His curveball lacks the consistency of the fastball but flashes above-average potential with hard downward spin that allows it to act as a power curve. He has good feel for his change, showing some deception from the quick arm and late fade. He repeats his delivery well without much effort in the arm path, and he’s generally within the margin of error when it comes to hitting his spots.
One of the reasons some scouts were lower on Burrows was that he didn’t offer much in terms of projection—one scout I spoke with compared Burrows to Kohl Stewart without any of the upside—but what he lacks there he makes up for in feel for pitching and advanced stuff. He’s the rare prep who could move quickly through a system, and he could become a mid-rotation starter for Detroit in the next two or three seasons.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: Well, things got boring kinda quickly, huh? Burrows doesn't have the upside dynasty owners are looking for and carries all the risks of a prep pitcher. He makes for an interesting flier after the first three rounds of dynasty drafts this year, but that's all.
Major league ETA: 2018
4. Spencer Turnbull, RHP
Turnbull was the prototypical Dave Dombrowski-era Tigers prospect: a burly right-hander with a big fastball that will touch 98 and sits comfortably 92-94 with sink and plane. While the former Alabama Friday starter wasn’t a huge reach in the second round, it’s unlikely you see the Tigers load up on this type of player under new General Manager Al Avila. The slider and change are both works in progress; the former will flash above-average, while the latter is more of a fringe-average pitch at this point. Both pitches showed improvement this summer, as did his control (20 walks in April-May; 27 walks the rest of the season). Still, a lack of consistency has plagued him all the way back to his collegiate days, and there were stretches this year in which he struggled to miss bats. The arsenal suggests mid-rotation starter, but more than one scout believes he’ll ultimately end up a member of the bullpen.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: If you're familiar with the caricature of Detroit's drafting then you're already familiar with Turnbull. The likelihood of a bullpen future is high and he shouldn't be owned unless your league rosters 250-plus prospects.
Major league ETA: 2017
5. Christin Stewart, OF
When the Tigers took Stewart in the supplemental portion of the first round, many in the industry questioned whether the outfielder was worth a first-round selection. Yet his professional debut was impressive and represents a step toward vindication. At the plate, Stewart possesses plus bat speed, and he generates good extension, allowing him to make hard contact on any part of the plate. The reports say he was willing to go the other way—something he didn’t always do at Tennessee. The swing doesn’t possess a ton of loft, though his natural strength allows him to take the ball out to right field or into the gaps the opposite way. He’s a patient hitter who saw a serious improvement in his selectivity over his junior season at Tennessee, and he continued that trend as a professional.
While Stewart is advanced offensively, his defense leaves a lot to be desired. His lack of arm strength and speed limits him to a corner—almost assuredly left—and he doesn’t take great routes, making him close to a detriment with the glove. The bat makes him a potential everyday player, but there’s a non-zero chance that the lack of defense makes him a DH or bench player.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: The lack of defensive value does hurt Stewart's fantasy value, as he'll have to play somewhere, but a power bat is a power bat and Stewart is a much better use of a dynasty draft pick than Burrows. If he can become a .260 hitter with 25-homer power, he'll get at bats.
Major league ETA: 2018
6. JaCoby Jones, IF
Jones still hasn’t come close to showing the upside he did as a freshman at LSU—he was Skye Bolt before Skye Bolt was Skye Bolt—but that doesn’t mean he can’t become a serviceable big-leaguer. The swing shows off his athleticism, with strong wrists and above-average bat speed that help create above-average raw power. That power—as well as the hit tool—play down in-game however, as Jones is too aggressive at the plate; add the lack of selectivity and length to his swing, and you get a below-average (at best) hit tool. That’s a shame because he’s a weapon when he does reach base. He combines good speed with good jumps and has 30-steal potential.
He’s also a work in progress defensively. He showed good range and a strong arm at third base during the Arizona Fall League, but he doesn’t have great hands and too often tries to “ole” the ball. That makes him likely to play in the outfield, with right field a strong possibility because of said speed and arm. Even with his recent 50-game suspension for violating the drug policy, Jones still belongs in the Top 10 as one of the few potential everyday players in the Detroit system.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: Ooooh, a toolsy prospect. Jones is high risk, but fantasy owners shouldn't mind that so much. It might come with a .240-.250 average (and similarly bad OBP), but it's certainly possible for a 15-homer, 25-steal future out of Jones.
Major league ETA: 2016
7. Joe Jimenez, RHP
There aren’t many pure bullpen arms who have the type of stuff Jimenez does. The right-hander sits in the mid-90s, consistently touching higher, with the occasional report of triple-digits. He complements that pitch with a slider that is a swing-and-miss pitch in the high 80s, which is enough velocity difference to make hitters who sit on the fastball look foolish. Unlike most fastball-slider relievers, who struggle with the opposite-hand hitters, Jimenez's pitches are so good that he's effective against southpaws and just about impossible for righties (.390 OPS). He pounds the strike zones with both pitches, and though the command is a ways behind the control, it projects well enough that Jimenez should be a high-leverage reliever sometime in the near future, with one scout comparing him to a “poor man’s Armando Benitez.” Excited yet?
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: Another yearly reminder: Don't invest in relievers in dynasty leagues. This has nothing to do with Jimenez, who could be great, but about the fact that there are a lot of relievers who end up being great and don't require a roster spot right now.
Major league ETA: 2017
8. Javier Betancourt, 2B
Betancourt is the antithesis of the Dombrowski prospect; an infielder without a high ceiling but with a fairly high floor. He has excellent hand-eye coordination and a short, compact swing, and there’s very little here in terms of contact issues. Unfortunately, his lack of strength and bat speed mean he doesn’t make much loud contact, as the power is well below average. He also won’t draw many walks (77 in just under 1,500 plate appearances to date) so this is a player who needs to provide value with the glove.
Fortunately, he does just that. He has plus range and he uses his footwork to make the most of his average throwing arm. He’ll never hit anywhere but the bottom of the order, but Betancourt has a chance to start at the keystone one day, and the defense is good enough to make him better than replacement.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: Nope. Am I allowed to just say "Nope" here? Oh well, was worth a shot. Betancourt is unlikely to ever be more than a $5 mono league player, since he's likely to be below-average in every fantasy category.
Major league ETA: 2017
9. Dixon Machado, SS
If Machado is going to become an everyday player, it’s going to be the glove that carries him there. He gets rave reviews from scouts on his feel for defense, and his above-average speed and plus arm make him as likely as any to stay to the right of second base. That’s important, because Machado offers close to zero offensive upside. He struggles with anything that isn’t straight, and even on the fastball his lack of bat speed and strength leads to a lot of weak contact, with more swing-and-miss then one would like from this type of offensive profile. The defensive prowess gives him a chance to contribute, but expecting any type of offensive production is expecting too much.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: See Betancourt's writeup above, but give him the potential for 20-25 steals one day.
Major league ETA: 2016
10. Luis Cessa, RHP
The “other” arm acquired in the Cespedes deal, Cessa doesn’t offer the same kind of upside as Fulmer but does have a chance to pitch in a big-league rotation. The fastball is plus, generally sitting 92-94 with some downhill plane and sink, and could play up in shorter spurts because of his arm strength. The change is his best secondary pitch because of his arm speed and it features some late fade. His fringe-average slider will sometimes flatten, but it’s a pitch he throws for strikes with tilt when he finishes the delivery. It’s very much a back-end profile—and Detroit may be tempted to see if the stuff plays up in a bullpen role—but his ability to throw strikes does give him a chance to pitch every fifth day.
Bret Sayre's Fantasy Take: Even in AL-only formats, Cessa's profile is a terrible one to invest in. He'll get hit and he won't miss many bats. Worst of all, he'll likely get innings at the back of a rotation and your ratios don't need that stress.
Major league ETA: 2016
Five who are just interesting:
Steven Moya, OF/1B – There was more than one person I spoke to when compiling this list who believed Moya belonged in the top five. I get it: He’s a great athlete with above-average speed and plus power. For me, though—and the prospect team agrees—there are just too many holes in his game. There’s no chance he’ll hit for average, there are real questions about whether he can stay in the outfield, and you’re going to have to sit him against southpaws. Could he become a DH who hits 20 homers? Sure, but that’s the ceiling, and the floor is guy who spends most of his career in Triple-A.
Kevin Ziomek, LHP - The good news is Ziomek nearly cut his walk rate in half in 2015 (3.9 BB/9 in 2014, 2.1 in 2015), and he shows two 55 pitches in his fastball and change. The bad news is the slider and curve remain below-average pitches, and the command is a ways behind, with more than one scout describing Ziomek as “wild in the strike zone.” Add in the ugly arm action, and it’s difficult to imagine Ziomek making his living in a starting rotation (though the change does give him a chance to get both left- and right-handed hitters out).
Michael Gerber, OF – Gerber was one of the real standouts of my AFL coverage this year— a player who I wasn’t terribly familiar with who nonetheless made a real impression on me, and several scouts I spoke with as well. The left-handed hitting outfielder showed impressive control of the strike zone, and while he doesn’t possess a ton of bat speed and the swing is fairly linear, he squares up the ball and transfers his weight well. He also held his own in the outfield, and showed a solid, accurate arm. There are no above-average tools here, but you could argue that there are four 50s, and that’s good enough to make him a candidate to rise up this list in 2016.
Josh Turley, LHP – Being a southpaw, I’m naturally attracted to left-handed pitchers. I’m even fonder of left-handers who have five different pitches at their disposal, but when one of those pitches is a knuckleball? Consider me smitten. None of these pitches is even above-average, but he repeats his delivery well, is usually around the strike zone, and if the knuckleball makes another jump forward, so can Turley.
Jairo Labourt, LHP – The Tigers acquired Labourt in the deal that saw David Price head to Toronto, and in terms of pure stuff, only Fulmer matches him—one front-office member likened him to Francisco Liriano. The fastball touches 96 with plenty of sink, the slider will flash plus with hard downward tilt, and he’ll mix in the occasional average change to keep the hitters honest. So why is Labourt not in the top 10? Because he too often has no clue where any of those pitches are going—oh, and the word flash is key, as the change and slider are consistently closer to 40-grade pitches than their best selves. At just 21, there’s time to make the necessary mechanical adjustment—keeping his shoulder in, working on a consistent landing spot, etc.—but as is, he’s not someone with good enough command to pitch in high-leverage situations, much less start.
Top 10 Talents 25 And Under (born 4/1/90 or later)
For a team many in the media seem to think is headed for a Phillies-esque fall from grace, the Tigers have an intriguing mix of young talent on the roster, and that doesn’t include shortstop Jose Iglesias, right-hander Shane Greene, and outfielder J.D. Martinez, none of whom qualifies for this list.
Young left-hander Daniel Norris flashes the raw stuff to slot in as a no. 2 starter, but his command and consistency hold him back to more of a mid-rotation profile. Regardless, his power arsenal positions him to play a dynamic role in the Tigers rotation going forward, checking in behind right-handers Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, giving the Tigers a trio of starters capable of carrying the load most days.
It is all too easy to begin overlooking third baseman Nick Castellanos because of below-average defense and a bat that has not developed as quickly as many expected. It is much harder to stand by the player and believe the bat can still play to an above-average level at the hot corner, making him a quality big-leaguer. Difficult as that may be given his production thus far, that's how I see it. Castellanos is a gifted natural hitter with a knack for hard contact and raw power to all fields. Even with the hiccups throughout his development at the major-league level, Castellanos remains one of the most talented young players in the organization and slots just half a tick behind Norris at the top of this list.
Catcher James McCann arrived in the big leagues in 2015 following a steady climb through the minor leagues, and while he will ultimately be exposed against right-handed pitching, he has the offensive and defensive skills to be a solid everyday backstop. With McCann solidifying things behind the dish as Alex Avila’s tenure in Detroit comes to an end, he combines with players like Iglesias and Anthony Gose to provide the Tigers with a defensive backbone that supports a pitching staff that lacks the previous dominance experienced in the Motor City.
Gose rates just ahead of newly acquired shortstop JaCoby Jones, who came over in the deadline trade that sent Joakim Soria to Pittsburgh, largely because he offers the potential for high-level defense at a premium position. Jones, though he may offer more offensive upside, has little to no chance of sticking at shortstop, giving Gose the edge on this list.
As has become routine with Tigers lists like this, the talent pool thins out considerably the further you move from the top. But the Tigers still have some big-league contributors in the 25-and-under category who are not included on this list. Outfielder Tyler Collins, left-handers Matt Boyd and Ian Krol, and right-handers Buck Farmer and Bruce Rondon all have considerable warts, and none of them projects as more than a role player, but for a Tigers system that has lacked any meaningful amount of major-league talent in recent years this type of “depth” represents a welcome change.
While I disagree with the contention that the Tigers are on the precipice of a cliff that will leave them out of contention for years to come, I will acknowledge that they are in a precarious spot heading into 2016. With a hefty payroll burdened by veteran players who command exorbitant salaries, and an aging owner who pushed buttons to make other signings happen, the Tigers must rely on talent like Castellanos, Norris, McCann, and Gose to fill out the roster and allow the big-name players to lead the way. —Mark Anderson
Executive Vice President/General Manager: Al Avila
Director of Player Development: Dave Owen
Director of Amateur Scouting: Scott Pleis
Avila has strong international roots—he was one of the key figures in bringing Livan Hernandez and Miguel Cabrera into the Marlins organization—so it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone if they make more of an effort on bigger names overseas than they did under Dombrowski. His eye for talent is well regarded throughout the league, and as good of a GM as Dombrowski was, the farm system might be better off with someone like Avila in charge.
Pleis has been with the Tigers since 2010, and though there’s certainly been a dearth of high picks because of free-agent signings, the picks they have had in that timeframe haven’t been terribly inspiring—there just aren't many diamonds in the rough in their hauls. Four of our top 10 come from the last two drafts, however, and at least in terms of process, the last few drafts have been much better.
The Tigers made several changes to their minor-league coaching staff, but one of the biggest surprises was the decision to not renew the contract of Mike Henneman. Henneman was considered by many I spoke with to be a rising star in the pitching coach ranks, and just last year was heavily recruited to come back to the Tigers after originally deciding to leave. He was widely credited with the improved command of Ziomek, Austin Kubitza, and Jonathon Crawford, so the decision to not renew his contract is a surprising one.