February 2, 2017
Detroit Tigers Top 10 Prospects
The State of the System: It’s another mediocre Tigers system, but they’ll probably trade these guys for...oh wait, Dombo’s gone. The righty power pitchers are still here though.
The Top Ten
The Big Question: What did I miss on Michael Fulmer?
Michael Fulmer is not on this prospect list.
That was a reasonably predictable outcome at the beginning of the 2016 season. He was going to be assigned to Triple-A, but based on his 2015 performance in the Eastern League, it wasn’t going to be a long stint. All he needed was a rotation slot to open up. The Tigers entered the season with both Shane Greene and Mike Pelfrey penciled in the rotation. And well…
It also wouldn’t be a longshot to predict Fulmer having a successful rookie campaign. He was a Top 100 prospect coming into the year and had finally stayed healthy for a full pro season for the first time since 2012. The slider was in the process of beginning to jump—shocking for a Mets prospect I know—and the velocity was plus and he could reach back for more. It was major-league stuff, and he fit comfortably into that “mid-rotation starter or bullpen arm” bracket depending on the future command and change development.
It would have been tougher to predict his being one of the best pitchers in the American League. Well, at least I didn’t. This happens, mind you. I wrote a lot of words about it this year already. This is the type of profile that when it does make good, well there are already a couple plus pitches in there, so the growth can be exponential. I know all of this of course. I just didn’t think it would happen to Fulmer.
I can equivocate here. The advanced metrics think he was closer to a number three in 2016. But even if I grant myself that, essentially skipping Triple-A and being a major league three is better than what I expected from Fulmer in 2016, and there is growth potential beyond that. Why? Because I also missed on the stuff.
Specifically I missed on the change. I’ve written the equivalent of “needs to refine the change” roughly 50 times in this space over the last three months, and sometimes it is just a reps or comfort thing. It seemed to be the case for Fulmer, although he also mentions a slight grip tweak. “You can’t teach spin” was a scouting aphorism long before the cargo cult around Statcast popped up. But you can always give a guy a slider or a cutter—which is more or less happened with Fulmer who came out of high school with one of the better curves among prep pitches. But there is more of a continuum with breaking balls. There are good sliders and curves, average ones, fringy ones. Ones that get slurvy, hooks from hell, humpy downers, back-foot behemoths, lollipops and slutters.
The changeup—especially among prospects—seems more like a binary proposition. You either have it or you don’t. The latter group may occasionally show some feel for the pitch—another phrase I’ve regurgitated a few times this winter. But when you see a jump with the pitch, it’s often because they were fooling around with a new grip or Johan Santana shows up on rehab and says “hey kid, try this.” Perhaps Fulmer was a better candidate to figure it out because of his success with the Warthen slider, more of a grip/pressure pitch.
I also dinged Fulmer a bit too much for his issues staying on the mound in 2013 and 2014. There was a bone spur issue in there, but most of the time was lost to a torn meniscus he later tore a second time. He’s a large human, so knee and back issues are worth keeping an eye on, but it there was nothing in there to suggest he was actually injury prone. He has the frame to log innings and despite the Tigers managing his workload down the stretch, there’s no reason he can’t be a 200-inning workhorse going forward.
Well, he is still a pitcher I guess.
In the end it was a little too easy to pigeonhole Fulmer—and I missed seeing him by a day in the Summer of 2015—and I allowed old looks and old prejudices against his health to moderate the very good reports I was getting. I’ll equivocate one more time and suggest that number three starters have number two, or even ace seasons all the time. Sometimes it’s a real jump and sometimes you are Rick Porcello or R.A. Dickey. But it sure seems like I missed something on Michael Fulmer.
1. Matt Manning, RHP
The Good: Manning has the look of a future top of the rotation starter. He has the #goodstuff, including a potential double-plus fastball with above-average life. His steep downhill plane helps the pitch play up. His best secondary offering is the curve, showing 11/5 shape, plus depth, and sharp action. What impresses most is that he can locate the deuce for strikes at the bottom of the zone or bury it to finish off batters. His changeup shows potential due to his arm speed on the offering. All of this comes from an clean and easy arm action, with plus arm speed and a projectable body.
The Bad: While the delivery is clean, there is some effort to it and he can lose his release point from time to time. While it shows potential, the change is a clear third offering that doesn’t project to more than average at present. While not skinny, he does need to add weight to his frame to hold up to a season long workload.
The Irrelevant: We’re obligated to show you this video of some of his high school basketball highlights.
OFP 60—No. 3 starter
The Risks: He’s a pitcher…from high school…only one summer of professional baseball under his belt. Needs to add weight to his frame to handle a rotation workload.
Major league ETA: 2020 —Steve Givarz
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: If I’ve said it once I’ve said it in at least 26 previous installments; if you’re going to gamble on pitching, at least gamble on upside. Manning has plenty of it, and while the long lead time is a bit of a bummer, the potential for fantasy SP2/3 upside makes him worth the wait. He’ll be a top-100 dynasty prospect, albeit one near the end of the list.
2. Christin Stewart, OF
The Good: Stewart has some of the biggest left-handed raw in the minors (okay maybe Bobby Bradley has more), grading out as an easy plus, if not more. It isn’t just a batting practice show either; it can play to plus or better in-game. He has above-average bat speed with quick hands and is able to get extension to pair with his natural strength. While aggressive, Stewart does have a plan of attack and will work counts with the best of them.
The Bad: Despite the bat speed, Stewart’s swing has length and he was exposed under the hands. A below-average runner, Stewart is more or less an adventure in the field as he struggles with reads and routes. His arm is below average as well and, paired with his lack of range, could push him towards DH status sooner rather than later.
The Irrelevant: Stewart’s HS alma mater, Providence Christian Academy, has Collin McHugh as the most notable baseball alumnus.
OFP 55—Bat-First Left-Fielder
The Risks: His first go-around in Double-A wasn’t the smoothest and all his value is tied to his bat given his defensive status. His aggressive approach could be his undoing as he struggles to get on base.
Major league ETA: 2018 —Steve Givarz
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Well, Stewart is close to the majors, at least. Personally I’m not a big believer in his bat, but the power potential is very real, and if he does end up as a platoon bat, at least he’ll be strong-side. If you roster 200 prospects, Stewart should be owned. Mayyyyyybe even if you roster 150 prospects, but I wouldn’t feel great about it.
3. Beau Burrows, RHP
The Good: Burrows is the second, though far from the last, hard-throwing right-hander in the Tigers Top Ten. Old habits die hard. He was as high as 97 this year in the Midwest League but more comfortably sits 92-94 where it is a heavy pitch with some arm-side run. Burrows has confidence to throw his curveball at any time, and it sits in the upper 70s and shows some hard 11-5 action. Despite perhaps not having ideal size for a starter, the delivery is clean and repeatable, and there’s no mechanical bar to his sticking in a rotation.
The Bad: You’d think a pitcher with his stuff would miss more bats in the Midwest League, but the the curve can be more pretty to look at than an effective bat-misser. It can also get slurvy at times and currently is a below-average offering despite an above-average projection. The fastball command is fringy and his velocity bobbed up and down throughout the year. The change has the right arm action and velocity separation, but lacks the movement to miss barrels at present.
OFP 55—Mid-rotation starter
The Risks: He’s a teenaged pitcher in A-ball that lacks a bat-missing option at present. Change and command need grade jumps to stay a starter.
Major league ETA: 2020
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: As mid-to-back-end starters who are many years from the majors go, I actually like Burrows a good bit. Unfortunately, he’s still a mid-rotation starter who’s many years from the majors. Put him on your watch list and see how he performs in the low-to-mid minors.
4. Joe Jimenez, RHP
The Good: A large, physical pitcher, Jimenez’s fastball is an easy 80, sitting 96-97 and touching 100 with ease. The pitch has plus boring action, eliciting ugly swings and weak pop-ups on a regular basis. He throws strikes and can spot it to both sides of the plate. His slider is also a plus-to-better offering featuring large break and depth. It has plus action with bite, and given its velo difference (85-86) off the fastball, it can be tough for hitters to time up. His low-three-quarters slot makes it tougher for right-handers to pick up the ball out of his hand.
The Bad: Jimenez does throw a lot of strikes, which is good, but he struggles to command his arsenal at times. He doesn’t offer a changeup so he could be somewhat suspect against lefties down the road.
The Irrelevant: Jimenez didn’t allow an earned run until his 27th appearance of the season.
OFP 55—Potential closer
The Risks: Tigers fans have seen this dance before with the likes of Bruce Rondon. He is a pitcher with a non-routine arm slot and could have problems at the big-league level unless his command takes a step forward.
Major league ETA: 2017 —Steve Givarz
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Jimenez is either the best or second-best reliever prospect in baseball, depending on how you feel about Frankie Montas. He’s not a top-150 dynasty prospect, though. Because he’s a reliever.
5. Tyler Alexander, LHP
The Good: Alexander might not overpower you with stuff, but he is a dang good pitcher. All of his pitches play up because of his ability to locate and command his arsenal. While his fastball has only average velocity, with average sink he can stymie hitters inside and under their hands. His changeup is an above-average offering because of quality arm speed and late, fading action. He isn’t afraid to double up on it, or throw it to left-handed hitters. His slider should be average in the future given his feel and how comfortable he is throwing it.
The Bad: Alexander is maxed out so he is what he is physically. This is a command-based profile and while he doesn’t walk guys, he doesn’t project to miss many bats in the future.
The Irrelevant: The Tigers drafted Alexander twice, previously taking him in the 23rd round in 2013 out of high school.
OFP 50—No. 4 starter
The Risks: He’s a pitcher…we’ve seen lots of command over stuff guys struggle in the big leagues to miss bats and hit spots on a consistent basis. Still a fairly low-risk profile given his overall track record.
Major league ETA: Late 2017 —Steve Givarz
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: I ... I don’t have anything here. I’m out of ways to say ignore back-end starters. Just do it. Just ignore them.
6. Jose Azocar, OF
The Good: Azocar is a top-of-the-scale runner who can impact the game on the bases and on the grass with his speed. He has enough arm to handle right field if he ends up more of a fourth outfielder in the majors. The profile at the plate is rougher, but there’s some projection here. Azocar generates above-average bat speed from a simple swing and could eventually grow into some gap power. Has the speed to take the extra base if that happens.
The Bad: With this kind of profile, you’d expect Azocar to be a high-contact, slap-and-dash type of hitter. That might be the end result, but at present he struggles with spin. If the hit tool doesn’t continue to develop it could be the death knell for the profile because there is well-below-average over-the-fence power here at best.
The Irrelevant: “Azocar” translates as “to pack tightly. Appropriate for the pint-sized outfielder.
OFP 50—Average center fielder
The Risks: He was in the Midwest League and didn’t hit much. He may not hit enough for more than a bench role, although most teams could use an 80 runner who can play all three outfield positions well.
Major league ETA: 2019
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Azocar should be on every watch list because his speed will make him useful if the bat plays to the point where he can nab playing time. He’s too far away to worry about right now, but pay attention to what he does once he gets to High-A.
7. JaCoby Jones, OF/3B
The Good: Jones has already spent some time in the majors and offers an intriguing power/speed combination on offense and the ability to play all three outfield positions plus the infield corners. He’s an impressive athlete, a plus runner, and he’ll show above-average raw power.
The Bad: Jones’s swing is long and has exactly one gear, so strikeouts are likely to continue to be a problem. He can be overly aggressive at the plate and you can beat him if you change eye levels. The hit tool issues may keep the power from playing in games. His speed plays better on the bases than in the outfield, where he’s more “versatile” than “plus.” He’s playing less third base for a reason too.
The Irrelevant: Jones was also drafted out of high school by the Astros in the 19th round of the 2010 draft. Only one other draftee from that round made the majors, but it’s a good one in Adam Eaton.
OFP 50—A less athletic Keon Broxton
The Risks: I have no issue with a guy wanting to kick back, relax, and listen to a little Kyuss, but you may feel differently. More concerningly, Jones may never make enough contact against major league pitching. Enjoy Arby’s.
Major league ETA: Debuted in 2016
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: If Jones gets routine playing time, his power/speed combo makes him a little interesting. Don’t hold your breath for him to get said playing time, though; the strikeout issues are real. Hope that Jones blossoms into a low-average, double-digit homer/steal asset, but know that he’s more likely to be left to those of you in AL-only formats.
8. Spencer Turnbull, RHP
The Good: Hey look, the Tigers have another hard-throwing righty in their top ten. Turnbull was touching the upper 90s late in starts in 2015, and despite an injury-plagued 2016, the velocity was back into the mid-90s in the AFL. It’s a power sinker that he pairs with a potential above-average slider.
The Bad: He was limited to 50 innings in 2016 with a shoulder issue and then an oblique injury. The first one is going to concern us more down in this section. The curve and change lag behind the other two pitches, making him look more like a standard-issue right-handed bullpen piece given the durability questions. He’s already 24 and hasn’t pitched in Double-A yet.
The Irrelevant: I was going to make a reference here to the Robert Urich vehicle based on the Robert B. Parker novels, but apparently it was entitled Spenser: For Hire. This is some goddamn Berenstain Bears nonsense.
OFP 50—Eighth-inning guy
The Risks: He’s a pitcher with a shoulder issue. You can fill in the rest of the section by this point.
Major league ETA: 2018
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: He’s a pitcher with a shoulder issue. You can fill in the rest of the section by this point.
9. Derek Hill, OF
The Good: In addition to the usual plethora of right-handed pitching, the Tigers org does not lack for speedy centern fielders either. Hill isn’t that dissimilar from Azocar. He’s a plus-plus runner with a potential plus glove in center field. That’s pretty good as future major-league floors go. There’s above-average bat speed here. Coupled with a strong approach, he has a good chance to develop into a .260-.270 hitter with some on-base ability at the plate.
The Bad: Which is good, because developing at the plate is a bit of a must-have. He’s never going to have much more than gap power. The hit tool only projects to average, which will be fine if it gets there, but there is more swing-and-miss than you’d like from this profile. Part of the issue might just be reps, as Hill’s last two seasons have been marred by injuries.
The Irrelevant: Of the Tigers last twelve first round picks, Hill is one of only three non-right-handed pitchers, the other two being Christin Stewart and Nick Castellanos.
OFP 50—Average center fielder
The Risks: Like Azocar, the defensive profile gives Hill a very good shot to make it to the majors even if he doesn’t hit much. He’ll have to hit some though. It’s far too early to label him injury-prone, but lack of pro experience does factor in here too.
Major league ETA: 2019
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Hill isn’t an exciting fantasy prospect, but he’s still probably the fourth- or fifth- fantasy prospect on this list. Like with Azocar, put Hill on your watch list and wait to see how he performs when healthy and when in the mid-minors. Don’t let his first-round pedigree fool you into overpaying for him, though.
10. Adam Ravanelle, RHP
The Good: While Jimenez also has the #goodstuff, Ravenelle’s isn’t far behind. His fastball sits 95-98 and routinely touches triple digits. Paired with late movement it can be a tough pitch for batters to square up as he induces weak contact. His slider is a plus offering as well, coming in from 87-91 with sharp break and impressive cut/tilt action.
The Bad: The reason Ravenelle is down here instead of higher with Jimenez is that he doesn’t throw strikes on a consistent basis. He routinely misses up with his fastball, and sometimes batters just wait for him to force himself into hitter’s counts. The slider can be left in the hitting zone instead of burying it. He has a change but it’s a distant third pitch, so it won’t be part of his everyday repertoire. He has dealt with various injuries in his career.
The Irrelevant: It seems like we have ranked 30 former Vanderbilt players thus far, I exaggerate slightly but they are really good at producing talented players.
OFP 50—Eighth-Inning reliever
The Risks: He’s a pitcher…with an injury history…who doesn’t throw strikes on a consistent enough basis.
Major league ETA: 2018 —Steve Givarz
Ben Carsley’s Fantasy Take: Ravenelle is a reliever, just like Jimenez. Do you see how under Jimenez I said that even the best (or second) best reliever is not a good fantasy prospect? Well, Ravenelle is a worse reliever prospect than Jimenez. That means, and stay with me here, that Ravenelle is also a worse fantasy prospect than Jimenez, which means that you should not roster Ravenelle, who is a reliever.
Others of note:
Kyle Funkhouser, RHP
We’ll always take a shortstop
A.J. Simcox, SS
Dixon Machado, SS
The senior sign made good
Michael Gerber, OF
The guy who throws 100
Gerson Moreno, RHP
Top 10 Talents 25 And Under (born 4/1/91 or later)
It’s become old hat to note the Tigers moribund farm system, though there are signs of life with the addition of Manning, and the emergence of prospects like Stewart, Burrows, Jimenez, and several hard-throwing and/or tooled-up young Latin American players that are light years away. The Tigers have had a poorly rated system since the days before they acquired Miguel Cabrera by shipping Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller out of town.
During this extensive stretch of maintaining a barren farm system, the Tigers have been able to remain competitive thanks to a veteran roster built through trades and free agency, with the occasional player joining the roster in their prime; players like Justin Upton, JD Martinez, and lesser talents like Jose Iglesias and James McCann.
While the roster continues to age, the Tigers have expressed an interest in getting younger where they are able to manipulate the roster, and they have done that in part with a couple of prospects from their farm and through recent trades. While Castellanos has seemingly not met expectations to date, he showed tremendous strides in 2016 before hitting the shelf with an injury, and I remain among a cadre of scouts that believe the best is yet to come for the young third baseman. Castellanos’ appeal centers almost entirely on his bat, but that bat offers a potential .300 hitter with 20-plus home runs annually, making him a middle of the order threat yet to enter the prime of his career.
The reigning Rookie of the Year, Michael Fulmer was a revelation for Tigers fans last year, flashing electric stuff and the poise and intelligence to adjust throughout his rookie campaign. Even as the high man on Fulmer the last couple of years, I find myself tempering expectations heading into 2017, expecting more of a quality number three starter than a burgeoning front of the rotation workhorse. Fulmer is going to be a very good major-league pitcher for the foreseeable future, but he does not offer the upside of the potential All-Star third baseman.
Norris offers another high-ceiling arm at a young age, but his history of inconsistency leaves him short of the high-end potential his raw stuff suggests. As a left-hander with firm stuff, Norris could top Fulmer’s contributions and value to the Tigers, but that will require an advance in his ability to harness his arsenal from start to start; a development I’m not willing to count on at this point.
For all of the warts on Steven Moya’s profile, he still offers potential as a left-handed power bat on the big-league roster, and in a system this thin that warrants discussion ahead of fifth starter candidates, utility infielders, and a host of raw, non-premium teenage talents. Moya shouldn’t elicit much excitement at this stage, barring an unimaginable leap forward in his approach, but remains impossible to write off his ungodly power and the chance that plays enough to contribute in some fashion.
All told, the Tigers are teetering on the brink of “no man’s land” where they aren’t truly competitive in terms of World Series aspirations, but they have too many bloated contracts and aging talents to strip it down and completely rebuild the roster from the ground up. The gap in the minor league system—a gaping hole from High-A to Triple-A—lacks talent to help augment an expensive roster over the next year or two, leaving the club hoping they stay healthy enough to chase the Indians in the AL Central, but constantly seeking opportunities to move star players and remake their roster on the fly. It’s an extremely difficult tightrope to manage, and with a limited track record at the helm, there’s no way to know whether General Manager Al Avila is capable of keeping his balance. —Mark Anderson
Jeffrey Paternostro is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @jeffpaternostro