Just standing and watching the Tigers during Spring Training workouts at Joker Marchant Stadium, you could feel a different vibe around the team. The excitement of having a new manager in Jim Leyland certainly contributed to that feeling, but the idea that Detroit's farm system may actually begin to play a role in the club's rebirth couldn't be ignored, either.
The Tigers had the best winning percentage in the Minor Leagues last season, with their clubs posting a 382-306 mark (.555). Triple-A Toledo won more games (89) than any other club and took home an International League title, while Lakeland dominated the Florida State League to the tune of 85 victories and a first-place finish.
The players who helped shape those clubs have begun to work their way toward Michigan, and their impact will be felt this season. Pitchers Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya, who were two of the Minor Leagues' most dominant hurlers in 2005, have earned roster spots with the parent club this spring. With Jordan Tata, Brent Clevlen and Kevin Whelan also making significant strides, the Tigers are on the verge of having a competitive, young team on the field at Comerica Park before too long.
Five prospects whose names you should know:
Brent Clevlen, OF
It would be easy to point to the fact that Clevlen's monster 2005 at Class A Advanced Lakeland was the result of spending a second year in the Florida State League. After all, his average jumped nearly 80 points, he tripled his home run output and doubled his RBI total to 102, earning league MVP honors along the way. He played with more determination and poise last year, though, showing the confidence that clearly was lacking during his first go-round in Lakeland. He had a good spring, impressed Tigers manager Jim Leyland and will look to follow up his big season at Double-A Erie. "Last year was his third year of pro ball and if you looked at it like college junior playing in that league, those were pretty impressive numbers," said David Chadd, vice president of amateur scouting. "He's a heck of a player with a bright future and would certainly be a No. 1 prospect in my book. He's just an impressive young talent."
Jordan Tata, RHP
Tata's development took a huge step in 2005 as he went 13-2 with a 2.79 ERA, contributing as much to the dominant Lakeland team from the mound that Clevlen did from the plate. He was the FSL's Pitcher of the Year and has been on championship teams each of the last two seasons. He'll look to extend that streak in 2006, starting in Erie but likely ending up in Toledo or higher by year's end. He has a low 90s fastball that has a great deal of action on it and a cutter that's above average. "I think he's right there with Clevlen," Chadd said. "Coming off what he did the year before it was a tremendous year from a performance standpoint. He dominated the league, and when I saw him pitch last year, he was throwing 90-94 with a natural cutter at 92-93. He throws strikes and gets a lot of ground balls. He's certainly one to watch."
Wilkin Ramirez, 3B
Ramirez returned to action after missing the entire 2004 season with a torn right labrum. The layoff didn't seem to have too much of an effect on him because he had a solid season at West Michigan, hitting .262 with 16 homers and 65 RBIs. He's got the ability to put up some terrific power numbers but needs to alter his undisciplined approach at the plate; he fanned 143 times in 493 at-bats last season. He also didn't see as much action on the field because the club was being cautious with his shoulder. When he was at third base, his play was uninspiring as he committed 26 errors -- third-most among Midwest League third baseman -- in only 57 games.
Michael Hollimon, SS
The 16th-round pick in 2005 had a strong debut season, hitting 13 homers and driving in 53 runs for Class A Oneonta, leading the New York-Penn League with 10 triples and 66 runs scored. He graduated from Oral Roberts after his stay at the University of Texas turned sour. Once considered a can't-miss first-rounder, Hollimon slipped in the draft, the Tigers gobbled him up and now look the wiser for it.
Jeff Frazier, OF
Frazier's first full season in the Minor Leagues proved to be a productive one at West Michigan. He hit .287 with 12 homers and 81 RBIs, leading the Midwest League with 45 doubles. He has decent speed, to which his 16 steals are testimony. There is some concern that he needs to produce more power numbers, but the Tigers like that he makes contact and knows how to get on base. The Rutgers product was third in the league with 154 hits. He'll start this season in Lakeland but could move up to Erie with a strong showing.
Best of the rest: RHP Jair Jurrjens, RHP Dallas Trahern, 3B Kody Kirkland, SS Tony Giarratano, RHP Humberto Sanchez, RHP Kyle Sleeth.
Matt Joyce, OF
Joyce enjoyed a fine first season of pro ball in the New York-Penn League, hitting .331 with four homers and 45 RBIs. A product of Division II Florida Southern, he first opened some eyes in Detroit in 2004 when he played well against the Tigers in some pre-exhibition games. The front office didn't forget and tabbed him in the 12th round last season after helping his club win the Division II College World Series. He figures to fill out a thin frame a bit more as he moves up the ladder. Still, the club is expecting him to blossom even further this year.
Primed for breakout
Sendy Vasquez, RHP
The Dominican Republic native will turn 24 this season and has never thrown a pitch above low Class A. But he signed late -- the Tigers didn't ink him until he was almost 21 -- and has shown tremendous promise in three seasons since, culminating with a 7-0 campaign in 2005 at Oneonta. He also posted a 3.63 ERA in 15 games (11 starts), while opponents managed to hit only .218 against him. A true find if he pans out, Vasquez should split this season between Lakeland and West Michigan and is expected to have a big season either way.
2005 draft recap
1. Cameron Maybin, OF
Prolonged contract negotiations delayed Maybin's debut until the Instructional League, but once he arrived there, he made quite the impression. He's got power, an above-average arm and figures to move fast through the system if he displays the poise on the field that he shows off it. He'll be in the Midwest League to start, but a good first half might land him in Lakeland before too long.
2. Chris Robinson, C
.248 BA/ .318 OBP/ .348 SLG
Robinson struggled in his pro debut after leading Illinois to the regular-season Big Ten crown. His first month in Oneonta and West Michigan was utterly forgettable before he found himself at the plate and got hot over the final six weeks of the season. He ended up hitting .248 with two homers and 19 RBIs. Detroit's lack of catching depth and Robinson's poise behind the plate should help offset any shortcomings he may have at the plate.
3. Kevin Whelan, RHP
1-1, 1.48 ERA, 24 IP, 6 H, 8 BB, 41 K
Whelan's initial foray into pro ball provided a glimpse of what might be one of the biggest heists the Tigers have pulled in years. Sure, Whelan -- a converted catcher -- only threw 24 1/3 innings but struck out 41, and opponents hit a mere .075 against him. He allowed just one homer, and that was in his debut. In fact, eliminate that outing and he allowed one earned run over his final 24 games. He's got a solid array of pitches, including a hopping four-seamer and a two-seamer with terrific life. It has yet to be determined where he'll start the season. "I'll have to admit I was a little surprised by him," Chadd said. "Just from the fact that he didn't pitch a whole lot at Texas A&M. But we saw him pitch in the Cape Cod League the year before. And our area scout did an excellent job with him, and we were fortunate to get him in the fourth round. I hate to put pressure on anyone by saying they're going to move quickly, but if anyone could, he can because he flashes a plus fastball, and when his split is on he can get righties and lefties out. I'm not saying he will move quickly because no one knows, but he'll move as quickly as his performance allows."
4. Jeff Larish, 1B
.280 BA/ .417 OBP/ .549 SLG
Larish had a blistering College World Series, including a three-homer game against Nebraska before Arizona State was eliminated. He carried that hot bat into the pros and finished with six homers and 17 RBIs in 82 at-bats between the Gulf Coast and New York-Penn Leagues. He's got wonderful power, even if his approach at the plate is a bit unorthodox. He's mature, and the CWS experience certainly helped. Larish will move quickly. "What Jeff Larish did during his career at Arizona State was pretty astonishing," Chadd said. "He put up some pretty impressive numbers with the bat and he had a down junior year. But he came in after the College World Series, where he obviously swung the bat well, and continued to do well. There are things Jeff needs to do like every other prospect, but his bat does stand out."
5. Clete Thomas, OF
.311 BA/ .393 OBP/ .417 SLG
The sixth-rounder out of Auburn could turn out to be another steal. He's got quickness, the kind of arm that scouts love and figures to see some time in center field this year in Lakeland. He held his own last year at the plate, splitting time between Oneonta and West Michigan, collecting 25 RBIs and 20 stolen bases.
After watching Larish in the CWS last season and seeing how he handles himself in big situations, it's difficult to look past him. Clevlen may put up big numbers again and Maybin may be spectacular in his debut, but it will be Larish who will make the biggest dent this season within the organization.
Pitcher of the Year:
Let's start by assuming that Verlander and Zumaya will be spending all or part of the season in Detroit. If that happens, the crown will fall to Whelan, though not by default. He's got a brilliant arm and a great makeup and does some incredible things on the mound. Should either of the aforementioned starters not spend the majority of the season in Toledo, he will wrest away the crown.
Team to beat:
It would be difficult not to pick Erie here. Many of the standouts, led by Clevlen and Tata, will bump a level and should be able to handle the Eastern League as easily as they handled the Florida State League. And, if Whelan winds up as the closer at some point, watch out.
Keep an eye on:
P.J. Finigan. The Missouri Valley Conference has garnered so much attention this month because of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, but this Southern Illinois product proved last season that there is plenty of good baseball being played in that league as well. A seventh-round pick last year, Finigan was 2-2 with a 2.39 ERA in games for West Michigan last year. He'll start the year in Lakeland but should move up quickly.
David Chadd, vice president of amateur scouting, on Cameron Maybin:
"Maybin showed very well in the Instructional League, and he's had a great Spring Training. I would say that not getting him in quickly [last year] hurt, but it would hurt anyone, not just Maybin. Position players have to make the toughest adjustments to wooden bats, and the longer you sit out and don't get interactive with a wooden bat, the longer it takes. But Cameron worked everything out and I saw him hit a home run to right-center fielder two days ago, so we're excited about him."
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