Tigers roaring with top-notch talent in 2007
Despite trades, promising pitchers, hitters roam organization
The future success of every Major League team lies in its Minor League system. With that in mind, each preseason, MLB.com takes a top-to-bottom look at all 30 organizations, from top prospects to recent draft picks.
When an organization loses two pitchers the caliber of Humberto Sanchez and Kevin Whelan in a mid-winter deal, part of the spring is usually spent wringing hands about who'll fill the void. But when Detroit dealt the aforementioned hurlers to the Yankees as part of the Gary Sheffield trade, the ripple effect wasn't what it would have been for some other clubs.
The Tigers have some marvelous young arms down below, many of which are already on the verge of making contributions at the Major League level. Andrew Miller, Jordan Tata, Jair Jurrjens, Virgil Vasquez and Eulogio De La Cruz are all high-ceiling hurlers who will more than offset the loss of Sanchez and Whelan.
Throw in Brennan Boesch and Scott Sizemore, two gems from last year's draft, plus the dynamic Cameron Maybin, and it's clear that the renaissance in the Motor City won't be short lived.
Glenn Ezell, Detroit's director of player development, contributed to this report but did not wish to say where each of the mentioned players would begin the season until just before opening day. Therefore, MiLB.com determined where it believes each of the players will begin or spend part of the upcoming season.
Climbing the Ladder
Jordan Tata, RHP
Tata is a former 16th-round selection out of Sam Houston State and has, to some degree, exceeded expectations. He's proven he can be effective at every level, going 35-22 with a 3.19 ERA in 90 Minor League games. Tata was 10-6 with a 3.84 ERA last season for the Mud Hens and was instrumental in helping put them in position to win a second consecutive International League crown. He got a sampling of life in the big leagues, tossing 15 innings for the Tigers, but was sent back to Toledo earlier this month after struggling with some back issues. Tata won't blow anyone away, relying more on precision to record outs. He'll fine tune that approach this season in Toledo and should be back in the big leagues before long.
"I guess I expected it," Tata said of being sent down. "Obviously, the pitching staff's pretty close to being set. Some of us are just trying to get ready in case the call comes."
Ryan Raburn, OF
Raburn began transitioning to the outfield last season at Toledo, moving from second base, and appears to be headed there permanently this season. The former fifth-round pick has spent the last two seasons in Toledo, connecting for 39 homers and driving in 143 runs. He was more effective at the plate last season, raising his average 22 points to .275. While his strikeout total also increased, he's proven he can be a dangerous bat and may work his way into the picture in Detroit as a contributor off the bench.
"He seems to have taken to the position well," Ezell said. "He can still play second and third if he has to but there was a need for a left fielder. I think this will free his offense up a bit. He's a guy we're looking for big things from."
Others to watch: RHP Virgil Vasquez was 7-12 with a 3.73 ERA in 27 starts last season at Erie. He finished up strong, posting a 1.09 ERA in his last four starts (33 innings) before going 2-1 with a 2.81 ERA in 25 2/3 Arizona Fall League innings. Vasquez was added to the 40-man roster following last season. ... OF Brent Clevlen won the Florida State League MVP in 2005 and then came out flat at Double-A Erie. He hit just .230 with 11 homers and 45 RBIs in 395 at-bats. His numbers were better in limited action with the Tigers as he hit .282 in 39 at-bats with three homers and six RBIs. He fanned every 2.9 at-bats in Erie and for his Minor League career he has fanned every 3.7 at-bats. ... RHP Jair Jurrjens, a native of Curacao, appears ready to make the move to Triple-A despite the fact he only turned 21 in January. He went a combined 9-3 with a 2.68 ERA in 24 starts at Lakeland and Erie. He also pitched in the World Baseball Classic.
Kyle Sleeth, RHP
Detroit's first-round pick in 2003 appears to have come back all the way from "Tommy John" surgery that cost him the 2005 season and part of last year. Sleeth appeared in 13 games (11 starts) last year for the Gulf Coast Tigers and at Lakeland. He went 2-5 overall but was 1-4 with an 11.90 ERA in eight games (seven starts) in the Florida State League. He looked sharp early on this spring and was impressive enough, tossing three scoreless innings. He says he's feeling fine and he looks comfortable on the mound, prompting the club to send him directly to the Eastern League rather than having him head back to Lakeland.
Jeff Larish, 1B
The thrice-drafted Larish played in his first full season and had an immediate impact at Lakeland. He hit .258 with 18 homers and 65 RBIs. He finished the season strong, hitting .313 (25-for-80) over the final month. Larish still strikes out a tad too much -- once every 4.5 at-bats last year -- but the Tigers are hopeful those numbers will improve with experience. His 13 errors were second-most among FSL first baseman, but his 1,350 total chances were tops at the position by far.
"He's a very tough young fellow," Ezell said. "He's probably one of the most prepared players we have as far as having an idea of preparing for a game. He's got a couple of adjustments to make, though. He's a very good hitter. He's not too bad defensively, either. He's the Gold Glove 1B in our organization. We weren't the best at first base throughout, but he's made significant progress."
Others to watch: RHP Eulogio De La Cruz had some shoulder stiffness earlier this spring, but can bring a near triple-digit fastball that may ultimately make him better suited out of the bullpen. He spent last season at Erie, going 5-6 with a 3.43 ERA in 38 games (12 starts), striking out 87 in 105 innings. He got bumped up to Toledo for the IL playoffs and went 1-1 in two starts with a 5.73 ERA, topping the Mud Hens with 15 strikeouts in 11 innings. Once he works out the kinks with his shoulder, he'll likely return to Triple-A. ... SS Brent Dlugach hit .256 with 52 RBIs at Lakeland. His 32 errors were tied for second among Florida State League shortstops, though Ezell said that Dlugach has been impressive thus far in camp. ... RHP P.J. Finigan briefly experienced Erie last season, going 0-2 with a 5.00 ERA in 27 innings. He had begun the season at Lakeland, where he was 9-2 with a 3.16 ERA in 33 games (63 innings). The Southern Illinois product will likely start the season back in the Eastern League, but could be in Toledo by the end of the season.
Class A Advanced Lakeland
Andrew Miller, LHP
That Miller slid all the way to the sixth pick in the draft speaks more about the economics of today's game than about his ability as he was considered to be the top pick on just about everyone's board. He got in three games in Lakeland before the Tigers brought him up to the big leagues, where he made his debut at Yankee Stadium. Throw out the fact he had a 6.10 ERA in 10 innings with Detroit. He'll get his real work in this season at Lakeland and should move rapidly through the system, possibly reaching Detroit at some point this year.
Cameron Maybin, OF
Maybin, along with South Bend's Justin Upton, was the face of the Midwest League last season. And, despite missing a month with a finger injury, the former first-rounder lived up to the huge expectations heaped upon him. He hit .304 with nine homers and 69 RBIs in 385 at-bats. He stole 27 bases and was a dominant force in the postseason as West Michigan won a league crown. He committed only one error in 218 chances in center field, though it has yet to be determined whether he will remain there or move to one of the corners. Maybin will be a fast mover, possibly seeing action at as many as three levels this season barring any injuries.
Others to watch: C Dusty Ryan repeated West Michigan last season but has had a solid spring after getting invited to Major League camp. He hit .245 with 35 RBIs in 322 at-bats and had eight errors in 656 total chances. ... OF Matt Joyce finished second in the organization with 86 RBIs at West Michigan. Though he hit only .258, Ezell believes he'll ultimately become a .300 hitter. He's also one of the few left-handed hitting run producers the Tigers have in the outfield. ... IF Mike Hollimon was at or near the top of several offensive categories in the Midwest League last year, proving to be a steady if not particularly splashy player. He has some speed (19 steals, league-leading 13 triples) and some power (15 homers), but does have a tendency to strike out (once every 3.5 at-bats in two seasons).
Class A West Michigan
Jonah Nickerson, RHP
Nickerson proved he was durable during the College World Series, leading Oregon State to the title by making three starts in a week. But the ridiculous overuse by the OSU coaching staff forced Nickerson into hibernation for much of the summer. He threw only 13 innings for Oneonta, striking out 12, walking four and holding the opposition to a .190 batting average. Nickerson isn't a power pitcher, nibbling and using off-speed stuff to get the job done. He's a gutsy performer, another trait that showed through during CWS week, and will likely be at Lakeland and perhaps even beyond at some point during the season. But to get him into the flow of the season, the Midwest League seems like it would be the perfect launching point.
Brennan Boesch, OF
Boesch had a solid debut and proved to be one of the most entertaining players in the New York-Penn League. He's not a speed demon, and no one will ever confuse him with a true power hitter. But he makes solid contact -- he hit .291 -- and produces runs (a combo of 81 RBIs/runs scored). His six errors were tied for second-most among league outfielders, but he has a strong enough arm to be effective in center or right.
"He's a good-sized fellow who's not going to allow himself to not be in the big leagues someday," Ezell said. "He has a chance to be a pretty good player. He has some fine tools, and the best part about him is that he likes to be here. He's going to do what it takes to become a big leaguer."
Others to watch: IF Scott Sizemore finished second in the New York-Penn League with a .327 average. "Here's a guy who in all reality is a second baseman," Ezell said. "We had him play shortstop because we didn't have someone who could do it at that level. And the thing about it is that it didn't affect the offensive end of his game." ... SS Audy Ciriaco is a little rough around the edges on the field and at the plate but has good movement at his position. He's spent two seasons in the Gulf Coast League and won't turn 20 until June. He's a .232 hitter in 327 at-bats over those two years. "He's not going to light the world on fire this year, but he's someone you're going to pay attention to down the road," Ezell said. ... OF Gorkys Hernandez hit .327 with 20 stolen bases in 205 Gulf Coast League at-bats. If he doesn't start out in extended spring and then hit the rookie leagues, he'll be with West Michigan in a circuit he certainly seems more than capable of handling.
Under the Radar
Brett Jensen, RHP
Drafted three times as a mainstay in the bullpen at University of Nebraska, Jensen then filled that role with similar success for the Gulf Coast Tigers after he was taken in the 14th round. He was 1-0 with a 0.67 ERA in 26 2/3 innings, striking out 31 and walking only five.
"He's a tall, lean kid with a sidearm, down-under delivery," Ezell said. "He's a very strong competitor and he loves to be in there at the end of the game. He's a guy we think will do some nice things."
2006 Draft Recap
LHP Paul Hammond, a 35th-rounder from Michigan, had success at three levels, combining to go 3-1 with a 0.82 ERA in the Gulf Coast, Midwest and Florida State Leagues. He fanned 27, walked 27 and held the opposition to a .170 batting average in 33 1/3 innings. ... Top pick Andrew Miller helped North Carolina to the College World Series finals and then took a short break. After five scoreless innings in the Florida State League, Miller appeared in eight games for Detroit, where he had a 6.10 ERA in 10 1/3 innings. He walked 10 but held the opposition to a .205 batting average. ... Seventh-rounder Jonah Nickerson also pitched in the CWS, leading Oregon State to the title. But after being completely overworked in Omaha, the Tigers took it easy with him, letting him throw only 13 innings in five games for Oneonta. He picked up a pair of saves and had a 2.77 ERA. ... RHP Derek Witt, a 28th-rounder, also pitched for Oneonta, going 5-2 with a 1.16 ERA in 38 2/3 innings over 17 appearances. He had a 0.78 ERA over his final 10 appearances, didn't allow a homer all year and held the opposition to a .206 batting average. ... 1B Chris Carlson, a 29th-rounder from the University of New Mexico, seemed a bit above the competition in the Gulf Coast League. He led the circuit in homers (11), RBIs (47), doubles (16), slugging percentage (.588), extra-base hits (27) and was fifth in batting average (.311). ... Brennan Boesch, a third-rounder from the University of California, was equally impressive in the New York-Penn League, topping the circuit with 54 RBIs and finishing second in hits with 85. ... Scott Sizemore, Boesch's Oneonta teammate, topped the league with 96 hits after being selected in the fifth round out of Virginia Commonwealth. His 15 errors, though, were third-most among league shortstops.
Organizational Player of the Year -- Cameron Maybin
It's not that we're trying to go the safe route by picking Cameron Maybin. We're just going the smart route in selecting one of the most exciting and talked-about players in the Minor Leagues.
Organizational Pitcher of the Year -- Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller would certainly seem like the logical choice. He's the club's top pitching prospect and figures to be in the plans at the Major League level very soon, possibly this season.
"This guy is someone we need to take a look at and watch. He's going to be a viable part of the Major Leagues, and hopefully it will be with the Detroit Tigers." Ezell on Jordan Tata.
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