| The Detroit News
What he saw were a lot of breaking balls and pitches often referred to in baseball parlance as “junk.”
What he rolled up were glitzy hitting numbers: .379 batting average, .480 on-base percentage, and .579 slugging, for a heavy OPS of 1.060.
But maybe what Isaac Paredes most got from 42 games in the Mexican Pacific Winter League was experience, a day-to-day professional baseball adventure with team Venados de Mazatlan, which might have been the biggest gain for a Tigers third baseman who won’t turn 22 until next month.
Paredes won the league batting championship, beating by 26 points league runner-up Missael Rivera, of Charros de Jalisco, who came in at .353.
Within baseball’s seasoned circles it is known the Mexican Pacific Winter League does not feature a brand of pitching as young, generally, or as prone to push a radar gun, as populates the Dominican Republic and Venezuelan winter leagues.
But in that a young third baseman’s greatest challenge sticking in the big leagues has been in adjusting to sliders and change-ups and finesse trickery that’s standard in the Mexican League, the Tigers suspect Paredes might have been all the better-served by playing nearly two months in his native country.
And especially so when 2020’s schedule at all levels was ravaged by a pandemic.
“I think, on many fronts, that was the case,” said Dave Littlefield, who heads Tigers player development. “Obviously, to do as well as he did with the bat, particularly with a guy who hasn’t yet turned 22, for him to get more reps overall, more at-bats and action in the field – that definitely is a positive.”
Paredes a year ago was a top-five Tigers prospect who hadn’t yet played in the big leagues. It was thought a half-season, maybe a full season, at Triple A would set him up for a trip to Detroit the Tigers have been counting on since they got him from the Cubs four years ago in a trade for Justin Wilson and Alex Avila.
Then arrived something called COVID-19. The minor-league season was wiped out. Paredes had been at spring camp with the Tigers but as April, May, and June unfurled he was in the same unsettled state as all other professionals who had no league or game outlets.
He became part of the 60 people the Tigers invited to Detroit when the big-league season cranked up in July, complete with its supporting-cast taxi squads, which in Detroit’s case was a camp that convened at Fifth Third Field in Toledo, Ohio.
Paredes was there until mid-August when he got his Tigers call-up. He played in 34 games, batted .220, with a .568 OPS and one home run. He looked like a 21-year-old talent who needed to gain a bit more crust at Triple A before he was ready for full-time work in Detroit, a timeline the Tigers haven’t for a moment disputed.
What has impressed his bosses as much as how he performed from November through December was that Paredes took advantage of an opportunity. The COVID-19 crisis didn’t scare him away. The fact he wasn’t about to see pitching that, velocity-wise, would not match what he had been accustomed to in Detroit – or even at the high minors – was no reason in Paredes’ mind to bag the offseason.
He needed to see deceptive pitching and to learn from it. The numbers suggest progress: 27 walks and only 12 strikeouts in 177 plate appearances. Paredes had shown during his days on the Cubs and Tigers farm that his hand-eye skills, his ability to make contact, was on the high end.
But during his Detroit cameo he was beaten and confused by the witches’ brew of velocity and swerving toxins that can make big-league hitting an ordeal rather than an endeavor.
“He’s always hit, and has always had the look of a hitter,” Littlefield said. “He’s done that his whole career. He sees pitches early. And so, already having been to the big leagues at 21, there are a lot of good signs from what he’s done this winter.”
Winter ball has been as fragmented for most players as was the 2020 season. There have been opportunities, including in the Dominican Republic and Venezuelan winter leagues. But COVID-19’s presence in this hemisphere, with the uncertainties and risks involved in journeying to the Caribbean, have made a typical winter of game rigors and enhancement difficult for most pitchers and hitters.
Still, the Tigers have had their triumphs there. One, for sure, has been right-handed reliever Drew Carlton, who just wrapped up a stint with Leones del Escogido of the Dominican League.
Carlton threw 14.1 innings in his 14-game set, with an 0.63 ERA and 0.70 WHIP. He walked a single batter while striking out 11. He was nicked for a lone earned run.
Carlton, 25, was ranked No. 33 on The Detroit News list of Top 50 Tigers Prospects for 2021. He was a 32nd-round draft pick by the Tigers in 2017 out of Florida State.
In three earlier farm seasons with Detroit, Carlton was 9-5 with a 1.74 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. While not a flame-thrower in terms of velocity, he has pitched steadily well, with his Dominican Republic work simply adding to the earlier file.
“He’s just been an achiever his whole career,” Littlefield said of Carlton, who is 6-foot-1, 215 pounds. “He was a closer at Florida State, and when he jumped into our minor-league system, he moved fast.
“He throws a lot of strikes, and he’s fearless. He’s one of those guys where the stuff doesn’t jump out at you, but have to look at how hitters react to him, and to hitter numbers, and they tell you something.”
The Tigers are still waiting, along with all of baseball, for some sign that spring training can begin at something approaching its regular mid-February date. Moreover, they’re hoping for a year when minor-leaguers, as well as their big-league brethren, can expect to play actual games.
And, maybe, just maybe, for something approaching the six months they formerly knew as a time when spring and summer schedules meant one thing: baseball games. Regular games, minus the daunting risks a pandemic visited upon baseball, and the world, one year ago.