To the casual observer, “transition” can be a four-letter word in farm-system circles. It usually indicates that an organization needs to pull a 180-degree turn and start adding as much Minor League talent as it can, often at the cost of good players on the Major League roster.
Let’s get this out of the way: the Tigers farm system is in a time of transition, and it’s in a way that should thrill everyone in Detroit.
The organization opened 2021 as MLB Pipeline’s No. 2 overall farm system, thanks in part to having five Top 100 prospects — all of which were ranked among the top 25 spots in the game. In the three weeks since the Major League season began, two such prospects — Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal — have graduated from that status, having cracked the Opening Day roster as starting pitchers. They’ve arrived in Motor City, as has always been the goal, and their entries are indicative of a club that may be turning the corner on not only its rebuild, but its pitcher-heavy status as well.
“Well, it’s real exciting right now,” said Tigers vice president of player development Dave Littlefield. “We’re in that transition of those that are up with the big league team and getting some opportunities and mixing them along with those we added from the last few Drafts and some of the signings in Latin America. We think we’ve got a real talented group overall in the Minor League system, and I think some more bats are now coming with what was once a stronger pitching group that I think will really work well as it syncs up in Detroit in time.”
Now left to lead the charge are two position-player prospects, 2020 first overall pick Spencer Torkelson and 2019 first-rounder Riley Greene. Greene has had a little more time to establish himself in the pro ranks as a plus hitter with above-average power potential from the left side, so it’s Torkelson that Tigers fans are still getting to know some.
The 21-year-old’s college bonafides were the stuff of legend. He hit 25 homers as a freshman, breaking an Arizona State record for first-year players set by none other than Barry Bonds. He finished with 54 total dingers, two shy of the all-time school mark, despite the fact he was limited to only 17 games as a junior. Torkelson ended his time with the Sun Devils with a .337/.463/.729 line in 129 games. Yes, he really slugged over .700.
When the 2020 Draft rolled around and the Tigers claimed the first overall pick, their decision was a fairly easy one. They took the hitter with a plus hit tool and plus-plus in-game power (not just raw) and announced they would also try him out at third base (rather than his natural position at first) in order to get even more value out of his bat.
Detroit has used Torkelson aggressively since signing him for $8,416,300 including stops at Summer Camp, last year’s alternate site, instructional league and Major League camp this spring. It’s a lot to throw at anyone before their first official Minor League game, and the whirlwind appeared to catch up to Torkelson. Despite his considerable skills, the right-handed slugger went just 1-for-27 (.037) with 16 strikeouts during his time in the Grapefruit League. It should be noted that when Torkelson did make contact that it was loud; seven of his 10 batted balls measured by Statcast this spring cleared the “hard-hit” threshold of a 95 mph exit velocity.
For their part, the Tigers claim the spring was a unique speed bump in a unique pandemic-filled year for their top prospect.
“Just to backtrack, he sat out from middle of March, like everybody did, until we brought him to the Spring Training 2.0 in 2020,” Littlefield said. “Then, he went from facing good competition in the Pac 12 to facing Matt Boyd, Spencer Turnbull and Gregory Soto, quality Major League pitchers, so that was extremely challenging. He hadn’t seen that level of competition before. Then, he went to [the alt site in] Toledo and really started settling in better. … He’s not a guy that makes excuses, but it just is an extremely unusual entry into professional baseball.”
Littlefield added that Torkelson has looked much like his regular self since Minor League Spring Training camp opened earlier this month. The infielder should find even more normalcy when Minor League games begin and he can find the rigors of regular baseball again.
General manager Al Avila said consistently through the offseason and spring that Torkelson would likely open up at High-A West Michigan, and that remains the probable case two weeks out from Minor League Opening Day on May 4. Littlefield said the organization expects to play the former Sun Devil four games at third and two games at first over the course of each week in hopes that he can really take to the hot corner.
In the meantime, there remains ample space for Tigers fans to dream on seeing Torkelson and Greene, who will likely open at Double-A Erie, in the middle of a Detroit lineup for the long term. When their Minor League careers end, so might the Tigers rebuild too, and that will be the ultimate transition.
“To have two real high-end bats and high-quality guys like that,” Littlefield said, “our scouting staff did a great job picking them.”
The Tigers opened up 2021 with three pitchers ranked among MLB Pipeline’s Top 25 overall prospects — an unprecedented feat. But with Mize and Skubal officially off the board, Matt Manning is the only one left at No. 21 overall.
Detroit decided against sending the 6-foot-6 right-hander, who was shut down at the end of last year with a right forearm strain, to the alternate training site, in order to best keep him on schedule and under closer monitoring in Minor League camp in Lakeland. Manning is still scheduled to open the 2021 season with Triple-A Toledo, having spent all of 2019 with Double-A Erie where he was the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year with a 2.56 ERA and 148 strikeouts in 133 2/3 innings. His mix of a mid-to-upper-90s fastball, plus curve and above-average changeup could help his stay with the Mud Hens be a short one.
“I think like most young pitchers at his level, his command in the strike zone and consistency of his pitches are where we’re looking,” Littlefield said. “He’s made great strides and is really knocking on the door. But he hasn’t had any Triple-A experience at this point. We had him at the alternate site last year, and obviously that’s a step in the right direction. But it’s a new league, a new level and better competition. So like anybody, you want to see him get out there and move to the next level, and we’re confident he’ll do well.”
On the position-player side, Littlefield pointed out that the Tigers are pleased with how No. 8 prospect Parker Meadows has come along in early camp looks. The 21-year-old outfielder is arguably the fastest player in the system and is an above-average defender in center but struggled offensively in 2019, when he hit just .221 with a .312 slugging percentage in 126 games at Class A. The overall hit tool has been an area of emphasis ever since, and that work has continued this spring.
“I know [director of player development] Kenny Graham and the hitting people have worked hard with him to identify some areas where he can make some improvements in his setup and his load,” Littlefield said. “He’s starting to show some signs. He’s a hard-working guy, smart guy. We feel real good with where we’re at with him right now.”
Alternate training site update
No. 4 prospect Isaac Paredes has already seen the Majors. The Tigers brought him up last year in his age-21 season and what followed could only be described as a crash course in what it takes to be successful at the top level. Paredes hit .220/.278/.290 with only one homer in 34 games and headed into the offseason in need of some confidence.
He found it back home in Mexico. Paredes hit an astonishing .379 in the Mexican Winter League — highest among those with at least 150 plate appearances — and finished with four homers and a 1.060 OPS in 42 games.
The Tigers were hopeful that he would see a healthy diet of breaking pitches in the winter to help him make adjustments to those offerings, and that continues during his work at the alternate site now. They have hope that his experience in the Majors and in Mexico will fuel much better results next time he makes the jump from Toledo to The Show.
“It’s a very common position where guys go out there, get a taste and find out it’s a real hard league,” Littlefield said. “Lots of times, they need to come back and work on some things and become more consistent, so he’s probably in that same category.”
Prospect we’ll be talking about in 2022
A catcher with an above-average run tool is a rare breed indeed, and the Tigers seem to have found one in Dillon Dingler.
Detroit selected the former Ohio State star with the first pick in the second round and has eagerly awaited his full-season debut ever since. Much like former Top 100 prospect Daulton Varsho, Dingler also has experience in the outfield from his days as a Buckeye, and he has translated that level of athleticism to his work behind the plate. The 22-year-old’s best asset is his 65-grade arm that should help him control the running game at any level.
The biggest questions remain on his ability to hit. Dingler didn’t produce an OPS above .850 in his first two years on campus before erupting with a .340/.404/.760 line over 13 games in his pandemic-shortened junior season. He’s more likely to show power than his overall hit tool on the pro side, but if both categories can just be average, the rest of Dingler’s game could make him a big piece of Detroit’s budding future. For what it’s worth, he did hold his own in brief Grapefruit League looks by going 3-for-8 with a double and a stolen base.
“He looks great,” Littlefield said. “He’s such a good athlete and a ballplayer that has lots of tools. The bat continues to show improvement, and this guy’s got a really high [ceiling]. We feel great about having him.”
In the Dominican
The Tigers opened up their Dominican Republic academy on March 1 for players that would eventually head stateside for Minor League camp. When those moved out after a little more than a month, the organization filled in the holes with other international players who had previously been forced to work out from their homes. Between preparations, the Dominican Summer League season and instructional play, the Tigers anticipate keeping the facility open all the way through December with proper distancing measures in place to keep prospects safe, not only at the field but in their dorm setups as well.
Among the group currently working out is No. 13 prospect Cristian Santana. The 17-year-old shortstop signed for $2.95 million out of the Dominican Republic back in January and is just getting his feet wet in the new system. Santana is well-rounded, earning 50’s across the board for his five tools. His overall hitting ability could actually be a step above-average in time because of his promising bat speed from the right side. As much improvement as the Tigers have made on the position-player side in recent years, Santana actually represents the organization’s top-ranked shortstop and could be the future of that spot in Detroit.