During an eight-game stretch from May 27 through Friday, a man the Tigers ideally see as either their next (a) Bill Freehan, (b) Lance Parrish, or (c) Brandon Inge — albeit, with a better bat — was 15-for-35 (.429) with four home runs, five doubles, four walks, and five strikeouts.
That was the portfolio compiled by catcher Dillon Dingler at Single-A West Michigan.
The question, already rolling through minds that would include the Tigers front office, is how soon Dingler might — underscore that word — be ready for a ticket to Double-A Erie.
It is not as if the SeaWolves already have in place a catcher the Tigers are grooming for a long stay at Comerica Park. The candidates there are Cole MacLaren and Jon Rosoff, both of whom were non-drafted free agents.
Nor is the catching cast at Erie terribly relevant as Dingler’s path is projected. The Tigers will promote Dingler when they’re convinced it’s no longer benefiting him to hang with the Whitecaps.
“Very rarely do you have prospects at any level that are blocking a player,” said Dave Littlefield, who heads Tigers player development. “That term is used a lot, but it’s really a lot of hot air.”
So, other measures are applied: How a prospect catcher is hitting, defending, handling pitchers — how he’s adapting to the speed of the professional game, particularly when these first five weeks of games are the first true games Dingler has played since early in 2020, before college and minor-league seasons became COVID-19 victims.
It was last June that Dingler was grabbed by the Tigers as the first pick of the MLB Draft’s second round. He was an Ohio State all-purpose athlete who had settled in at catcher with a right-handed bat the Tigers were convinced gave them their next best shot at adding a long-term option at an up-the-middle position, indispensable to a team with playoff dreams.
He has been playing comfortably at West Michigan, hitting in the .300 range, with seven homers.
“We’re paying attention to that, too, and obviously we’ve already moved some guys – some pitchers and position players,” Littlefield said. “So, that’s always on our mind, trying to see if guys have the challenge necessary at a particular level to get better and move forward.
“Dingler’s making us pay attention.”
A percentage bet is Dingler, should his bat stay reasonably hot, will be heading for Erie no later than midseason. It’s more than possible he could be there before the end of this month, with injuries in the farm chain always a factor in speeding up timetables.
But what the Tigers believe they have in Dingler is exactly what they had faith in when they collared him out of OSU last June. For those thinking beyond the horizon, Dingler’s move to Erie isn’t as compelling as the question of when he might be in Detroit.
It’s never too early to imagine scenarios there, with next spring’s camp at Lakeland, Florida, very possibly one more reason 2021 could be the most interesting March in recent Tigers memory.
Is Daz all that dazzling?
Last week, it was Derek Hill who got the c’mon-up summons from Detroit.
Another outfielder, long in the development wing of Detroit’s farm, who would appreciate joining the Tigers fulltime is outfielder Daz Cameron.
That all depends on whether he continues a six-game spurt that began May 25 and extended through Friday.
Cameron was 11-for-27 during that stretch (.407) with a home run and three doubles. He, of course, bats right-handed, as some will remember from his short stint late last season with the Tigers. And anyone is free to wonder if Cameron is soon to determine if he’s a big-league regular, a possible MLB fourth outfielder, of a so-called Quadruple-A player who is neither permanent big-leaguer nor minor-leaguer.
“He’s really swinging the ball well,” Toledo manager Tom Prince said. “He hits the ball all over the field and, of course, he has some speed. He gets down the line, he moves from first to third, he can score from first. When you get a couple of hits, you get confidence. And when you get confidence, it’s a lot easier to play this game.”
Tigers followers will recall Cameron was one-third of the trade package Detroit got from the Astros (Jake Rogers and Franklin Perez, included) in the ever-debatable trade that sent Justin Verlander to Houston.
Prince says there have been no major swing adjustments, no great mechanical transformations, with Cameron in 2021. Rather, it has been a matter of listening to Mud Hens hitting coach Mike Hessman and sticking with a blueprint, all after Cameron shook off an early spring wrist malady.
“Mike gives him a game plan, and he sticks to the game plan,” Prince said. “He’s (Cameron’s) seeing these older pitchers at this level, guys who can pitch backwards in a count, younger guys who are going to ride their fastball, and he’s growing, because in this game it’s all about experience.”
Keep an eye on Toledo, and Yariel Gonzalez
It’s natural to think of minor-league free agents as discards other teams decided they could do without.
And, in most cases, that’s precisely the situation. Players or pitchers have shown their parent team that they’re probably not in their employer’s long-term plans.
The Tigers signed their usual batch of minor-league mercenaries during the offseason, including Yariel Gonzalez, a switch-hitting infielder who last week turned 27 and who earlier played in the Cardinals chain.
Gonzalez, who worked briefly at Double-A Erie before being shipped to Toledo, arrived for Sunday’s game at Memphis batting .374, with nine home runs in 91 at-bats, a .426 on-base average and 1.118 OPS. He had struck out 17 times and walked eight times.
“Interesting player — and versatile,” Littlefield said of a 6-foot-1, 190-pound Puerto Rico native who played at University of Science & Arts, in Chickasha, Oklahoma, before the Cardinals signed him as a non-drafted free agent.
“He’s played some second base, third base — played some left field in the past.”
Gonzalez isn’t the lone free agent stock Prince’s shelves.
Aderlin Rodriguez, 29, and a right-handed hitting first baseman, has five home runs and a .927 OPS. Rodriguez earlier played in the Mets, Orioles, and Padres systems.
Wily Peralta, 32, is a right-hander and one-time big-leaguer with the Brewers, Rockies, and Royals, with a 1.50 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in five starts. His 16 strikeouts in 16.2 innings says much, as do seven walks in that span.
And then there’s Miguel Del Pozo, 28, a left-hander and bullpen option who in 10 games has a 1.54 ERA, 0.60 WHIP. Del Pozo has worked 11.2 innings that include four hits, 14 strikeouts and three walks. He had a 22-game taste of big-league life with the Angels and Pirates before signing with Detroit.
Erie has its own free-agent prize, Pedro Payano, a right-hander whose latest gold star came Sunday when he threw six innings in a 6-0 victory that saw Payano dole out only two hits, while striking out five and walking three. Through six games, Payano, 26, and a former Mets farmhand, has 32 strikeouts in 25 innings, a 3.60 ERA, and 1.04 WHIP.
Such signings, of course, are routine for all big-league clubs as players who might offer organizational depth, and who might yet blossom in a new system and with a tad more maturity.
“It’s a product of analytics and our pro scouting staff,” Littlefield said, explaining other voices were involved in the above signings, notably Tigers minor-league managers and coaches who managed in the Caribbean winter leagues: Brayan Pena, Jose Valentin, and Mike Alvarez.
► Jose De La Cruz has 54 strikeouts in 97 at-bats, which begs the question: Why is this 19-year-old being used as cannon fodder at Single A Lakeland?
The Tigers say De La Cruz, one of their more prized young prospects, has been chopping down of late on the whiffs and that they have viewed low Single A as still being in an outfielder’s long-term interests.
They also note that the Gulf Coast League begins play the end of this month and that De La Cruz is a definite candidate for GCL games if things don’t soon improve.
“We know it’s frustrating, but we feel he’s putting together better at-bats,” Littlefield said, adding that Alan Trammell, the Tigers’ special assistant and Hall of Famer, has also been working with De La Cruz and shares the overall development view.
“We think it’s going to translate to better times. It’s a case where everyone’s saying, ‘Let’s give him a little more time.’ We’ll see how it goes.”
► Trei Cruz is expected to saddle up this week at West Michigan after missing most of the past month with a left shoulder issue. Cruz was a third-round Tigers draft pick last June. Cruz is an all-tool infielder who for now plays shortstop.
► Marco Jimenez, 21, a right-handed reliever who was 21st on The Detroit News 2021 top Tigers prospects list, will be gone until 2022 after he had Tommy John surgery in May. Jimenez, who was signed out of the Dominican Republic, was expected to be a mover in 2021, thanks to a plus fastball and plus breaking ball.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.