The Detroit Tigers’ rebuild over the past few seasons brought back a tradition from the turn of the century: Poring over September results from the minors in hope of finding, well, hope for the future.
Of course, the lack of a minor-league season last year put that on hold, and the Tigers’ post-April surge this year has kept their September games entertaining to watch, even without a hit of postseason potential.
But with Tuesday’s announcement that MILB.TV will be free for the rest of the season and minor-league postseason, it’s time to take one last look at the minors, to catch a glimpse of potential future stars before next spring.
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Of the Tigers’ top four affiliates, three — Erie, West Michigan and Lakeland — will miss out on the minor-league playoffs and are set to end their seasons Sunday, leaving four days of viewing. Toledo, meanwhile, has clinched at least a share of the Midwest Division title, sitting four games up on Omaha with four regular-season games to go. The Mud Hens, however, are six games back in the race for the overall Triple-A regular-season title, which will be decided by overall winning percentage after the season ends Sunday. And then? Something called “The Final Stretch” … but we’ll get to that.
Here’s a look at some key prospects to call up on MILB.TV this weekend if the Tigers’ series against the Tampa Bay Rays goes south early.
Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens
Not only do the Mud Hens have four more games in the Triple-A East regular season, they have 10 more in “The Triple-A Final Stretch,” which takes the place of the playoffs this season. Basically, after the end of the regular season (Sept. 19 in the East, Sept. 21 in the West), everybody plays 10 more games — five home, five away — from Sept. 22-Oct. 3. The team with the best winning percentage over that 10-game stretch (or, more likely, the team that wins a semi-convoluted tiebreaker based on the regular season, because, 10 GAMES) will be crowned the Final Stretch champ among all 30 teams.
Ah, but the games. First up, to finish the regular season, the Columbus Clippers (affiliated with Cleveland) at Fifth Third Field in Toledo. The main attractions, of course, are infielder Spencer Torkelson and outfielder Riley Greene, who’ve acclimated well to Triple-A. Torkelson is slashing .220/.333/.480, with seven home runs, 15 walks and 26 strikeouts in 27 games. Greene, meanwhile, is a homer behind his fellow first-round pick, with six dingers to go with a .296/.384/.546 slash line — with 14 walks and 36 strikeouts in 27 games.
But the prospect to watch vs. Columbus could be shortstop Ryan Kreidler; the 23-year-old followed his 15 homers and 15 doubles in 88 games in Double-A with five homers and five doubles in 26 games with the Mud Hens while hitting .330 with 14 walks and 21 strikeouts. And then, the “Final Stretch.” …
Sept. 22-26: First up, a five-game visit to Louisville to play the Bats, the Cincinnati Reds’ affiliate. The Mud Hens should face the Reds’ top prospect (according to MLB Pipeline), right-hander Hunter Greene. The No. 2 overall pick in 2017 was sharp in seven Double-A outings but has muddled to a 4.13 ERA in 14 starts with the Bats, with 79 strikeouts and 25 walks in 65 1/3 innings. His biggest problem: 11 homers allowed, though four of those came in his Triple-A debut.
Sept. 29-Oct. 3: The Mud Hens wrap up the “Final Stretch” at home against the St. Paul Saints, the Minnesota Twins’ affiliate. Most of the Twins’ top prospects are either injured or in Double-A or lower; one notable exception is infielder Jose Miranda. The 23-year-old entered Wednesday hitting .331 with 18 doubles and 14 homers in 65 games with the Saints, along with 46 strikeouts and 22 walks.
Double-A Erie Seawolves
There’s no “Final Stretch” for the SeaWolves, just four final games at home against the Richmond Flying Squirrels — the San Francisco Giants’ affiliate — with Thursday and Friday’s games starting at 6:05, Saturday’s at 4:05 and Sunday’s at 1:35.
The big name remaining in Erie is catcher Dillon Dingler. The 2020 second-round pick earned a promotion to Double-A with a .287/.376/.549 line in 32 games. But he was hitting just .201 with 41 strikeouts and seven walks in 36 games with the SeaWolves before a fractured finger sent him to the IL in early August. It hasn’t gotten much better since his return to Double-A earlier this month, with a .171/.231/.200 line and 13 strikeouts in nine games.
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An arm to watch: Reese Olson, who was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers on July 30 for big-leaguer Daniel Norris and promoted to Double-A in late August. The 22-year-old righty is slated to start Friday night against the Squirrels; in four games with Erie , he has a 5.79 ERA with 13 strikeouts and 14 walks in 18 2/3 innings. Those totals are a bit misleading, though, as Olson gave up seven runs on seven hits and four walks in 4 1/3 innings Saturday.
The Squirrels also have a pair of hitting prospects to watch in shortstop Will Wilson and third baseman David Villar. Wilson, 23 and ranked as the Giants’ No. 15 prospect, has struggled since his July promotion with a .193 average and 74 strikeouts in 47 games, while Villar, 24, has a .898 OPS (despite 144 strikeouts) in 102 games with Richmond.
High-A West Michigan Whitecaps
Likewise, the Whitecaps finish off the season with four games on the road against their mid-state rival, the Lansing Lugnuts (now an Oakland Athletics affiliate), with games Thursday-Saturday at 7:05 and Sunday’s finale at 1:05.
The Tigers have been aggressive with promotions, so the High-A roster is looking a little … looked-over. Then again, there’s at least one beneficiary of those promotions: 2020 fifth-rounder Colt Keith. The 19-year-old hit .320 with a .436 OBP in 44 games with Class-A Lakeland, though he managed just 10 extra-base hits. Since his promotion to West Michigan, the hits have been rare, with seven singles, a double, a triple and a homer in 65 at-bats, though his eight walks suggest a solid sense of the zone for a 19-year-old.
Another former Flying Tiger is having a slightly better season: Gage Workman, the Tigers’ 2020 fourth-rounder, has a .233/.295/.436 slash line over 61 games since his promotion in early July. The 21-year-old has had the additional challenge of learning shortstop this season after playing mostly third base at Arizona State (where he was teammates with Torkelson).
The game to watch is Friday night, as Lansing will send 2020 second-rounder (and No. 14 prospect) Jeff Criswell to the mound. The 22-year-old righty hails from Portage and starred at Michigan before being selected No. 58 overall. Criswell has allowed two runs on four hits and two walks over eight innings, with nine strikeouts, since returning from a three-month stint on the IL.
Class-A Lakeland Flying Tigers
We thought the West Michigan roster was depleted? The Flying Tigers finish out their season with four games against the Bradenton Marauders (who are, yes, a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate) — Thursday and Friday at 6:30 p.m., Saturday at 6 and Sunday at 1.
Lakeland has just one player on MLB Pipeline’s top 30 Tigers prospects list: Shortstop Trei Cruz, who started the season with West Michigan and was sent to Class-A in early July. Unfortunately for Cruz, his bat hasn’t been comfortable in Michigan or Florida, with a .577 OPS with West Michigan and a .644 with Lakeland.
On the Maruders’ side, keep an eye on outfielder Hudson Head, the Pirates’ third-round pick in 2019 and their No. 12 prospect. The 20-year-old struggled in High-A, but has slashed .267/.336/.525 in 50 games with Bradenton.