Those long days on the Tigers farm, which this year pushed deep into September due to a pandemic’s legacy, have all but wrapped up for 2021.
The Mud Hens still have a bit of work left, but everyone else is finished with what was the first full minor-league calendar any MLB team has seen since 2019.
What happened with respect to Tigers talent was, per usual, a mix of stunningly good, occasionally inspiring, and sometimes deflating performances that were part of a general uptick in Tigers fortunes.
Among the best, the good, the not-so-great, and the dispiriting, were these players and observations:
► Best performance by a position player: Riley Greene, Erie/Toledo. The Tigers likely welcomed one of their all-time top young talents when they snagged Greene with the fifth pick in 2019 — a testament to scout James Orr and his stick-to-it sleuthing of a kid who grew up in his region. Greene turns 21 on Tuesday, and it didn’t matter if he was dueling against Double-A or Triple A-pitching: He hit, and he played a strong center field. He has 30-homer probabilities with the Tigers and should make the team coming out of spring camp in six short months.
► Runner-up in position-player sweepstakes: Spencer Torkelson, who was right there with Greene and who did nothing but show at West Michigan, Erie, and then at Toledo that it wasn’t for nothing he was the first overall pick in 2020. He will be playing first base for the Tigers — and could join Greene in making the club out of spring camp. More likely, he will need a few more weeks at Toledo, but there’s a manager in Detroit by the name of AJ Hinch who is itching to get Torkelson and his all-fields power into Detroit’s lineup, post-haste.
► Biggest jump by a Tigers hitting prospect: Ryan Kreidler, shortstop, Erie and Toledo. Note how his numbers got better and better throughout 2021, even after the Tigers had made an adventuresome decision to start Kreidler at Double A. He was a fourth-round grab in 2019 (UCLA) and hadn’t played a lick of minor-league ball in 2020. But he took on the toughest position on the field, played it with enough strength to suggest he’ll stay there, and then mashed home runs (22 in 124 games thus far), took some walks, and chopped down on his strikeouts. He’s batting .319 with a .962 OPS in 36 games at Toledo. Tigers will give him ample time, but he could be a team’s long-hunted answer at short.
► Most mixed performance by a top prospect: Dillon Dingler’s seasons at West Michigan and Erie. The latter was semi-spoiled by a broken finger that made any thorough assessment of Dingler at Double A all but impossible. He was a whiz at West Michigan (32 games, .287 average, eight homers, .925 OPS), but in 50 games at Erie it was .202 and .578. Most of the issue there was a higher grade of baseball at Double A and the sapping of focus on his hitting as he dived into catching’s responsibilities. Then he broke a finger. Expect a bounce-back in 2022 — and potentially a fast-lane shift that puts him into conversation about a Detroit debut.
► Best showing by a young hitter: Colt Keith, infielder, Lakeland and West Michigan. The Tigers — and not a few national analysts — thought Detroit got buried treasure in the fifth round of last year’s draft. Keith looked the part this past season. He is a 6-foot-3, left-handed stick who in 44 games at low-A Lakeland batted .320 with an .858 OPS. He jumped to West Michigan, as a 19-year-old, and had some anticipated bumps there. But in Keith the Tigers have either a probable second baseman or corner outfielder (or two-way option) who is likely to be a mean hitter when he finally surfaces at Comerica Park. Don’t discount 2023 as a possibility there.
► Most difficult player to assess: Kody Clemens, second base/outfield, Toledo. He has power. He can swing his left-handed bat and drive a ball to the opposite field. He does a deft job at second base. But can he hit enough to be more than perhaps a tack-on, super-sub to a big-league roster? Clemens is 25 and it’s difficult to project him as more than bench help, which isn’t to be dismissed. This was a critical year for him. He has 17 homers in 92 games at Triple A, but only a .247 batting average, a .315 on-base percentage, and a .786 OPS. We shall see …
► Equally difficult player to assess: Daniel Cabrera, outfielder, Erie and West Michigan. He was a supposed second-round prize from 2021 and looked like a fine bet to bring some left-handed sock to an outfield corner. He could yet become that brand of player. But he was lukewarm at West Michigan and at Erie and needs to show more crunch and a steadier bat in 2022.
► Most deflating season by a Tigers position prospect: Parker Meadows, outfielder, West Michigan. Just isn’t happening for Meadows, who in five weeks turns 22. He never got it going in 2021 at West Michigan: .208/.290/.330/.620. He struck out 99 times in 94 games. The Tigers badly needed this second-rounder (2018) to pan out. But it doesn’t look good.
► Runner-up on most somber season for a Tigers position player: Nick Quintana, third base. Stop us if you’ve heard this before: a Tigers second-rounder isn’t working out. Quintana was at Lakeland this year, two years out of the University of Arizona, and put up these sad numbers: .196/.329/.346/.675. Add him to a list of nose-diving second-rounders that includes Meadows and Reynaldo Rivera of West Michigan.
► Best teenage prospect on the TigerTown back lots: Manuel Sequera, shortstop. Note the position, and note his age (18). Also consider that Sequera, in 46 games for the Tigers East team of the Florida Complex League, cracked 11 homers as part of his .823 OPS. He bats right-handed, is 6-foot, 170 pounds, was signed out of Barquisimeto, Venezuela, and is expected to stick at shortstop. A long way off, but be mindful of this youngster.
► Best performance by a Tigers prospect pitcher: Beau Brieske, Erie and West Michigan. Brieske was steady, at both stops, and had even better numbers at Double A: eight starts, 2.66 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, spiced by a .225 opposing batting average. He had a strikeout-to-walks ratio of 40 to 8 in 44 innings with the SeaWolves, with 36 hits and two home runs. He was a 27th-round draft pick in 2019 and might be the best 27th-rounder since, well, researchers are busy checking the archives. One question: Will his fastball (92-94) and change-up be sufficient to keep better hitters from attacking? Will he develop a slider he absolutely requires? This is a two-pitch pitcher, for the most part, who needs more spin on a fastball-slider combo that could push him to Detroit. The Tigers will allow 2022 to answer questions there.
► Most dispiriting season by a legitimate pitching talent: Keider Montero, West Michigan. He was supposed to be one of the farm’s bright lights in 2021, but he had poor numbers in 15 starts for the Whitecaps (5.28 ERA, 1.68 WHIP) and then didn’t pitch after July 28 because of a forearm strain that kept him out through late summer. He turned 21 in July, and will presumably resume old habits in 2022.
► Quietest quality add-on to the Tigers’ farm system: Reese Olson, West Michigan. The Tigers got him from Milwaukee in July in their Daniel Norris trade and he looked like the guy Detroit had hoped would bring some depth to its farm stable. Not big numbers at Erie for a gent who turned 22 in July (4.74 ERA, 1.30 WHIP), but in five starts and 24.2 innings, he was nicked for only 18 hits, struck out 21, and walked 14. Needs to pare down the walks, but a good arm at an affordable trade price.
► Solid 2021 seasons from pitchers who can’t be overlooked: Austin Bergner and Garrett Hill. Bergner is 24, and a ninth-rounder in 2019 from the University of North Carolina, so his 17 games at West Michigan should be considered in context. But a right-hander, who has started and who has worked bullpen shifts, had a 2.90 ERA and 1.27 WHIP for the Whitecaps, with 76 strikeouts in 59 innings. Hill, a 26th-round roulette ticket from San Diego State, is 25 and struck out 28 batters in 19.2 innings at Erie.
► Best bets to join the Tigers’ pitching corps in 2022: Joey Wentz and Alex Faedo. Both were healing from Tommy John work in 2021. Wentz, a lefty, made it all the way to Erie and progressively looked as if he will be pitching, perhaps soon, for the Tigers in 2022. Faedo, a right-hander who could fit into AJ Hinch’s bullpen-game strategies in 2022, will be ripe to resume his ways as a first-round pick (2017).
► Most intriguing farm story leading into 2022: How those dozen pitchers drafted in July will fare once they’ve been unleashed for a full minor-league season. Jackson Jobe, the Tigers’ choice with the third overall turn in 2021, didn’t throw a pitch in a single summer game. Neither did their next pick, University of Texas right-hander Ty Madden. Nor did third-round choice Dylan Smith, a right-handed ace from the University of Alabama. The Tigers worked to load up on arms in this year’s draft. Only next season will a team, and its followers, begin to see what brand of talent was plucked.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.