Once a new baseball season in Detroit gets going, assuming owners and players now wrangling over a fresh contract find harmony, it’s a safe bet Tigers followers will be keeping an eye on five teams in 2022.
There will be a big-league club, stationed at Comerica Park, that will have folks fixated.
And there will be four minor-league teams — from Single A through Triple A — flaunting more talent than the Tigers farm has featured in years, if not decades.
The Tigers minor-league talent is ranked fourth (Baseball America) and seventh (MLB.com) after the Tigers spent much of the past seven years of their vaunted rebuild stocking minor-league shelves that had been all but wiped out by earlier raids and failings.
Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning — three starting pitchers already have graduated to Detroit and have helped resuscitate manager AJ Hinch’s roster while bringing the Tigers to the brink of a break-even team.
This year, Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson will arrive, probably early, to put crunch into Hinch’s blossoming batting order.
Others, too, will begin to trickle onto a 26-man roster, which is what will make the very top of a reconstituted Tigers farm chain worth following, team by team, game by game. Some of those names at Triple-A Toledo, and even at Double-A Erie, will be but a phone call from their big-league baptisms.
Figure on at least a half-dozen or more being summoned by general manager Al Avila as a result of Hinch’s roster needs.
Joey Wentz, Kody Clemens, Angel De Jesus — view those three as percentage bets to play in Detroit, perhaps soon in 2022, with a starter/reliever such as Alex Faedo on the way as he heals from Tommy John surgery in 2020.
Then there will be the lower rungs. Well, lower rungs for now. In most cases, for most of the gents listed below, they will be packing bags, perhaps often, as promotions and vacancies combine to push them farther up the Tigers’ food chain.
Reese Olson, Beau Brieske, Ty Madden, Garrett Hill, Austin Bergner, Carlos Guzman, Jackson Jobe, Dylan Smith, Gage Workman, Eric De La Rosa, Colt Keith, Wilmer Flores, Mike Rothenberg, Tanner Kohlhepp, Tyler Mattison — it’s a pitching-heavy group that could see its share of jumps of two or more levels in 2022.
And then there are the hatchlings: Roberto Campos, Cristian Santana, Manuel Sequera, Izaac Pacheco — teens signed a year or more ago who will either begin the year on the back lots of TigerTown in Lakeland, Florida, but who, in some cases, will be moved to low-Single A work with the Lakeland Flying Tigers, or, possibly, all the way to high-A West Michigan.
Much will happen in the two months before minor-league seasons get rolling. Injuries, strained arms, sore calf muscles — the usual array of physical events during Florida’s workouts will make plotting a hotter prospect’s path in 2022 dicey.
Some, also, no doubt will show they aren’t ready for a higher rung that today looks doable.
But, with all those caveats cramped into a crystal ball, here is how rosters from Triple A to Single A (two teams) could soon be stocked with the Tigers’ best minor-league crop in years:
Begin with Ryan Kreidler, the guy who came close to being viewed, even last year, as a possible answer for the one-time Tigers hole at shortstop. Kreidler wasn’t going to be ready early in 2022. And the matter became moot, anyway, when Detroit signed everyday answer Javier Báez to rescue shortstop. But because of what he showed at Double A and Triple A in 2021, and because of what he might very display from the get-go at Toledo in 2022, no Tigers top prospect will be more intriguing than Kreidler.
The Tigers will be weighing possibilities and scenarios as Kreidler works this season at Toledo. If he hits and continues to show he’s handy at short, the Tigers will view him as insurance in the event Baez opts out of his five-year deal after two years, as his contract allows.
The Tigers also might be tempted to keep Kreidler at short — and later shift Báez to second base, or even third base. The latter makes sense as Jeimer Candelario moves toward free agency at the end of the 2023 season, and also as Candelario holds significant trade value.
Elsewhere on the position side at Toledo in 2022: Kody Clemens can be expected to polish his left-handed bat, infielder’s glove, and outfield arm as he works to show the Tigers he can be trusted with a super-sub job on Hinch’s crew.
But it’s pitchers who will have the earliest and most direct effect on what happens in Detroit in 2022.
Joey Wentz will be tuning up for spot starts in Detroit and a possible fulltime shift to Hinch’s rotation. Alex Faedo will be doing the same, although Faedo figures to start at lower rungs as he returns from his Tommy John hiatus and moves steadily toward Detroit.
De Jesus is about ready for a back-end bullpen slot at Comerica Park, while Elvin Rodriguez looms as a right-handed starter who, if his breaking ball adds some spin, could figure in plans when MLB teams typically in any one season need at least 10 different starters.
Paul Richan is another probable starter at Toledo if he is past some shoulder issues that ended his 2021 season.
A wild card for cracking Toledo’s rotation: Garrett Hill, at least if he isn’t snagged by another club in the yet-to-happen 2022 Rule 5 Draft.
Apart from Dillon Dingler, the story at Erie in 2022 figures to be pitchers.
But back to Dingler. He needs to hit in 2022. If he does, the Tigers again can brand him as their future everyday catcher, maybe as early as 2023.
Dingler broke a finger last summer and never got rolling with the bat after he had hit with such zest at Single-A West Michigan and looked like the second-round draft prize the Tigers believed they had nabbed in 2020.
If he straightens out his offense at Erie, he’ll head soon enough to Toledo. And if all goes satisfactorily there, he’ll be heading for Detroit at some point, and in some capacity, in 2023.
Pitchers, though, will be the everyday focus, beginning with starters Reese Olson and Beau Brieske, each of whom would figure to begin April with the SeaWolves.
Just as interesting could be another right-hander, Austin Bergner, who if he follows last season’s script, will earn a rapid bump to Erie, and very possibly to Toledo soon afterward.
That leaves an at-large group of relievers who should dictate, during spring camp, whether they’re bound for Triple A or Double A (or elsewhere): Drew Carlton, Chavez Fernander, Yaya Chentouf, and Max Green.
Also worth watching, if only to see if he can re-ignite some prospect fire, is outfielder Daniel Cabrera, who did nothing last season at Erie to suggest he has the stuff scouts saw in him as a third-round pick in 2020. A better bet, perhaps, is Eric De La Rosa, another outfielder who had the biggest stock-price jump among all of Detroit’s mid-range prospects in 2021.
The mystery man, at Erie or West Michigan or wherever he spends the brunt of 2022, will be shortstop Gage Workman. The Tigers want to see his big switch-hitting swing hold up, and particularly to get better from the right-handed side, which could send him Erie-bound. He will be a daily follow for those who inspect Tigers farm boxscores. Workman has heavy upside if he can chop down on strikeouts and stabilize that right-handed approach.
Single-A West Michigan
A basic question for Tigers farm snoops is: How fast will Jackson Jobe show he’s ready for high-A ball with the Whitecaps? It’s presumed Jobe, last year’s third-overall pick and top Tigers draft-day trophy, will begin the year at low-A Lakeland. Assuming all goes smoothly there — a fair assumption, given this right-hander’s extraordinary talent — and he’ll be heading for West Michigan.
The Tigers will be careful with his innings-load and pitch-counts, of course, which might be the only thing that prevents Jobe from moving all the way to Erie in 2022.
There is time on the Tigers’ and Jobe’s side, and they’ll take it. He is 19 years old, did not pitch in a professional game in 2021, and is still building an arm that worked only 52 innings a year ago as he finished high school in Oklahoma.
More likely is that the Tigers’ second pick from last July’s draft, right-handed whiz Ty Madden, will open up at West Michigan a year after he pitched plenty at the University of Texas.
Madden could easily jump West Michigan and land at Erie by mid-summer, although getting ahead of themselves with pitcher projections is not something the Tigers choose to do. History has taught harsh lessons there.
Do keep in mind another right-hander as West Michigan’s 2022 horizon draws near: Wilmer Flores, 20, who was fine last summer at Lakeland and who is nicely positioned for a bump to high-A. Same for Carlos Guzman, 23, who did pleasing work during seven starts at West Michigan and probably returns to Comstock Park before he wins a ticket to Erie.
Jack O’Loughlin (left-handed reliever) and right-handed starter Keider Montero — Montero needs to start over after a bad time at West Michigan in 2021 — are two more to ponder as West Michigan’s roster takes shape. But neither of them may make as much noise as Wilkel Hernandez, 22, who lost 2021 to Tommy John reconstruction and who likely will give Whitecaps manager Brayan Pena a happy right-handed option in West Michigan’s bullpen.
On the position side, Colt Keith probably is headed back to West Michigan for what should be a crowd-pleasing season. He’s a left-handed hitter who the Tigers might well have stolen in the fifth round of the 2020 draft. With his skills and upside at age 20, Keith ranks as a guy who could become gold-star stuff, all while showing he can handle multiple infield jobs.
Also of interest: Mike Rothenberg, drafted last July out of Duke, who did fine at Lakeland during a late-summer tuneup and who has the traits of a future backup catcher.
It’s essentially a given that Parker Meadows will return to West Michigan as the Whitecaps center fielder. It’s also a given that Meadows will need to get that bat humming.
Focus, again, on pitchers as the Flying Tigers set up shop for 2022. Pitching is what the Tigers fixated on during last summer’s draft and pitching will be the story, at least early, at Lakeland.
What might be deduced is that Jobe, certainly, will begin his apprenticeship at Marchant Stadium. He could be joined by last July’s third-round grab, right-hander Dylan Smith, who was the University of Alabama’s ace in 2021.
The Tigers spent a fourth-round turn on another big (6-foot-4) right-handed starter in Tyler Mattison, as well as a right-handed reliever from Notre Dame, Tanner Kohlhepp.
It’s possible any of the above will bypass Lakeland and head straight for West Michigan. But no matter the first stop, these are arms who were drafted to help in Detroit, in a hurry, which means the Tigers developmental crew has thoughts if not expectations they’ll move rapidly.
There will be teens, galore, itching for a move to the Tigers’ three-class farm chain. Most will be Latin American prospects signed during the past three years. Many will spend another year playing in the Florida Complex League, a kind of professional baseball pre-school that precedes a move to Lakeland, West Michigan, or elsewhere.
Some will prove they belong, at the very least, at low-A.
Roberto Campos, Manuel Sequera, Cristian Santana, Jose De La Cruz, Texas prepster Izaac Pacheco, who was last year’s third-round pick — all, as well as others, will get a shot at showing they’re on a path that might, in a few seasons, include Detroit.
Once, anyway, a new season now slowed by labor haggling is christened. At that point, kids itching to learn and grow and steel themselves for the big leagues will be free to show they’re legit. That someday, maybe sooner rather than later, they’ll move from prospect to authentic big-league player.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.