As his Whitecaps settle in for a typical week’s work, West Michigan manager Brayan Pena sighs. Contentedly.
On one night, he knows Wilmer Flores, a right-handed mowing machine, will start a Midwest League game for the Tigers’ high-Single A partner.
Another day, he pencils in Ty Madden, who a year ago was the Friday night, right-handed ace at the University of Texas, all before he became the Tigers’ second pick in last July’s MLB Draft.
For another game, the choice is Dylan Smith, also a right-hander, and as with Madden, a pitcher who last year was the spotlight starter for a major college team, the University of Alabama.
There also is Jack O’Loughlin, a left-handed option from Australia, who has seven strikeouts in his first six innings of work for the Whitecaps.
Keider Montero, a once-shining star in the Tigers farm system, is only 21 and intent on better times than he knew in 2021. He, too, is in West Michigan’s rotation.
Still, it is difficult for Pena not to begin with Flores, who also is 21, and who throws right-handed. Flores started Thursday’s game against Lansing, working three innings. He struck out seven, did not allow a hit, and didn’t walk a single soul.
“He was throwing 98, 97 — 17 pitches and 16 were for strikes,” Pena said during a Saturday conversation. “Having that command, at 6-6, 6-5?”
In fact, Flores is listed at 6-4, 225 pounds, but Pena’s point stands — tall. Flores, whose older brother — also named Wilmer — is an infielder for the Giants, is a hefty lad with equally beefy pitches that begin with a four-seam fastball that hits 98. He also throws a hard curveball.
Flores was born in Venezuela but two years ago was pitching for Arizona Western College, in Yuma, Arizona. Teams were limited to five rounds in the COVID-curbed 2020 MLB Draft, which enabled the Tigers to sign him outside the draft.
He pitched in 11 games last season at low-A Lakeland and had strikeout numbers also on the gaudy side: 72 in 53 innings. That audition earned him a trip last autumn to the Arizona Fall League.
Should this prove to be a recurring theme in 2022, these strikeouts that spill from a pitcher who seems only to be gaining steam, expect Flores to be crashing Double-A Erie’s clubhouse, perhaps soon.
A young Colt is thriving
That truncated 2020 MLB Draft might have been pared to five rounds. But it was enough for the Tigers to sneak in a fifth-round pick who even then was suspected of being one of the amateur talent show’s possible steals.
Colt Keith then was an 18-year-old, left-handed hitter from Biloxi (Mississippi) High who was headed to Arizona State if the Tigers couldn’t entice him to sign a professional deal.
They got him for $500,000. And they wish only that all their investments were as pleasing in the early going as Keith.
He is 6-foot-3, 211 pounds, and can play virtually anywhere in the infield. Outfield, too, is an option that might become more regular with time.
For now, he’s batting only .229. But that’s not what Pena’s been seeing, nor what he cares about in numbers a manager finds to be, well, superficial.
“I haven’t seen anyone hit the ball harder than he does,” Pena said Saturday. “I mean, when he hits the ball, he hits the ball hard.
“I’m very impressed to see his raw power,” said Pena, who has watched Keith rack up two triples and three doubles in his first eight games, with one of the triples coming. “He put on 23 pounds of muscle this offseason. He’s committed to his player-plan.
“He’s really more comfortable. I never saw nobody at this level hit the ball harder than he is right now.”
Ask the skipper about Keith’s eventual position, and Pena is careful. But in a flattering way. Keith can handle enough positions, with competence, that a fulltime niche on defense is tough to peg.
“I feel like it’s a bit too early,” Pena said. “Right now, I’m moving him from third base to second base, and he’s been doing well. Maybe one day we can green-light playing him in the outfield, too. And that opens up another path for him to be in the lineup.
“With his bat, and if you can play other (multiple) positions, you’ve got a chance to play at the big-league level.”
Around the horn
Pena’s pick for Most Overlooked Player through West Michigan’s early April schedule: Andrew Navigato, 23, and a 20th-round pick in 2019 out of Oklahoma State, who through six games is hitting .500, with three doubles, two triples, and a 1.378 OPS.
“Navigato is a very interesting baseball player,” Pena said of a right-handed batter who is 5-11, 188. “He’s a position player who can give you time at first base, shortstop, second base, the outfield — with a good bat. We like him a lot.”
… Nice start for Dane Myers, the one-time Rice pitcher drafted by the Tigers who has switched to playing left field, first base, and third base at Double-A Erie: .303, with three homers and a 1.010 OPS through nine games.
… Joey Wentz closing in on a jump to Detroit, which could be a lifesaver as Casey Mize runs into elbow troubles: Wentz has 11 strikeouts spanning two starts and 6.1 innings at Triple A Toledo. Wentz, of course, is still gaining muscle after missing 2020 and part of 2021 with Tommy John surgery.
… Jose De La Cruz still has some strikeout habits (11 in nine games) at low-A Lakeland. But note the three home runs and .980 OPS. Also remember De La Cruz, an outfielder, is 20.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.