Why the Tigers believe these international kids will make it

Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Tom Moore holds his right hand high (figuratively) and testifies to what he believes is truth about the Tigers’ youngest cast of Latin American talent.

“We feel we have the best collection of international players we’ve had,” said Moore, who directs international operations and scouting for the Tigers. “I will say, just looking from our (high Single A) West Michigan team on down, there’s a lot of reason for excitement.”

Tigers fans want to believe, also. They are weary of the Tigers’ offensive miseries in 2022. They have noticed other MLB clubs and how so many of those teams sport big bats and shining stars those teams signed from Latin America, Japan, Korea, etc.

Moore offers as evidence what the Tigers already are seeing on their minor-league fields, at Lakeland and as far north as Comstock Park, where West Michigan plays.

Also, the sheer upgrade in bonuses paid for signing top Latin American talent — money the Tigers either were earlier prevented from offering (during their playoff days, when MLB held them to meager bonus pools), or chose not to spend when a Yoan Moncada or a Shotei Ohtani hit the international free-agent market.

The Tigers, from 2012-16, had only one player signed in the Top 30 of international bonuses: Julio Martinez, in 2014, an outfielder who signed for $600,000 and three years later washed out.

More: Tigers once had a stake in talent-rich Venezuela

The Tigers changed philosophies beginning in 2017, choosing more often to target higher-priced talent, a strategy that also was tied directly to getting richer MLB bonus-pools as compensation for lower-rung finishes and an end to Detroit’s long playoff run.

The Tigers since have had eight players signed from the top 30 (MLB Pipeline’s data) and seven from the next 30.

It’s early, but the younger crop, here and there, is sprouting.

Cristian Santana, 18, a shortstop, owns the biggest bonus the Tigers have ever paid a Latin teen ($2.95 million). He is dealing this spring with an oblique issue, but already shows a two-way game of such brilliance that Detroit is more probability than possibility. Santana was ranked 14th in MLB Pipeline’s list of 2021 top international talents.

Roberto Campos, 19, and an outfielder who is 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, had the previous record for a Tigers international teen contract ($2.85 million). He steadily suggests playing for Lakeland in 2022 why his right-handed bat and physique look as if the Tigers got it right.

More: Roberto Campos starting to show why Tigers spent big bucks on Cuban outfielder

Abel Bastidas, 18, and another shortstop from the same class as Santana (27th-ranked, signed for $1.175 million), is a 6-foot-2, right-handed hitter.

“Has a chance to be the best defensive shortstop,” Moore said. “Plus, good eye-plate discipline. A little bit of pop. One of those things you could see his power coming around as he matures.”

There are more — players, very young players, not just filling roster spots, but prospects with enough raw skill to at least hint there will be MLB days in Detroit, or elsewhere.

“Wenceel Perez,” Moore said of a 22-year-old shortstop, who has nine homers and an .894 OPS at West Michigan entering Wednesday. “He’s coming into his own.”

More: Why Japanese baseball stars rarely are destined for Detroit

So, too, the Tigers tend to believe, is shortstop Raudy De La Santos, 19.

“Don’t sleep on him,” Moore said of a right-hand hitter, 5-11, 155. “Really good actions, a natural loose arm, and he’s got the knack for putting the bat on the ball — and not a high-strikeout guy. “He’s not going to be a power-hitter — more gap-to-gap. But he can run.”

Eliezer Alfonzo, a catcher at West Michigan, who also has been injured: “Switch-hitter who walks and doesn’t strike out that.”

There are high-end talents, acknowledged even outside Detroit’s space, in outfielder Jose De La Cruz and shortstop Manuel Sequera — if they can harness their strikeout issues.

More: Tigers’ talent troubles have Latin America ties

Lazaro Benitez, 22, and an outfielder from Cuba, was looking sharp before he was hit in the hand by a pitch. Carlos Mendoza, 22, is an outfielder at Lakeland with an .831 OPS.

“We signed him as a bit of an older guy,” Moore said of Mendoza, a left-hand hitter, “but he’s done nothing but perform and walk (41 times) more than he’s struck out (28). And he can play other positions.”

And then there is the Tigers’ organizational flagship: pitching.

Dario Gareda, a right-hand reliever from Mexico, is 23 and already has moved in 2022 as high as Triple-A Toledo. Keider Montero at West Michigan, who was soaring before a forearm issue made for a tough 2021, is throwing 99 mph at West Michigan. Montero only three years ago was in the same rotation at Single-A Norwich (since jettisoned as a MLB farm venue) as Jack O’Loughlin, a 6-5 right-hander from Australia right-hander who also is working, gainfully, at West Michigan (3.34 ERA, 1.28 WHIP).

Marco Jimenez, 22, and one of the farm’s brighter stars before Tommy John surgery in 2021, is also (nearly) back: “Power arm,” Moore said. “High 90s, with a breaking ball getting better and better. He’s really coming on.”

Cleiverth Perez, a left-hander, with “pitchability,” in Moore’s view, is mentioned along with Rayner Castillo, 17, and a right-handed starter who will be working this summer in the Florida Complex League.

“Still 17 years old and throws up to 94, and throws strikes with all the pitches,” Moore said of Castillo. “Has pitchability and has the body (6-3, 180) for it.”

Ulices Campos, 20, and a right-hander: “Up to 97,” Moore said.

Gabriel Reyes, Wilmer Fenelon — the names are mentioned in 2022 because, in the Tigers appraisers’ view, these are players who can, ultimately, cut it in the big leagues — as much as any forecasts or even hopes can be ventured in the merciless, capricious world of signing and schooling young baseball talent.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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