Around the Tigers’ farm: Wenceel Perez restoring some early Detroit faith

Detroit News

He can be overlooked, even forgotten, when Colt Keith, Ryan Kreidler, Cristian Santana, Izaac Pacheco — and others tend to be the Tigers’ spicier farm-system celebrities.

But be careful with Wenceel Perez. He’s an infielder. Aiming for Detroit.

“He’s really put himself back on the map,” said Ryan Garko, the Tigers vice president who oversees player-development.

Perez last week got what everyone knew soon was coming: a ticket to Double-A Erie after he had worn out his apprenticeship at Single-A West Michigan.

Perez, 22, and a switch-hitter, batted .286, with nine homers, in 55 games for the Whitecaps. He had an .893 OPS, courtesy of slugging (.529) and on-base (.364) averages, the latter of which featured 27 walks versus 38 strikeouts.

Solid stuff there. The kind that can push you to the big leagues if they hold up at Erie.

“He can really hit,” said Gabe Alvarez, who manages Erie, and who watched Perez go 5-for-15 in his first three games for the SeaWolves. “And he’s just as good from the right side as he is from the left side.”

Not much about Perez in 2022 is all that surprising. The Tigers liked him long ago, so much that they signed him in 2017 for $550,000 — heavy money for Latin American teens.

He survived 2019 as a 19-year-old at West Michigan, all before COVID wiped out the 2020 minor-league season. He split last year at Single A Lakeland and with the high-A Whitecaps before settling in this year, playing mostly second base, with third base and designated hitter occasional options.

“Before I was here, and before COVID, he was one of our fastest risers,” said Garko, who is in his first year running Detroit’s player-development side.

“Last year wasn’t what he had hoped to do (.245 average, .661 OPS in 90 games for the Whitecaps, “but he’s a great story.

“When a new group came in for PD (player development), everybody got a clean slate to go out and perform and play. Wenceel (pronounced: WEN-sul) is really a professional. Gets on base, knows the strike-zone, gives you a really good at-bat, and hits line drives all over the field, from both sides.

“Just really professional at-bats — and with young players, it’s hard to find that.”

Perez was signed as a shortstop, which happens to be the position his cousin, Cristian Santana, also plays. Santana is working now at low-A Lakeland two years after signing for $2.95 million, the most money the Tigers ever have invested in an international teen.

Santana looks as if he’ll be sticking at short for the long term. Perez, at 5-foot-11, 203 pounds, is a better big-league bet elsewhere.

“Defensively, I think second base is going to be his spot,” Garko said. “We want to make sure he can play second at this (Double A) level. He’s still got work to do. But he earned his promotion.”

No argument from Alvarez.

“He has plenty of range, more than enough,” the SeaWolves skipper said. “He’s a quick-twitch kid, and can really play.”

Rougher patch for Flores

The way he was throwing in April and May, you half-wondered if the Tigers’ hottest farm pitcher, Wilmer Flores, had Comerica Park on his summer travel plans.

Flores, 21, buried high-Single A hitters at West Michigan and last month was sent along with his gifted right arm to Double-A Erie. He debuted there with more of the same incendiary stuff he had flashed at Comstock Park.

But this month has been something akin to a market correction.

Friday night at Altoona, Flores was socked for five hits and a pair of earned runs in three tough innings that also entailed a couple of walks. Of course, he struck out three, and now has whiffed 68 batters in 45 innings (West Michigan and Erie).

“He left some pitches up, and he got hit,” Alvarez said of Flores’ Friday-night labors. “He was still throwing strikes, but catching too much of the plate.”

In one sense, that’s Double-A ball’s job: School kids in baseball reality. Make them better while reminding them that bruises are part of the process.

“Altoona’s leading the league in hitting,” Alvarez said. “Those guys, you have to be careful with their lineup. They feast on balls in the middle of the plate.”

Flores’ numbers in six Erie starts: 3.55 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 25.1 innings, 27 hits, seven walks, 33 strikeouts.

Primarily — secondary stuff

Reese Olson’s season has been a steady story of whipping hitters. Fastball velocity, slipping into the upper 90s, has been at the heart of a 22-year-old right-hander’s mastery.

But it’s the way his backup pitches are evolving that made the difference Saturday as Olson worked five innings, allowed two hits, walked two — and struck out nine.

“He was on,” Alvarez said. “He had a phenomenal change-up working. Whenever he got into some little mini-jams, maybe with a couple on base, he’d get out of it with his change.”

Olson was the Tigers’ return in last July’s trade that sent pitcher Daniel Norris to the Brewers.

He has a 1.06 WHIP and .215 opposing batting average in 13 games (12 starts) at Erie.

Weather’s warmer, and so is Meadows

There have been weeks when Parker Meadows shows he, in fact, has it — the stuff that made him a second-round pick four years ago and threatened to deliver, someday, a speedster and left-handed batter to Detroit’s outfield configuration.

But so often there has been regression. This month — progress.

Meadows heading into Sunday’s game was batting .286 in 14 games in June, with an .867 OPS. He had two homers, two triples, and a double.

“Definitely,” Alvarez said of Meadows’ uptick. “He’s been making adjustments from at-bat to at-bat, and even adjustments within the at-bat. And when that happens, pitch to pitch, you can say the light-bulb went on.

“And he’s playing a phenomenal center field — highlight-reel plays.”

Meadows, 22, was the first pick of the 2018 MLB Draft’s second round.

“He’s really an exciting player,” Alvarez said. “You combine that power potential with his speed … It’s amazing how quick he is at 6-6 or whatever he is (Meadows is listed at 6-5). That height — and the fact he can motor the way he can.”

Packard’s back

Bryant Packard had a happy week, going 10-for-19 during a  four-game stretch for West Michigan that reminded folks Packard a year ago was one of the better batters baking on the Tigers farm.

It could be a matter of shaking months of bad luck with his body.

There were issues in 2021 with Packard’s back. He got busy re-tooling his body, losing 20-plus pounds, and in the words of West Michigan broadcaster Dan Hasty, “He’s turned into a base-stealing threat.”

This follows a rough spring when Packard was adjusting to his weight-drop and to some changes in his swing. Once he was realigned there, he took a pitch off the elbow that temporarily conked his comeback.

But the Whitecaps might have reclaimed a bat lost earlier this month when third-baseman Colt Keith jammed his shoulder on a dive into first base during a pickoff attempt.

Keith is healing, minus surgery, and is expected back soon.

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

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