Henning: Tigers’ blossoming infield prospects could become valuable trade chips

Detroit News

Scott Harris heads for San Diego this weekend for his first Winter Meetings experience as Tigers commander. And, as Detroit News cohort Chris McCosky explained, Harris has some heavy browsing in mind.

Of deeper intrigue is not what Harris does next week at San Diego as much as what he likely can and will do during the next 12 months. It centers around a growing bin of young talent just beginning to ripen on the Tigers farm.

Colt Keith. Jace Jung. Izaac Pacheco. Cristian Santana. Wenceel Perez.

There are more coming, perhaps good ones, in Abel Bastidas, Peyton Graham, Danny Serretti, and possibly Manny Sequera. Next year will be more telling about how quickly, or how likely, Graham and Serretti — college players the Tigers drafted in July — could become part of the mix. But early reports are strong.

This doesn’t include a left-side infielder sturdy enough to have convinced Harris he needed to be protected from Rule 5 poaching — Andre Lipcius, a 2019 third-rounder from the University of Tennessee, who had an .818 OPS in 88 games the past season at Double-A Erie. It does not count a left-side infield artist who, if he can somehow chop down on strikeouts, could be potent: Gage Workman, who was Spencer Torkelson’s crew-mate at Arizona State.

The cast also features Ryan Kreidler, a potential wild card in that if he can hit with any steadiness in 2023, the Tigers would be getting a bonus on the heels of Kreidler’s 2022 cameo in Detroit.

Not all of these gents will be everyday MLB players. But enough of them, maybe a majority, will see the big-leagues. And it’s all but a certainty that most already carry some degree of cachet, which will expand in 2023, as other clubs scan MLB’s bushes for smart infield investments.

That could leave Harris in nifty position to deal — as early as this offseason, or more likely, by next summer’s mid-season deadline, and beyond.

Add in another roster delight — pitching — and the odds increase Harris soon will be getting phone calls his predecessor, Al Avila, simply didn’t receive.

Joey Wentz. Wilmer Flores. Ty Madden. Reese Olson. Jackson Jobe. Dylan Smith.

Perhaps three of those six will see Detroit in 2023. They will meld with other young arms likely making it back from shutdowns or surgeries or whatever tends to make pitching so volatile: Matt Manning, Spencer Turnbull, Tarik Skubal, Beau Brieske, and Alex Faedo, with Casey Mize healing from his Tommy John bout and destined to return in 2024.

Acknowledged, easily, is the fact so many of the above had arm issues in 2022 works against the Tigers getting overly cocky about pitching depth. It makes trading pitching risky, if not out of the question, when the Tigers last season used 17 different starters.

More: Matthew Boyd returns to Tigers on one-year, $10 million deal

Then again, it doesn’t. Bet on at least one of the above being included in some brand of impending, and inevitable, Harris deal that rocks the Tigers’ transactional Richter scale.

Diamond dandies

But back to the main Tigers attraction for other MLB clubs: infielders.

Someone’s going to get moved. Maybe quickly. The inventory:

▶ Keith: He is the best hitter on the Tigers farm. He is getting close, very close, to Detroit. Harris’ big question with respect to Keith in 2023 will be in bringing him to Comerica Park at midseason or later, or letting a 21-year-old simmer a full summer at Erie and Toledo and protect a vital team-control year.

Keith is a left-handed stick who is going to tear apart a lot of MLB games, whether in Detroit or elsewhere. The problem, albeit a manageable one, is where he ultimately will play.

His defense at third base is a bit clunky and has not benefited from Keith adding a ton of muscle the past year, which has pushed his weight into the 240s. No big issue there. The Tigers like the added pop and the acceptable body-fat print-outs.

Could he play elsewhere in the infield, namely first base? Perhaps. Except a guy who is also ready to blossom in big fashion, named Torkelson, is locked in there.

Is it possible Keith could move to the outfield? Yes. But until the Tigers decide that Comerica Park’s outfield needn’t be a county unto itself, range factors will apply, even to right fielders.

The Tigers likely aren’t parting with Keith, unless of course an offer is too juicy to ignore. For now, they’ll see how things go in 2023 at third base and decide where a hitter with Keith’s fabulous upside might fit.

▶ Pacheco: Get ready: He was a year out of high school last summer and showed the Tigers just how good he can and will be. He likely will stick at third base, very capably, and will bring with his 6-foot-4, 220-pound superstructure a left-handed bat that will be dynamite. Whatever one has heard about Pacheco’s potential is likely understated.

▶ Jung: As with Keith, the only question is where he will play. The Tigers drafted him 12th overall last July for a reason acknowledged by scouts across all of baseball: Jung can hit. That leaves the question of defense. Second base is his position, and will remain so in 2023.

The Tigers believe they can coach Jung into serviceable shape at second. Again, with Torkelson dropping anchor at first, a possible repository for Jung — or for Keith — pretty much has vanished. The Tigers aren’t at this moment keen on carrying through with an earlier experiment at having Torkelson play third.

▶ Perez: Definitely an X-factor in 2023. If he stays healthy, Perez, who just turned 23 and who switch-hits, could push for work at Comerica. He had knockout numbers and metrics last season at West Michigan and at Erie (Erie: 55 games, .286 batting average, .364 on-base, .894 OPS, 143 wRC+, .233 ISO, etc.).

The Tigers weren’t interested in seeing Perez scarfed up at next week’s Rule 5 auction and naturally offered full 40-man roster protection. His defense is not blue-ribbon at this point, but not because of any skills deficiency. A more serious approach there could make Perez a possible, even rapid, replacement for Jonathan Schoop, whose contract has mostly determined that he returns in 2023.

▶ Santana: Very, very possibly, Santana is the Tigers next long-term fixture at shortstop. This would be in step with thoughts the Tigers made plain in 2021 when they paid the most money they ever have invested in an international youngster: $2.95 million.

Expect to see Santana fairly early in 2023 at West Michigan. He turned 19 last week, bats right-handed, and is tracking along lines envisioned. But he is a down-the-path project, as is Bastidas, who showed much the past season in the Florida Complex League, and even Sequera, 20, a potential stick of TNT who will need to narrow his concept of the strike zone if he’s going to flourish.

▶ Graham and Serretti: The Tigers might have found a couple of jewels here in Graham (second round, University of Oklahoma), and Serretti (sixth round, University of North Carolina). Graham’s skills were obvious at Oklahoma, while Serretti, who had a taste of Double A last season, impressed — very much — those who had seen him move during 27 games from Lakeland to West Michigan to Erie.

What all of this portends for the Tigers minor leagues in 2023 is a show worth tuning into. A new front office will be charting it by the hour, getting a bead on who will be of immediate help, who has a chance to factor seriously in later rosters, and who — to repeat — will spur phone calls from Harris’ front-office cohorts wondering about a trade.

Tigers’ shopping list

What will the Tigers want?

Outfield help, probably. Two-way outfield help — guys who can hit and who can handle Comerica’s unnecessary acreage. Riley Greene already is on the cusp of an All-Star Game ticket and Parker Meadows could be moving into center field in 2024, with Greene shifting to left field. But there are few certainties beyond those two.

Catcher, also, is a huge question. Dillon Dingler has the arm and game-calling skills to be an answer, but the bat is still a big question. Josh Crouch has a daunting right-handed stick but lacks Dingler’s behind-the-plate prowess.

So, be on the lookout, as Harris is, for possible deals there.

Will something happen next week — on any grand scale?

Probably not. Most of the Tigers drama at San Diego will be tied to Tuesday night’s first-ever MLB Lottery for 2023 draft position. The Tigers have a slight chance at a first-overall prize and carry a 50%-plus chance at knocking down a first-six turn.

Harris, at other hours, will be listening and taking the temperature of potential trade partners.

Temperatures figure to rise as 2023 carries on. The Tigers have some farm gems, at long last, and it’s a sweet bet some of them will be shipped elsewhere at some point during the next 12 months, with more than ho-hum returns coming Detroit’s way.

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

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