Led by Jobe, young pitchers stand out early at Tigers camp

Detroit Tigers

LAKELAND, Fla. — Last spring’s Tigers prospect contingent had an obvious focus with Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene both closing in on their Major League debuts. Both former Top 5 overall prospects have graduated since with varying levels of success in the Majors, and now, the top of the Detroit Top 30 is tilted closer toward pitching.

Three of the club’s Top 5 prospects in MLB Pipeline’s updated preseason list come from the mound, starting at the top with 2021 first-rounder Jackson Jobe followed by No. 3 Wilmer Flores and No. 5 Ty Madden. Mix in the Major League-ready Joey Wentz at No. 8, and there are the makings of a homegrown starting depth in the Tigers pipeline.

“The outside secret is you need more than five,” said Tigers director of player development Ryan Garko. “It’s more like 11 to 15 guys to get through the season, and they have to come from within to sustain it over the long term.”

Entering his second Spring Training, Jobe is still the one closest to being a future ace among the Tigers’ arms with his 93-96 mph fastball and high-spin, near-plus-plus slider. He was hit around a bit more than one would like at Single-A Lakeland, posting a 4.52 ERA with 12 homers allowed in 61 2/3 innings, during his first full season but seemed to grow into the year, finishing with three starts at High-A West Michigan.

Considering it was Jobe’s age-19 campaign, the Tigers were more concerned about him making it through the 2022 season healthy, thus setting the foundation for his future (rather than present) success.

“Getting through the first season and understanding the grind of a professional baseball season, it was mission accomplished,” Garko said. “He did a good job of getting through it, and he seems much more prepared. He can tell you mentally he’s in a really good place right now and ready for the season.”

Flores was one of the breakout stars of the system in 2022, using a 3.05 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 83 2/3 innings at Double-A Erie to join Jobe among the MLB Pipeline Top 100. The 6-foot-4 right-hander shows good control for his size with a 94-95 mph fastball and upper-70s curveball that both earn plus grades. Deepening that arsenal could be the determining factor between becoming a No. 3 starter or a No. 5 by the time he reaches the Motor City.

“He came here in January and worked on a few different iterations of a changeup,” Garko said. “It seems like he’s found the one he likes, and so far in bullpens, we’re getting some pretty good results. There’s still some work to go on a feel for it, but we’re excited to take it into games and see how hitters react. If he can get something moving the other way as a weapon against left-handed hitters. I think that’s the next big step for him.” 

Madden — the 2021 32nd overall pick with a plus slider — should join Flores in the upper Minors to begin his second full season, while Wentz is fighting for a Major League rotation spot after making seven starts in The Show last year and then posting three scoreless outings in the Arizona Fall League. Garko also singled out Reese Olson, Dylan Smith and Brant Hurter (all of which rank among the org’s top 23 prospects) as potential future rotation options.

Outside of Jobe, there may not be the high-ceiling types that can get a fanbase ultra-excited, but there are enough starters to give the Tigers options when their contention window opens.

“Look at the rules, the rules are changing with 13 pitchers on a staff,” Garko said. “That’s going to change the need for starters at the Major League level. We can’t carry that 14th pitcher. Look at the teams in the playoffs. Look at the teams that are winning their divisions. A lot more than not, they have starters that can get through a lineup multiple times.” 

Camp standout: Colt Keith

Detroit’s No. 4 prospect certainly commanded attention when he homered off Major League right-hander Matt Manning early in camp, and he continued to grab the spotlight by being a consistent Grapefruit League performer when given opportunities, including last Friday when he went deep in an official capacity with a 382-foot homer against the wind in Clearwater. 

The 21-year-old infielder performed well for West Michigan (.301/.370/.544 in 48 games) and during his own turn in the AFL but was limited by a shoulder injury. Given his overall offensive skills, he’s a candidate to jump into the MLB Pipeline Top 100 in 2023, if he can stay on the field. 

“He checks all three of those boxes that we talk about all the time – he hits the ball really hard, he swings at strikes and he takes his walks,” Garko said. “At such a young age, he controls the at-bat is the way I would describe it.”

Prospect we’ll be talking about in 2024: Cristian Santana

Depending on how you slice Santana’s 2022, you might already be talking about him.

Signed for $2.95 million out of the Dominican Republic in 2021, Santana aggressively jumped to Lakeland last season and hit just .215 and slugged .366 over 80 games in the Florida State League. He also finished with a 15.9 percent walk rate. That ability to reach fueled his 123 wRC+, which Garko would like to point out was 11th-best in the FSL (min. 300 plate appearances).

The shortstop is still entering just his age-19 season, and if he can make a bit more of his average power in a second stateside campaign, he would solidify his place as one of the Tigers’ most promising bats.

“He knows how to swing at the right pitches,” Garko said. “Now it’s just refining some things with the swing to get the ball in the air a little bit more and drive the balls to the gap. Then, all the rest of the numbers will round out around some of his zone-control numbers.”

Something to prove: Ryan Kreidler

The 2019 fourth-rounder broke out in 2021, when he rose with Torkelson and Greene as high as Triple-A Toledo, where he hit .304/.407/.519 in 41 games. He was meant to join the pair in Motor City early on in 2022, only to suffer a broken hand in late April and then a groin injury in late June. Kreidler eventually did reach Detroit as a September callup, only to hit .178 with a 38 wRC+ over 84 plate appearances.

If all goes well, the shortstop, who has average raw power, will be healthy enough to force the issue again in 2023. But he needs to hit regularly to regain any spot on the 26-man roster.

“I think Ryan can play defense in the Major Leagues for any team right now,” Garko said. “I think he’s a championship-level defender, and I think any scout would say that. It’s making yourself into a player that every day can be productive in the lineup.”

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