Around the Tigers’ farm: Here is a look at how the Lakeland staff is faring early in the season

Detroit News

Some days, runs are scarce, hitters are flummoxed. That can be the story throughout a long, hot season in the big-ballpark Florida State League, which happens also to be where the Lakeland Flying Tigers hang out.

It pays to have various left- and right-handed arms helping a Lakeland team play pretty much break-even baseball (8-7) through April.

Andrew Graham, the Flying Tigers manager, has a lineup gouging out just enough offense to give his pitchers a shot at winning a game.

Among those pitchers:

Edgardo Ibarra, 19, LH starter, 6-foot, 160 pounds: Ibarra won’t turn 20 until June and has two handsome starts for Lakeland, which is how you craft an early 2.45 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. He has thrown 7.1 innings, been slapped for a modest four hits, while walking four against seven strikeouts.

“He shows he’s not afraid on the mound, which is huge for his age,” Graham said of a Venezuelan the Tigers signed in 2020. “I think he’s got the best pitchability on the team. He’s mixing pitches: fastball, change-up, and slow curveball.”

Marco Jimenez, 23, RH starter, 5-11, 239: Jimenez was cruising three seasons ago, then ran into one of those Tommy John interruptions that shelved him until last summer. He’s back, at full speed, and a decent bet to move up the farm-chain in 2023. Maybe quickly.

In three games (two starts), he has tossed 8.1 innings, striking out 13. Not so inspiring are the eight hits and five walks allowed, although the Tigers and Graham believe the data will only get better.

“Power arm — he’s just got to learn how to pitch,” said Graham, noting Jimenez’s fastball has been hitting 98 and 99, which makes a developing sinking two-seamer even more of a possible weapon.

“He’s got a change and a slider he works in a bit. Strong kid.”

Cleiverth Perez, 23, LH reliever, 6-foot, 211: Another pitcher just back from Tommy John recovery. To date in 2023: four games, seven innings, five hits, two walks, eight strikeouts.

“Didn’t know what to expect,” said Graham, alluding to Perez’s comeback. “But he’s a strikes-thrower. Pounds the zone. Has a late-life fastball (up to 94) that really gets in on hitters. Mixes in a good curve and change. And — again — he throws strikes.”

Troy Melton, 22, RH starter, 6-4, 210: He was the Tigers’ first pitcher grabbed in last July’s MLB Draft, a fourth-rounder from San Diego State. He only pitched in two games last summer (workload limits after his college season) and is now settling into a full year of duty: That he has 15 strikeouts in 11.2 innings (four walks) says plenty about his sizzle, which, during some spring-camp games saw Melton hitting 100 with his fastball.

“The other day his velo was down a bit, but he was still averaging 95.8,” Graham said. “He’s just got to learn how to pitch.”

Trevin Michael, 25, RH reliever, 6-2, 200: He was a 10th-rounder last summer from the University of Oklahoma. So far, so good: 12 strikeouts in four games and 6.2 innings, with but two hits and two walks granted.

This kid’s got composure and pitchability,” said Graham, using a favorite word to describe savvy and stuff. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s got a four-mix pitch that he can throw for strikes. Fastball is 95-96, and sits at a high-94. Solid presence. He dominates.”

Speedster Stephenson

Seth Stephenson was one of spring camp’s more popular subjects for those following doings on the TigerTown quadrant of practice fields.

It had to do with a farmhand’s speed.

Sprinter-grade speed, to be exact.

Stephenson, 22, last July was a Tigers seventh-round snatch-and-grab from the University of Tennessee. He plays center field and right field for Single-A Lakeland, is 5-foot-8, 165 pounds, and bats right-handed. As he dressed for Sunday’s game at Port St. Lucie, Stephenson was batting .244, with a .364 on-base percentage, and .719 OPS.

Consider this Saturday tribute from Graham, who is Stephenson’s manager at Lakeland:

“I think Seth Stephenson might be one of the fastest guys in all of baseball,” said Graham, a native Australian not known for embellishments. “His closing times (outfield, the way he slides, the instincts on when to steal and how to steal.”

Graham, even over the cellphone line, could all but be seen shaking his head.

Stephenson arrived Sunday with eight stolen bases in 12 games.

Baseball America’s past scouting report on Stephenson described Stephenson as “a true 80 runner,” which is the top grade scouts can assign a prospect when their reports carry an 80-grade ceiling.

The bat, as usual, will decide Stephenson’s future roster relevance.

He had three doubles and a triple included in his 11 base hits entering Sunday. He had walked five times and whiffed 12, which will be something to watch if a potential top-of-the-lineup threat is to become just that.

Short hops

Dillon Dingler is back, rehabbing with Lakeland before he likely moves to Erie for a follow-up season with the SeaWolves. Dingler had right knee surgery (meniscus) in March.

In three games with the Flying Tigers, Dingler is 3-for-10, with two walks and a pair of strikeouts. His return to Erie will be important for two reasons: Dingler, 24, needs a reassuring year at Double A, preferably with fewer strikeouts.

Also, his fill-in with the SeaWolves, Josh Crouch, has had a chilly start (.160), which leaves the Tigers waiting for one of their two top catching prospects to hint at being potential 2024 help in Detroit. Thus far, no go.

▶ Another solid start Saturday for Erie right-hander Sawyer Gipson-Long, a starter who was last summer’s trade chip that sent Michael Fulmer to the Twins. Gipson-Long worked five innings Sunday, allowed three loud hits (homer, two doubles), but yielded only a lone run, while striking out nine and walking none.

His numbers for 2023, which include a 3.38 ERA and 0.75 WHIP: four games, 16 innings, nine hits, three walks, and a hefty 19 whiffs. He is 25 years old, 6-4, 225, and a sixth-round Twins pick (Mercer) in 2019.

▶ More of the same Friday for Ty Madden in his SeaWolves start: four innings, four hits, two walks. A pitcher who might yet see Detroit in 2023 has a 1.00 ERA on the year and has punched out 18 batters in nine innings.

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

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