Around the Tigers’ farm: Detroit takes notice of Sawyer Gipson-Long’s steady Erie starts

Detroit News

Some who follow all things Tigers have noted the team could use a few more good men — in starting rotations throughout the farm.

It’s a bit thin out there.

Ty Madden is, of course, on hand at Double-A Erie and moving ever closer to Detroit. Wilmer Flores supposedly is en route, although his definite setback of a spring — at least to date — has created considerable alarm with respect to a right-handed pitcher who some thought might see Comerica Park in 2023.

Reese Olson, perhaps, looms — if he can command bats at Triple-A Toledo.

But the Tigers unquestionably need help. Which is why Sawyer Gipson-Long is at least worth examining as he does boss-pleasing work at Erie.

Gipson-Long, it must be remembered, was Detroit’s reward last August when the Tigers sent Michael Fulmer to the Twins.

It was a rental trade for the Twins, given that Fulmer was two months from free agency. But the Tigers weren’t playing giveaway and opted to take as payment Gipson-Long, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound, right-handed starter and native Georgian who had been a sixth-round pick (Mercer University) by the Twins in 2019.

He has thrown in six games in 2023, five of them starts for the SeaWolves, and has in 24 innings a 4.50 ERA, a sharp 1.04 WHIP, as well as a strikeout-per-nine-innings ratio of 10.1 vs. 1.5.

Those figures are close to his four-season farm totals.

What the Tigers ideally see is a pitcher, 25, who could be trusted to start or eventually offer long-relief muscle. That seems achievable, statistically, and also when his repertoire is a bit mightier than might have been anticipated.

His four-seam fastball, as Erie manager Gabe Alvarez notes, is up a notch from 2022 — 93-96, with the occasional 97 and even 98 showing.

“And we’ve added a two-seamer this year that been really effective,” Alvarez said. “He always has had a good slider, and now he’s using his change-up more, so he has a four-pitch mix.

“He has good command,” Alvarez said. “He’s always had decent command, so he’s not just spraying the ball up there. He’s learning when to use a certain pitch.

“Now he’s figuring out when to use his sinker, and when to go up top with his four-seamer.”

It’s a matter, still, of staying away from bats and their happy hunting grounds.

But the strikeout-to-walk ratios, the acceptable 1.1 homers-per-nine-inning average, and a man’s size and potential for soaking up innings — the Tigers need help, which is what they were banking on last summer in making Gipson-Long their bill for trading a reliever as sturdy as Fulmer.

Cruz-ing in center

This is how a man makes himself handy: not only being able to play anywhere in the infield, but adding, as a true enticer, a snappy adaptation to center field.

Behold, Trei Cruz, who needed a boost after having some fairly dismal early seasons on the Tigers farm, mostly because his bat was so soft.

The news on Cruz, a month into the 2023 season at Double-A Erie, is that his offensive numbers are warming, slightly anyway, while his work in center field has been stunning.

“He has looked phenomenal in center field,” Alvarez said. “He looks like he’s been playing there his whole life.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised by his instincts out there, his feel, the way he gets good jumps on the ball, takes good routes. He knows where to go (throw) with the ball, which, when somebody’s learning a new position is usually the last thing to come.

“He doesn’t let backside runners take bases.”

It’s a bingo for Cruz when his previously pallid bat has shown new signs of life.

He was Eastern League Player of the Week for the final days of April when he was 8-for-19, with three home runs and a double. He batted .421, with a 1.397 OPS.

Encouraging stuff from a man with big-league DNA (his father and grandfather) who was a third-round Tigers pick (Rice University) in 2020.

The bat remains a big — very big — question.

Note that even after his big week, Cruz through Sunday’s game at Bowie batting .250, with a .318 on-base average, and an .806 OPS. More ominously, he had struck out 27 times in 21 games.

So, no matter how many positions he can play, offense will be required. What’s changed is a player who turns 25 in July has at least broadened his portfolio.

Now, it’s up to the bat to do the same.

From whence came Wenceel

Maybe, finally, it’s blossoming time for Wenceel Perez.

He is hitting .307 in 19 games for the SeaWolves (.395 on-base, .427 slugging, .822 OPS, two homers), which has always been a Perez strong suit.

What might have changed is he finally is ship-shape after some back issues flared in 2022, and again this spring. A strong rehab at high-A Lakeland, and his exploits the past three weeks with Erie, suggest a man, only 23, might be about to flourish and give the Tigers another potential option as they sort out their future infield — and, maybe, outfield — options.

That might depend as much on his defense as his right-handed bat.

Specifically, Perez has to show he can make consistent throws, which has been a quiet concern within the Tigers developmental chain.

“I think he’s starting to take off,” Alvarez said during a Saturday conversation. “He’s had a really good week at the plate and on the field.

“He’s thrown a couple away this year, but not anything that’s abnormal. It looks like he has everything under control.

“I think he’s played a very good second base. The thing with him is, he has so much range, he gets to a lot of balls most second baseman can’t get to.

“Ironically, the errors will pile up because he gets to so many balls.”

Meaning … you get to a ball and perhaps force a throw. You get to a ball and, in haste, it slips out of your glove or hand.

The Tigers will live with excessive range. That, they can somewhat govern. As long as the bat continues to flower, as long as Perez can keep his defense within the chalk-lines, a potentially handy, and valuable, prodigy will get all the time necessary.

Short hops

A handful of Erie pitchers have been hinting at promotions if the good stuff continues:

Angel De Jesus, a right-handed reliever, in 10 games and 12.1 innings has a 3.65 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 17 strikeouts, and four walks.

De Jesus, of course, had a cameo with the Tigers last season and could find his way back to Comerica Park — or at least Triple-A Toledo — if this keeps up.

“He has really worked hard with Juan Pimentel (pitching coach) on a new slider that’s really been effective for him,” Alvarez said. “He’s gotten more and more confident with it. When you throw as hard as he does (96-99), and can be confident with a second pitch … Well, that slider, I love it. It’s got good shape and he’s got good arm-speed with it.”

Brant Hurter, a left-handed starter and seventh-rounder (Georgia Tech) in 2021, has had a strong six games for the SeaWolves (2.45 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 21 hits, 10 walks, and 29 strikeouts in 25.2 innings). He could find himself in future rotation conversations as the Tigers look ahead.

“Really consistent, and at times has been dominant,” Alvarez said of a lefty whose fastball runs low-to-mid 90s, and who features also a slider, curveball, and change-up. “He works quickly and is efficient with his pitches — not a lot of waste pitches.”

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

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