A look at the pluses — and minuses — from the Tigers farm’s first half

Detroit News

Halfway through a 2023 minor-league season, and, for the Tigers, the farm has been a swirl of good and not-so-good news.

On with a probe into what has a new Tigers front office enthused, or perhaps wondering why a guy named Scott Harris took this job:

Best performance by a single player: Easy call: Colt Keith, who last week wheeled up the Ohio Turnpike to Triple-A Toledo and instantly hit a home run (435 feet) followed by another Friday (473 feet) as he began looking like he might soon sell a few tickets at Comerica Park.

That probably happens in 2024, which isn’t the worst plan for a 21-year-old, left-handed slasher who still needs to settle on a position. The Tigers — and Keith — would prefer third base as his primary post, with equal competency at second. Keith, though, has followed a first commandment: Thou shalt hit, which he can do with big power. That means the Tigers can take their time assessing his infield work. If a move to the outfield is advised, they can get busy there this offseason and into next spring. Either way, Keith’s in Detroit — probably early — in 2024.

▶ Top first-half pitcher: Here’s one for you: Jackson Jobe. And that designation, admittedly wild, is both good and bad. Jobe probably has the most talent of any pitcher on the Tigers farm and showed it again after he shook off his lower-lumbar issues and returned to work last month following a three-month layoff. Fastball at 97-98, slider at 3,100 rpms, cutter, curve, change-up — he owns quite a quiver.

There are reasons, after all, Jobe was taken third in that infamous Tigers draft of 2021. A right-handed man with immense talent is proving as much this summer at low-A Lakeland as he awaits a rapid summons to high-A West Michigan. Jobe next season will be at Erie. Detroit will be on the horizon.

The downside to Jobe winning a first-half prize: Tigers pitchers at the halfway mark haven’t, on balance, been overwhelming.

▶ Player who has most challenged Keith: Parker Meadows at Triple-A Toledo. In some respects, Meadows’ season with the Mud Hens has been a bigger boost to the Tigers in that Meadows needed to follow-up last season’s breakthrough year at Erie with sturdy work in 2023. That, he has done, for the most part. There are a few too many whiffs, but Meadows can get you an instant extra-base hit and then score from first on a double, or even a single, given the way this 6-foot-5, left-handed-hitting sprinter can fly across the basepaths.

He plays a marvelous center field, to boot. Meadows has some work remaining at Toledo. But he and Keith are on the verge of shaking up AJ Hinch’s Tigers lineup.

▶ Most mysterious first half: A tie here between Erie pitchers Ty Madden and Wilmer Flores. Either of these two figured last March to be taunting the Tigers into a 2023 big-league start. And neither has come close to figuring it out this season with the SeaWolves. Flores is getting better as he irons out some release-point issues. Madden’s inconsistency is more baffling. A smoother second half is possible for both when pitching being pitching, weird interludes can happen. But these two were regarded as 2023 blue chips on their way to being cashed at Comerica Park. It simply hasn’t happened.

▶ Probably better than their numbers: That tandem at West Michigan, Jace Jung and Izaac Pacheco. Jung was last year’s Tigers first-rounder and there are games and weeks when he looks the part. He has left-handed crunch that can bust up a ballgame. He can also have a three- or four-strikeout game that leaves one wondering what’s up with a 22-year-old who should be better-handling high-A pitching.

Pacheco is different. He is two years out of high school and was asked to survive 2023 at a level designed to challenge and at times crush him. Pacheco has that brand of talent, which, to cite one example, he showed Friday with a home run and a double. A steadier second half would be ideal for his psyche and for the Tigers’ plans as they work to mold this big (6-4), left-handed infielder into a future mid-order bomber in Detroit.

▶ Most prominent puzzle piece: What to do with Justyn-Henry Malloy, who at Toledo hits (.270/.393/.456/.849, with 13 home runs) but who isn’t an everyday choice at third base, or left field. Especially now that Keith is at Toledo and working part-time at third, Malloy joins a crowd at positions the Tigers can’t quite figure out how to resolve except as constant platoon options who aren’t always of great benefit on defense. What matters: Malloy is only 23 and his bat has clout. The Tigers also will have more room at designated hitter in 2024 post-Miguel Cabrera.

▶ Plus-pitchers through three months: Definitely, a few to watch: Keider Montero, a right-handed starter who long has been considered one of the farm’s prizes, finally is pitching to capabilities at Erie. He turns 23 this week and could supplant Madden and Flores as a starter Most Likely To Help Soon in Detroit.

Brant Hurter easily could beat Montero to Detroit the way a seventh-rounder (2021) from Georgia Tech has been shoving at Erie: 3.07 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, with strikeout/walk ratios per nine innings of 10.3 and 2.0

Troy Melton, the Tigers’ fourth-round pick (San Diego State) last summer, was throwing for heavy voltage at high-A Lakeland before getting a ticket last month to West Michigan. He has big talent and soon could find his way to Erie.

A handful of relievers, all right-handers, have been helping at Double A:

Tyler Mattison (fourth round, 2021, Bryant University, 3.42 ERA and 1.14 WHIP at West Michigan before promotion); Blake Holub (15th round, 2021, St. Edward’s University, 1.49 ERA, 0.83 WHIP); RJ Petit, (14th round, 2021, Charleston Southern, 2.63, 1.37).

Pitching might be the biggest gainer during the Tigers’ second half, with low-A Lakeland likely to help as Carlos Marcano, Marco Jimenez (straightening out, at last, after a long Tommy John layoff), Cleiverth Perez, and others — some undoubtedly from next week’s MLB Draft — emerge.

Biggest disappointment: Cristian Santana, shortstop, Lakeland: He yet owns the biggest bonus ($2.95 million) ever handed by the Tigers to an international teen. He was destined to dazzle in 2023. And he has been, well, a flop: .115 batting average in 48 games. He is only 19, so of course there is time. But this has been a tailspin of disturbing proportions for a right-handed hitter who was supposed to have been a breakthrough star in 2023.

Most questionable top-tier talent: Dillon Dingler, who needed 2023 to cement him as a soon-to-be everyday catcher in Detroit. Dingler still has major strikeout issues at Erie and is looking increasingly like, at best, a part-timer in the big leagues. Dingler’s salvation on offense is that he has power and, thanks to a decent walk percentage (almost 13%) an OPS of .823 at Erie. But he has to chop way down on the whiffs (38%).

Best of the back-lot hatchlings: Josue Briceno, the 6-4, left-handed hitting catcher/first baseman, only 18, who has been ripping it up in the Florida Complex League: 16 games, .379/.481/.636/1.117, with three home runs and six doubles. The Tigers paid Briceno big money by international standards — $800,000 — and just might have landed a trophy in Briceno. His size probably dictates a move, maybe soon, to first base. But, for now, the Tigers will keep him behind the plate. And hope they’ve finally scored on a Latin American trophy talent.

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

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