Around the Tigers’ farm: Detroit happy with 2023 draftees and next steps on farm

Detroit News

That helpful minor-league hatchery known as the Florida Complex League shut down last week, which left Ryan Garko with some decisions about a bunch of Tigers kids.

Where was he going to put everyone? Especially the gang that was just drafted last month.

Before the minor leagues realigned two years ago, it was easy for the Tigers to send some of their youngsters — particularly college players just drafted — to the Single-A New York-Penn League for late-summer grooming.

Ah, but the New York-Penn is gone, along with other ‘tweener minor-league stops that were consolidated heading into 2021, reducing by 40-plus teams the options to place players.

Garko and the Tigers had to be careful last week in deciding who to promote to low-Single A Lakeland, which eventually became a cream-of-the-crop crowd headed by Max Clark, Kevin McGonigle, John Peck, Brett Callahan, Josue Briceno, Clayton Campbell, Cole Turney, and pitcher Jaden Hamm.

“The jump is massive,” Garko said Friday, explaining the difference between FCL and low-A competition. “That decision (in November, 2020) to change the structure of the minor league and eliminate that short-season option has forced us to make decisions about all those players between 18 and 21.

“Where do they go? But this draft class, they’ve all performed well, they’ve all earned this (Lakeland) promotion. And, mostly because of their at-bats, controlling the strike zone — their ability to have really good professional at-bats.

“It really is a big jump to low-A, especially for the high-school kids.”

None of the promotions was necessarily easy, including Clark and McGonigle, both of whom were prep hitters taken with the Tigers’ first two July picks.

The upgrades included:

▶ Campbell, 19, third baseman/catcher/first baseman, signed three years ago out of Auckland, New Zealand: Here has been one of the farm’s most fascinating 2023 stories. Campbell is 6-foot-1, 209 pounds, bats right-handed and in 35 games for the FCL Tigers batted .284/.414/.509/.923, with three home runs.

“A good find by our scouts and development people,” Garko said. “He’s gotten so much better. We’re going to have continued development with him at catcher, and at third base, with first base as an option.

“He’s a pretty good third baseman now, and catching is new. But he shows all the signs of being able to handle it. We’re not sure if he’ll catch during (Lakeland’s final month of games), but we’ll keep him here in Lakeland (instructional camp) and bring him in early next year to work with our catching instructors.

“He’s a big, strong, athletic, right-handed hitter who likes the weight room and who hits the ball really hard. He has power and strength and good moves. He fills all the descriptions. Coming from New Zealand, he didn’t see a lot of good pitching growing up, but he still has a really high ceiling.

“It’s going to take some time, but there’s real power, and it’s a strong arm he has, with a lot of athleticism. And we think there’s even more in there.”

▶ Briceno, 18, catcher/first baseman, signed in 2022 out of Maracay, Venezuela: It’s fashionable in baseball’s upper circles to say a guy 6-4 and 200, only 18 years old, is probably going to be too big to survive at catcher.

The Tigers don’t buy it — yet, anyway. Especially not when Briceno is a left-handed hitter who in 44 FCL games this summer batted .325/.404/.550/.954.

“He’s going to catch, and he’s showed us right now that he can,” Garko said. “He’s a good receiver, a good blocker, and another big, strong, physical athlete who’s still young and growing.

“How big he gets, no one knows. But it’s certainly something now where he shows us his aptitude for calling and receiving, so he’s going to catch. He’ll play first base when he’s not starting there, but he’s a catcher.”

▶ Clark (first-round draft pick, center fielder) and McGonigle (shortstop drafted between first and second rounds): Clark and McGonigle are left-handed batters who sparkled in their FCL tuneups: Clark hit .283 in 12 games with a .954 OPS and two home runs; McGonigle in nine games batted .273 and .800.

“Both did a nice job in the FCL,” Garko said. “The more at-bats we can get them, the better. Andrew Graham (Lakeland manager) and his staff are great teachers. So, every rep we can get those two guys, the better.

“We’ll let them soak it all in, get reps and play, and keep teaching them the game.”

▶ Callahan, 21, left-handed hitting outfielder, and 13th-round pick from St. Joseph’s University: “He crushed it in the FCL,” Garko said of a three-position outfielder who in 10 games for the FCL Tigers hit .389/.511/.528/1.089, with one homer. “He hits for power and he runs, and that’s the thing about this (2023) class: They’re all athletic, they all can run.”

▶ John Peck, 21, shortstop, seventh-round pick from Pepperdine University: “We drafted him because there are tools we really love,” Garko said of a right-handed batter who is 6-foot, 185. “Now we see why the scouts were so high on him. We’re gonna makes some changes with his swing, but John is a premium defender who can really play shortstop. We’re excited to have him.”

▶ Max Anderson, second base, third-round draft pick from the University of Nebraska: “Very, very professional at-bats,” Garko said of a 21-year-old, right-handed slasher who in 22 games for the Flying Tigers has batted .307/.347/.489/.836. “It’s pretty impressive how he’s able to work counts, let the ball travel, and swing hard, with real bat-speed.

“His defense has been good. There’s work to do, and education in the weight room, and with nutrition. There’s agility work to do that he’s all in on. But the hit tool is the hardest thing to find in baseball. And he’s a hitter. He’s a real hitter.”

Garko knows, also, that some who didn’t make the Lakeland roster failed to do so for one simple reason: There wasn’t sufficient room. Some who could have made the cut failed only because of capacity.

One such example: Carson Rucker, 19, a third baseman/shortstop, 6-2, 195, right-handed batter, and fourth-round grab in July from the Goodpasture Christian School in Madison, Tennessee. Rucker in nine FCL games batted .242/.390/.364/.754, with one homer.

He will remain in Lakeland for postseason autumn instruction seminars.

Garko said the Tigers had yet to determine who among their current farm cast will head west for October-November stints in the Arizona Fall League.

One strong possibility remains their 2021 first-round prize, right-handed pitcher Jackson Jobe, who began the season recovering from lower-back inflammation and who has pitched with expected promise, albeit only since June, at Lakeland and West Michigan.

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

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