Hand it to those minor-league managers, for whichever MLB team they toil.
It’s one tough job — all that shuffling of players from one level to the next, while having to watch pitch counts and innings limits and front-office wishes on where and when to deploy certain people.
The Tigers have had their best farm seasons, collectively, in years at the various minor-league levels, with playoffs ahead for Double-A Erie, and also low-Single A Lakeland, where Andrew Graham surely deserves some brand of tribute.
Graham steered the Flying Tigers to a second-half record of 44-22 despite having the ninth-worst pitching in the 10-team Florida State League. It didn’t help that Lakeland entered Sunday’s regular-season finale with a .238 team batting average.
Among noteworthy contributors — and challenges — have been various teens who recently migrated to Lakeland’s roster after the Florida Complex League earlier this month wrapped up its schedule.
In the fashion of such skippers across MLB’s bushes, Graham worked in people where he could, all the time joining with his coaching staff in an effort to groom, counsel, teach, and make their professional baseball introductory something other than trauma.
Among those who have packed into Lakeland’s dugout in recent days or weeks:
▶ Max Clark, center field, third-overall pick in July’s MLB Draft: Clark doesn’t turn 19 until December but has been tossed into the Single-A broiler and has looked the part of, well, a kid who four months ago was playing prep baseball in Indiana: .154 in 11 games for the Flying Tigers, with 12 walks and 15 strikeouts in 51 plate-appearances.;
“He’s OK,” Graham said during a weekend phone chat. “This is the first time he’s ever failed. For everyone in this game there’s a first time dealing with failure.
“I think he might have been beaten a little at the beginning with (higher) velocity. Now, he’s probably over-thinking a little. But this is all part of being young. What I like is, good game, or bad game, he’s still signing all the autographs. He’s still there picking up all the trash in the dugout.”
Clark had an easier time in the FCL: 12 games, .283/.411/.543/.954. Higher-gear pitching at Lakeland has been obvious, not only in his .154 batting average, but in those 12 walks and 15 strikeouts. It spurred Graham’s “over-thinking” take by a batter not yet reacting to pitches that next season he can be expected to rip.
Ryan Garko, who runs Tigers minor-league player development, said everything Clark has done during his FCL and Lakeland cameos has been boldface print for why Detroit took him third overall, even ahead of sluggers Wyatt Langford and Walker Jenkins.
“I think all the tools are still extremely impressive,” Garko said. “The thing he definitely can do is play center field and steal bases. He can run, and he has a strong arm — and he’s going to hit.
“All those other tools are the reason we got him, and when you do watch him play he can impact the game in so many ways. He’s not much different from Parker Meadows (Tigers center fielder and speedster who’s hitting developed later in his minor-league life) in the way he can impact a game in different ways. And that’s been the most impressive part.
“There aren’t that many guys in our system, or in any minor-league system, that young who are true middle-of-the-field players.”
And those strikeouts? That .154 batting average?
“For him, for the long term, it probably will help him,” Garko said. “I’m glad we got him out there and let him play this summer. He brought an advanced approach for a young player, and he’ll be so much more prepared for spring training having gone through this.”
▶ Kevin McGonigle, shortstop, 37th-overall pick in July’s MLB Draft: McGonigle is a left-handed batter with such sharp hitting skills at 19 that he has treated Lakeland as one more place to whack good pitches: .350 batting average in 12 games with a .438 on-base percentage, .475 slugging average, .913 OPS. He has struck out five times in 48 trips to the plate.
“Obviously, a certain amount of the game for him is natural the way he’s swinging, with his baserunning and with great instincts,” Graham said. “He asks the proper questions. He’s like a sponge the way he soaks up everything.”
How long he sticks at shortstop is an open question. It’s more likely that McGonigle’s arm will play better at second base. But for now, he works at shortstop and, in Graham’s words, “holds his own” as a skipper fights to get other draft newcomers (Jim Jarvis and John Peck) turns at short while giving Max Anderson (second-round pick in July) steady work at second.
“He’s still learning game-speed,” Graham said of McGonigle and his throwing arm. “It’s not like a powerful arm making ESPN highlight-plays, but it plays from a six-hole (shortstop).”
▶ John Peck, shortstop, seventh-round pick in July, right-handed batter (.280/.379/.320/.699, eight games): “I haven’t seen the power there, but he’s a tough at-bat,” Graham said of a Pepperdine University star Tigers scouts raved about, with Graham now in their camp. “He’s played only a few games, but already he’s made three or four highlight plays that saved the game for us.”
▶ Josue Briceno, first base/catcher, 18 years old, left-handed batter, hitting .293/.396/.439/.835 in 11 games after a hot FCL stint: “His bat is solid,” Garko said. “When he hits it — it’s a base hit. He keeps that bat on plane throughout the strike zone. He’s a tough out.”
Briceno is big as catchers go (6-4, 200), which, as baseball tenets suggest, is too big for a catcher. Graham says that’s a decision for others. But he’s on board.
“He just needs to shorten up his throwing arm and get a faster switch,” Graham said. “But he receives well and blocks well and calls a decent game for an 18-year-old.
“We’ll shorten up his motion and time throwing to second base. That’s his only downfall. He’s still developing. If he hits, you find a position for him. But I wouldn’t give up on the catching tool.”
▶ Jaden Hamm right-handed starter, 21, 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, fifth-round pick in July (Middle Tennessee State): Hamm has tossed five games total in the FCL and at Lakeland and has been, well, a bit advanced for his class: 12 innings, three hits, 12 strikeouts, one walk.
“Every time I see him throw, you see he was a really good pick from this draft,” Graham said of a pitcher whose fastball has been cruising 92-95. “And I believe next year, he’ll be 98, 97, 96 as he gets stronger and more in shape.
“He’s very deceptive, a ‘ride’ guy, very vertical with that fastball, which gets a lot of swing and miss. Then you mix in his slider and change-up. He holds runners well. Great body language.
“I can’t say anything bad about him. Great draft pick. Nothing overpowering about him, physically. He does everything well.”
Zabala’s zesty final month
When they signed him last winter, the Tigers knew they were getting in Aneurys Zabala every hard-throwing, right-handed reliever who ever had a fundamental problem of betrayal:
The strike zone.
But that 100-mph fastball was too severe of a weapon, especially when Zabala was only 26.
He has been something of a turnaround story the past two months at Triple-A Toledo, with 15 innings in 13 games showing 30 strikeouts against seven walks.
“I think Doug Bochtler and Ollie Kadey (pitching coaches) deserve a lot of credit for Big Z, as they call him,” Garko said. “I think it’s the hardest fastball in the organization, and if you look at his month-over-month stats, he’s been striking out more batters and walking fewer.
“I think the fastball they (hitters) obviously have to respect, then he uses a slider to miss. He’s a big, strong man (6-3, 259 pounds) and he’s an uncomfortable at-bat.
“Our pitching staff did a really nice job. We sign them (free-agent pitchers such as Zabala) with a plan to get them better. We’re trying to find good arms all over the place.”
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.