January 13, 2014 at 1:11 am

Lynn Henning

Tigers taking close look at minor league prospects for possible help next season

Outfielder Daniel Fields will open the season at Toledo but will almost certainly spend some part of the season with the Tigers. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Often missed in chatter about baseball teams and upcoming seasons is what the kids might bring. And, as is the case with kids, angels and devils can play alternate roles.

Corey Knebel is not a billboard name in Detroit. But at some point he could be part of the Tigers’ back-end bullpen cast. And, should a switch in assignments be the right remedy, Casey Crosby’s move from starting pitcher to relief might make him the left-handed asset his bosses thought they were signing in 2007.

Hernan Perez has had a smooth winter in Venezuela and likely will be the first infielder snatched from Triple A Toledo when aches and pains sideline one of the starters.

Daniel Fields will begin the season at Toledo but is almost certain to play in Detroit at some point. Ditto for James McCann as the Tigers inspect his work at Toledo and get a better handle on whether their top draft pick from 2011 ranks as a starting catcher or as an eventual big league backup.

And then there is Robbie Ray, who draws his share of groans from Tigers fans who weren’t crazy about Dave Dombrowski’s trade of Doug Fister to the Nationals. Ray has a chance later in the season to be that pitcher the Tigers shuttle from Toledo to Detroit when an injury or a missed start shakes up new manager Brad Ausmus’ rotation.

“These still are young guys, but they still have a chance,” said Al Avila, the Tigers assistant general manager who oversees Detroit’s minor league system. “Some of these players are really close to the big leagues right now.”

No pitcher, perhaps, is closer than Knebel, who was Detroit’s 2013 sandwich pick (39th overall, between the first and second rounds) after the University of Texas bullpen closer had turned his right arm and high-90-mph fastball into a pitcher the Tigers believed would shift quickly to Comerica Park.

Knebel is 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, and has a curveball to match his fastball. The upside was evident in 31 games at Single A West Michigan last summer when he had an 0.87 ERA, with tidy numbers for his 31 innings pitched: 14 hits, 41 strikeouts, 10 walks, good for a powerhouse WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) of 0.77.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but he is an advanced guy,” said Avila, who watched the Tigers grab Knebel just after they had made University of Florida right-hander Jonathon Crawford their first-round pick. “He’s been a closer, he does throw strikes, and his top two pitches are plus-plus pitches.

“His breaking ball is a knee-buckler. His fastball is about as good as it gets. And, again, he does throw strikes.”

Knebel will not be among the official cast of non-roster guests at spring camp when the Tigers convene next month in Lakeland, Fla. But he will be watched as the minor leaguers limber up and is almost sure to pitch in a Grapefruit League game or two. He likely will begin the season at Single A Lakeland ahead of a probable move to Double A Erie, after which Detroit is a phone call away — if he throws the pitches projected.

Crosby is the Tigers’ marquee gamble for 2014. He is 6-5, 225 pounds, with a fastball at 95-plus mph and a strike zone that doesn’t always follow code. Crosby walked 40 batters in 5723 innings at Triple A Toledo in 2013. He also struck out 61. And, as has often been the case since the Tigers signed him to a big bonus in 2007, he was hurt for much of last season (shoulder and knee problems) that weren’t as serious as the Tommy John surgery he endured in 2007.

Ironically, it was injuries that spurred Detroit’s front office to stick with him as a starter in 2013 even as thoughts mounted about Crosby’s skills and sore spots and how they might be better served in the bullpen. Simply, the Tigers needed Crosby to get in all the work possible after too many layoffs during too many years robbed him of development time.

As to how a power pitcher with control issues is supposed to throw more strikes as a reliever: The Tigers have a theory.

“One of the things different about moving from a starter to the bullpen is that, whether it’s your delivery, or control-and-command, you only have to maintain it for a very short period of time,” Avila said. “We’ve had him for awhile now, and coming into this spring training, it looks like he’s finally ready to go and 100 percent.

“He’s going to have to put it together. He’s at the crossroads where something has to happen. But we’ll work with his mechanics, his delivery, and hopefully in short stints. Because he’s a guy with very good stuff, he can get away with a little less command.”

The Tigers will be open to using Ray, their 21-year-old left-handed starter who was the premier piece in the Fister trade, as he polishes his pitches at Toledo, with another right-hander, Drew VerHagen, also a possibility two years after the Tigers made him a fourth-round pick from Vanderbilt.

Position-player migration is less predictable. Perez was viewed last year as a possible replacement for Omar Infante, a free agent now playing for the Royals. Perez was no fan favorite in 2013 in Detroit and found the strike zone and sliders away to be a bad fit for a rookie free-swinger.

The Tigers know Perez, 22, and suggest a stint at Toledo following his winter in Venezuela (.283 in 22 games with Caribes de Anzoategui, .246 in 14 games with Aguilas de Zulia) will make him a safer bet for the big leagues.

“Right now, he looks like a major league player,” Avila said. “If something (an injury) happens in our infield, he’d probably be our guy. But he can buy a little time at Toledo. It’s comforting for us to have him there.”

The Tigers will watch Perez no closer than their likely second baseman at Erie, Devon Travis, who could pass Perez, Eugenio Suarez, and any other Tigers infield prospect if he does at Erie what he did last year at West Michigan and Lakeland.

Travis was Tigers Minor League Player of the Year after batting .351, while cooking up a .418 on-base percentage and .518 slugging percentage, good for an OPS of .936, numbers that will send a 22-year-old second baseman steaming through the farm system in a hurry.

“Phenomenal year,” Avila said of the 5-9, right-handed hitter and 13th-round pick from Florida State. “The Bureau (Major League Scouting Bureau) reports on him are also very good. At the very least, he should be an everyday player in the big leagues.”

The Tigers might find help in a pinch at another position now seemingly safe: first base. Jordan Lennerton, perhaps the most overlooked player in the Tigers chain, had a flashy winter (.340 batting average; .953 OPS in 39 games) for Leones de Ponce, which was in stride with his steady year at Toledo (.278, .812 OPS, 17 home runs).

Lennerton is a 6-2, 220-pound, left-handed batter who turns 28 in February. The Tigers have no place for him in Detroit — not with Miguel Cabrera shifting to first base — but see Lennerton as an easy call-up if needs dictate.

Other farm-system graduates are all but sure to show at Comerica, beginning with left-handed hitting Fields, who, if his development progresses at Toledo as it did during 2013 at Erie, will move closer to everyday outfield work in Detroit.

McCann will also be punching the clock at Toledo for regular catching shifts that will help the Tigers decide on strategies past 2014.

These are prospects, of course, and your next Powerball ticket has only slightly worse odds than betting on a bush-leaguer. All that is certain is the Tigers, in keeping with regular needs and habits, will be raiding Toledo and Erie for 2014 roster help that, they insist, will be ready when the phone rings.


More Lynn Henning