February 28, 2014 at 2:52 pm

Lynn Henning's top 50 Tigers prospects

They are minor leaguers, of course. And even more daunting for their big-league dreams, they are prospects, with only a small percentage ever cracking a big-league box score.

But some young players possess degrees of talent high enough for front offices to at least plan on them some day landing a roster spot. In that respect, the Tigers are no different from 29 other big-league clubs.

They draft. They sign. They develop. They hope many from their farm crop will someday help. They know far fewer will become stars. Among the top 50 Tigers prospects for 2014 are these men whose futures are less certain than the fundamental talent that made them professional baseball prospects:

1. Jonathon Crawford, 22, RH starter, 6-2, 205: In a 2013 draft extraordinarily light on talent, Crawford at least offered the Tigers first-round talent that should push him into a big-league rotation as early as next season. In eight games at Single A Connecticut in 2013, Crawford had a 1.89 earned-run average and a .205 opponent batting average. He has a fastball that can cruise in the mid-90s, as well as a plus slider. The Tigers likely got a conventional, heavy-innings starting pitcher in this University of Florida star.

2. Corey Knebel, 22, RH reliever: 6-3, 195: Knebel could beat Crawford to Detroit, all because last June's 39th overall pick showed such polish during his 2013 baptism. Knebel has a high-octane fastball and a fine curve that could move him to Comerica Park as early as mid-season. The former University of Texas closer had an 0.87 ERA in 31 games at Single A West Michigan, with an 0.77 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning). His 31-inning numbers: 14 hits, 41 strikeouts, 10 walks.

3. Robbie Ray, 22, LH starter, 6-2, 170: Fans are still steamed Dave Dombrowski traded Doug Fister in a bid to lure Ray and reliever Ian Krol from the Nationals in November's big trade. But they might warm up to a pitcher who in 2013 pitched at two Nationals' minor-league outposts, with these combined 36-game digits: 3.36 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. Ray's secondary numbers: 116 hits in 142 innings, 160 strikeouts, 62 walks. The Tigers believe they got a pitcher who will be closer to a top-of-the-rotation performer. He could pitch in Detroit this season.

4. Hernan Perez, 22, IF, 6-1, 185: The Tigers are higher on Perez than some of their customers, who weren't wild about Perez's cameo in 2013. His bosses aren't worried. They see a fine-fielding, athletic right-handed batter whose hitting and strike-zone judgment should steadily improve. Perez will be the first player summoned if either of the team's regular middle infielders needs a few days on the DL.

5. Drew VerHagen, 23, RH starter, 6-6, 230: He might not torch batters in the fashion of the Tigers' traditional hard-throwing rotation stars, but VerHagen can pitch. A fourth-round pick from Vanderbilt in 2012, it's worth checking out his 2013 numbers spread across stints at Single A Lakeland and Double A Erie: 2.90 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 102 hits in 127-1/3 innings, with 75 strikeouts and 44 walks. That translates into a fourth or fifth starter who by next season should craft respectable innings in the big leagues.

6. James McCann, 23, C, 6-2, 210: At the very least the Tigers believe they have in McCann a quality backup catcher who should have a long big-league life. If their top draft pick from 2011 (University of Arkansas) progresses with his bat, as he did at Erie in 2013, he could become a starter. McCann's storyline last season at Double A: .277 batting average, .328 on-base percentage, .404 slugging percentage, with eight home runs, 30 doubles, and 85 strikeouts in 119 games.

7. Devon Travis, 23 (Feb. 21), 2B, 5-9, 183: That'll teach scouts to dismiss a college hitter mostly because of his size. The Tigers nabbed Travis in the 13th round of the 2012 draft following his unveiling at Florida State. He has since hit, and hit, and hit: a combined .351 last season at West Michigan and Lakeland, good for 16 home runs, 28 doubles, and 64 strikeouts. He also had 22 stolen bases while racking up a .401 on-base percentage and .561 slugging percentage, good for an OPS of .962. If he follows suit this season at Erie, the Tigers have a potential steal in Travis.

8. Javier Betancourt, 18, IF, 5-10, 173: In the same way the Tigers knew in the 1970s they had exceptional young talent in guys named Trammell and Whitaker, Betancourt has a chance to be an All-Star player. Another product of the Tigers' rich development efforts in Venezuela, Betancourt last season batted .333, with an .819 OPS for the Gulf Coast League rookie team. A right-handed batter, he will play at West Michigan in 2014. And he will be watched. Closely.

9. Joe Jimenez, 19, RH reliever, 6-3, 220: Thanks to big bonus demands that scared away most teams, the Tigers might have made their biggest signing heist this side of Venezuela when they chased Jimenez following last June's draft. Jimenez is a Puerto Rican fire-thrower who in 18 innings at the GCL, all in relief, exploded: 0.50 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 18 innings, nine hits, 24 strikeouts, six walks. Yes, he is young. Yes, he is inordinately talented. If he stays healthy, Jimenez will spend most of his minor-league career in the passing lane.

10. Daniel Fields, 23, OF, 6-2, 215: The Tigers paid Fields a $1.6 million bonus in 2009 and insisted it was cash well-spent. No one's asked for their money back. Fields is a sixth-round pick from University of Detroit Jesuit High who last season was healthy and had a season to match at Erie: .284, .356 on-base percentage, .435 slugging percentage. Fields, a left-handed batter, had 10 home runs and 27 doubles. He strikes out a bit too much (130 in 118 games), but the Tigers like his chances of becoming a regular outfielder in Detroit.

11. Jake Thompson, 20, RH starter, 6-4, 235: Top pick from 2012 reminds some of a faster-working Brad Penny. Had a 3.13 ERA in 17 games at West Michigan in 2013. Totals: 83-1/3 innings, 79 hits, 91 strikeouts, 32 walks.

12. Eugenio Suarez, 22, IF, 5-11, 180: Had a setback during the offseason when he broke a hamate bone in his wrist but should have a solid 2014. Right-handed batter who can play multiple positions. Well-regarded talent who in 111 games at Erie in 2013 batted .253, with a .332 on-base percentage and .387 slugging percentage, good for a .719 OPS.

13. Melvin Mercedes, 23, RH reliever, 6-3, 250: Looks like Bruce Rondon's twin brother physically. Doesn't quite match Rondon, but in 50 games last season at Lakeland-Erie, Mercedes had a 1.19 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. His numbers for 53 innings: 46 hits, 36 strikeouts, 13 walks.

14. Casey Crosby, 25, LH reliever, 6-5, 225: No one disputes his arm or his repertoire, each of which is top-drawer. It's his control. Tigers insist moving him to relief will be a remedy. Pivotal season ahead for a powerful pitcher who, if he clicks, would be an enormous boost to Detroit's bullpen.

15. Steven Fuentes, 19, IF, 5-11, 180: Scouts like Fuentes a lot. Switch-hitter who probably will settle in at third base. His 46-game numbers last season in the GCL (rookie league): .272, .353, .404, worth an OPS of .757.

16. Tyler Collins, 23, OF, 5-11, 215: Sixth-round pick from 2011 was like the past year's weather: very hot or very cold. Good left-handed power, but must show some steadiness in 2014 at Triple A. Collins' numbers last year at Erie: .240, .323,.438, .760 OPS.

17. Endrys Briceno, 22, RH starter, 6-5, 171: Must subdue the strike zone but has a splendid arm. Is expected to snap back after a rugged 2012 at West Michigan: 4.47 ERA in 25 starts, 116-2/3 innings, with 65 strikeouts and 51 walks.

18. Calvin Drummond, 24, RH reliever, 6-3, 200: Sixth-round pick in 2013 (Arizona Christian University) with a chance to move rapidly. At two lower-level stops in 2013, Drummond had a 2.23 ERA in 23 games. Totals: 40-1/3 innings, 23 hits, 47 strikeouts, 16 walks, 0.97 WHIP.

19. Steven Moya, 22, OF, 6-6, 230: He has been hurt almost as much as he has been healthy. Still, the Tigers regard Moya as a prospect who could, with a full season, become a middle-of-the-order threat who cashes in on some immense potential.

20. Wilsen Palacios, 24, RH starter, 6-3, 180: Not many see Palacios as a top-20 talent, but this Venezuelan owns one of the better arms in the Tigers' system. 2013 numbers at Single A Lakeland: 3.07 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 134-2/3 innings, 121 hits, 109 strikeouts, 44 walks.

21. Harold Castro, 20, IF, 6-foot, 145: Didn't make the progress anticipated in 2013, but at age 20, Tigers can take time with this left-handed batter. Started poorly at Lakeland, and wasn't a lot better at West Michigan. But Tigers still like his upside.

22. Kyle Lobstein, 24, LH starter, 6-3, 200: Tigers grabbed him in the 2012 Rule 5 draft, then traded a nice catching prospect, Curt Casali, for Lobstein, who was a second-round Rays pick in 2008. Could pitch in Detroit in 2014 if need arises. Last season at Erie/Toledo: 13-7 record, 3.27 ERA, 1.29 WHIP. Worked 167-2/3 innings: 165 hits, 148 strikeouts, 52 walks.

23. Jordan Lennerton, 28, 1B, 6-2, 217: Tigers believe Lennerton could play if needed in Detroit and hit respectably. Has a very good glove. Last season at Toledo: .278 in 139 games, .382 on-base percentage, .430 slugging percentage, .812 OPS.

24. Kyle Ryan, 22, LH starter, 6-5, 180: Ryan had a sterling 1.19 WHIP in 24 starts last season at Lakeland. Could seep into the picture with a similar season at Erie. Was a 12th-round pick in 2010 (Auburndale [Fla.]). Had a 3.17 ERA in 2013. Pitched 142 innings: 132 hits, 90 strikeouts, 37 walks.

25. Kevin Ziomek, 21, LH starter, 6-3, 190: Was the Tigers' second-round pick in 2013 (Vanderbilt) and, because of earlier workloads, made only four starts at Single A Connecticut. Tigers like his chances to advance quickly

26. Willy Adames, 18, SS, 6-1, 180: Last name is pronounced Ah-DOM-us. Despite having turned 18 in September, this right-handed hitter is regarded as one of the best of the Tigers' baby talents. Good size and will get much stronger. Excellent skill set.

27. Anthony Castro, 18, RH starter, 6-foot, 174: Another of the kids from Venezuela, and has serious potential. Last season in the Venezuelan Summer League: 13 games, 55 innings, 45 hits, 55 strikeouts, 17 walks.

28. Francisco Martinez, 23, 3B, 6-2, 210: Tigers retrieved him after a bad experience in the Mariners system. Looked at Lakeland a lot like the quality prospect he once had been with the Tigers: 74 games, .295/.347/.378/726 OPS. Also stole 11 bases.

29. Will Clinard, 24, RH reliever, 6-4, 225: 19th-round pick in 2012 (Vanderbilt). One of those pitchers who could be called up suddenly if his 2014 progresses. In two stops and 37 games in 2013 (Lakeland and Erie), Clinard had a combined: 3.73 ERA. Worked 62-2/3 innings, with 58 hits, 49 strikeouts, 25 walks.

30. Franklin Navarro, 19, C, 5-10, 181: Talented teen who, once McCann has advanced, could become the system's top catching prospect. Another Venezuelan, Navarro last season in the GCL had a .698 OPS. Not a big number, but scouts saw what mattered: talent and upside.

31. Zac Reininger, 21, RH reliever, 6-3, 170: He was Detroit's eighth-round pick in 2013 (Hill College) and in 22 games at Single A Connecticut rolled up these digits: 1.00 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, with 17 hits allowed in 27 innings, 32 strikeouts, six walks. Another pitcher who could rise quickly.

32. Jose Ortega, 25, RH reliever, 5-11, 187: Probably a make-or-break-year for Ortega. Never has been much debate about his power. But needs to dial in the strike zone. Last season for the Tigers: 11-2/3 innings, 10 hits, 10 strikeouts, six walks.

33. Domingo Leyba, 18, IF, 5-11, 160: Switch-hitter who has impressed plenty inside and outside the Tigers organization. Last season's numbers (Dominican Summer League): 57 games, .348 batting average, .446 on-base percentage, .577 slugging, 1.023 OPS.

34. Angel Nesbitt, 23, RH reliever, 6-1, 237: Had a 3.22 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 52 games at West Michigan. Spanning 67 innings, Nesbitt was responsible for 60 hits, 54 strikeouts, and 21 walks.

35. Ryan Robowski, 26, LH reliever, 6-foot, 185: Tigers got him in their 2011 trade that sent Armando Galarraga to the Diamondbacks. Pitched well at Erie in 2013: 2.88 ERA in 34 games, with a 1.20 WHIP.

36. Jordan John, 23, LH starter, 6-3, 200: Sixth-round pick in 2012 (University of Oklahoma) was effective at West Michigan in 2013: 2.92 ERA, 1.25 WHIP.

37. Thomas Collier, 24, RH starter: 6-2, 205: Pitched for two Tigers farm teams in 2012 (Lakeland and Erie), with a 4.43 ERA and 1.46 WHIP in 14 starts.

38. Kasey Coffman, 22, OF, 6-3, 201: Left-handed batter who was Detroit's 10th-round pick in 2013 (Arizona State). Didn't have big numbers at Single A Connecticut, but in 64 games batted .256 with a .332 on-base percentage.

39. Elys Escobar, 17, C, 6-2, 190: Tigers signed this Venezuelan teen to a $350,000 deal last summer and are betting his size and all-around gifts could deliver a potential big-leaguer, and a good one.

40. Buck Farmer, 22, RH starter, 6-3, 220: Tigers see him as a decent bet to make it, which explains his fifth-round selection (Georgia Tech) in the 2013 draft. Had a 3.09 ERA in 12 games at Single A Connecticut, with a 1.22 WHIP.

41. Aaron Westlake, 24, 1B, 6-4, 235: A third-round pick in 2011, Westlake has been hurt and could benefit from a full and healthy season at Erie in 2014. Also from numbers that might surpass his 2013 output at Lakeland: .291 batting average, .344 on-base percentage, .447 slugging, .791 OPS. He had seven home runs and 29 doubles.

42. Austin Schotts, 20, OF, 5-11, 180: Still so young that a tough year at West Michigan and Connecticut didn't discourage anyone. Schotts was the Tigers' third-round pick in 2012 out of Centennial High in Frisco, Texas.

43. Jade Todd, 23, LH reliever, 6-2, 190: Hasn't had health on his side, which has been the biggest problem for a seventh-round draft pick (2008). Has a six-season farm career of 3.39 ERA and 1.23 WHIP.

44. Josh Turley, 23, LH reliever, 6-foot, 185: Strong season at West Michigan (2.09 ERA, 1.04 WHIP) for a 16th-round pick (2012, Baylor). In 77-2/3 innings, struck out 79 and walked 17.

45. Will Startup, 29, LH reliever, 6-foot, 195: On the seasoned side, Startup, who was once a fifth-round pick by the Braves, had nice numbers at Erie: 3.41 ERA in 33 games, 1.15 WHIP.

46. Dean Green, 24, 1B/DH, 6-4, 255: Big, left-handed basher who has been regularly hurt and has played in only 65 games the past three seasons. A hitter more than a defender, Green has a .312 career average in the minors, with an .866 OPS.

47. Connor Harrell, 22, OF, 6-3, 217: Seventh-round pick in 2013 from the Tigers' favorite college, Vanderbilt. Right-handed batter and a center fielder. Had a .693 OPS in 65 games at West Michigan.

48. Jeff Thompson, 22, RH reliever/starter, 6-6, 245: Tigers liked him enough to make him a third-round pick last June (University of Louisville). Acceptable debut at West Michigan: 3.80 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 45 innings, 41 hits, 42 strikeouts, 19 walks.

49. Chad Green, 22, RH reliever, 6-3, 210: Another of the Tigers' 2013 draft picks from the University of Louisville (11th round), Green had a neat debut at Lakeland: 3-0 record, 3.63 ERA, 1.27 WHIP in 10 games.

50. Chase Edwards, 20, RH starter, 6-1, 180: Tigers grabbed him later (24th round) in their 2013 draft, then watched Edwards put together nifty numbers at Connecticut and West Michigan, combined: 2.96 ERA in 11 games, with a .204 opposing batting average.

Robbie Ray, acquired in the Doug Fister trade, checks in at No. 3 on the top prospects list. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
The Tigers are betting that moving pitcher Casey Crosby to relief will ... (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)