May 19, 2014 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Tigers farm system proving to not be bad, for starters

Chad Green, who is pitching at Single A West Michigan, was an 11th round pick from Louisville last year. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Pitching is tough to project, tough to develop, tough for any big-league team to secure in meaningful numbers.

The Tigers, though, try and counter conventional thought by hording as many arms as they can grab by way of the draft, free agency, minor-league free agency — just about any means this side of ordering pitchers from Amazon.com.

It has positioned the Tigers in 2014 with what steadily is becoming one of the best rotations in modern baseball history.

And yet reality is months from setting in: Max Scherzer almost certainly is headed to this autumn’s free-agent auction. Rick Porcello is 18 months from free agency. And who knows if another Tigers mainstay might be the latest big-name starter to join a spate of Tommy John surgery appointments during this 2014 ligament-replacement epidemic?

It is why the minors are annually stocked with, fundamentally, arms. It is why the Tigers’ farm system’s obvious strength is pitching. It is why, also, some pitchers who probably should be working at a higher level in the bushes are stacked, like airliners awaiting takeoff, awaiting their cue from the tower, or, in this case, the Tigers front office.

Buck Farmer is a 23-year-old right-handed starter who last year was the Tigers’ fifth-round pick after a nice career at Georgia Tech. He is pitching at West Michigan, a training-wheels Single A outpost, as is last year’s first-round pick, Jonathon Crawford (Florida). Also stationed at West Michigan are four more early draft picks from last year’s college crop: Austin Kubitza (Rice, fourth round), Chad Green (Louisville, 11th round), Kevin Ziomek (Vanderbilt, second round), and Jeff Thompson (Louisville, third round) all part of a six-man rotation designed to keep innings ceilings in line for men who, while in their early 20s, still need to acclimate their arms to full seasons of professional baseball.

Kubitza (5-0, 1.98 ERA), Crawford (1-1, 2.60), Farmer (5-3, 2.76), and Green (3.54 ERA, with a fine WHIP of 1.20), at the very least, should probably be wheeling and dealing at Single A Lakeland.

Except there is yet another jammed runway at Lakeland: Jake Thompson, Edgar De La Rosa, and Endrys Briceno, among others, are developing along appropriate timelines against appropriate competition.

There is no need in the Tigers’ opinion to rush pitchers who are steadily expected to replace the Scherzers and Porcellos (should extensions not materialize) and the inevitable injured starter who loses all or portion of an upcoming season.

It is not only starting pitching that is pushing the Tigers to promote. Relievers are moving north, as well, as happened this month when Corey Knebel and Chad Smith, either of whom could be in Detroit very soon, were transported to Triple A Toledo, while another of their prime-time prospects, right-hander Guido Knudson, was dispatched to Double A Erie.

Along with the college rotation crew at West Michigan, left-handed reliever Joe Mantiply (Virginia Tech, 27th round in 2013) is throwing so well (1.57 ERA in 14 games with a .172 opposing batting average) he, too, could easily be moved to Lakeland were it not for some developmental and tactical factors.

The first is that pitch-count and innings-limit consideration. It can easily be enforced at low Single A and is viewed by the Tigers as having no downside. Competition may be younger (a fair share of 19- and 20-year-olds play at low A) but it’s sufficient to offer a guy who was pitching college ball a year ago an adequate challenge.

Another reason pitchers as advanced as the above crew can take their time at West Michigan has to do with psychological, and even business, factors.

It is important, farm stewards have come to realize, for players to experience winning. It programs their psyches for a season-long mental mission that will intensify exponentially when, and if, they reach the big leagues.

Then, too, there is the farm club to consider. Imagine you are in business, or even a fan, at West Michigan. Your clubhouse burned down during a January blaze. You are just now restoring a great minor-league operation’s ballpark to its old self.

So, just as fans are returning, just as they get excited to have Kubitza or Crawford on the mound on an evening they decided to bring families or join friends, two players critical to a team’s identity are yanked and delivered to Lakeland.

The reality, of course, is that a few of the above names will in fact be moving to Lakeland. But the promotions probably will be dispensed closer to mid-season when a job transfer figures to benefit all parties.

It’s fascinating, how fast some pitchers arrive. Knebel was taken just behind Crawford in last June’s draft and has been all but cleared for landing at Comerica Park. It’s the same story with Smith, and it could eventually be the case for a left-handed reliever few know about, Pat McCoy, 25, whom the Tigers signed as a minor-league free agent last November after he grew weary of his time in the Nationals farm world.

McCoy’s numbers at Toledo since being bumped up from Erie: three games, 0.00 ERA, 613 innings, four hits, six strikeouts, three walks.

It doesn’t mean anything, of course, when big-league life is a far more punitive culture. But it speaks to the various people, arms, and talent levels, spread across a galaxy known as the farm system, that invariably become stories on Detroit’s roster and in the trades front-office chief Dave Dombrowski is sure to make at some point in 2014.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
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