Kevin Ziomek had a stellar season at Single A West Michigan where the left-handed starting pitcher held opposing hitters to a .184 batting average in August. (Courtesy of West Michigan Whitecaps)
As usual, that supposedly barren Tigers farm system — an annual overview from the critics — made possible a couple of whopping July trades as the 2014 minor league season unveiled its share of development stories.
But apart from the rise and trade relocations of Jake Thompson, Corey Knebel and Willy Adames, other prospects saw changes to their profiles. Among the best, the most surprising, and the more deflating performances throughout the Tigers’ farm galaxy from 2014 were these individuals and legacies:
Minor League Player of the Year (Position performer): Steven Moya, OF, Double A Erie. Credible voices within the Tigers command had been saying for several years that Moya was the guy to watch. Based on his 2014 breakthrough, and a few records that Moya demolished, they were right. A left-handed batter who is conservatively listed at 6-foot-6, 232 pounds, Moya hammered 35 home runs in 133 games and drove in 104 runs. He batted .276 and had an OPS of .861. He plays right field and has the range and glove to fill in at center. And, of course, he just turned 23, which is why the Tigers will allow him growing time in 2015 at Triple A Toledo. The Tigers know Moya will always be a high-strikeout hitter (161 through 133 games) but they liked the progress he made in 2014 laying off bad pitches. Similar growth in 2015 will make him Detroit’s next long-term right fielder.
Minor League Player of the Year (Pitcher): Kevin Ziomek, Single A West Michigan: He finished with a brilliant second half and a sizzling August (.184 opposing batting average) as a left-handed prodigy picked up steam on his fastball and sharpened his overall inventory. Ziomek was a second-round pick in 2013 (Vanderbilt), so much of what he did in 2014 was not news. It was the way in which he took off that made him a contender for work in Detroit as early as 2015. Honorable mention: Buck Farmer (West Michigan, Erie, Toledo), Austin Kubitza (West Michigan), Josh Turley (Lakeland, Erie).
Biggest Surprise (Position performer): Dixon Machado, SS, Erie: He batted .392 in August, and in 88 games for the SeaWolves hit .298 with an .818 OPS. Machado, 22, was once a farm-system shining star until his bat faded. But he got it back in 2014 and now is in the thick of the Tigers’ middle-infield parade. He is a deft fielder with probably the best range of any serious infield prospect. His arm is good and so, again, is his bat, which could make him one of the more interesting of all farm stories in 2015. Machado is 6-1, 170, bats right-handed and, of course, was signed out of Venezuela. Honorable mention: James McCann, whose steadiness as a hitter at Toledo put him in line to catch in Detroit in 2015.
Biggest Surprise (Pitcher): Angel Nesbitt, Lakeland, Erie: He was a few dozen prospects down the list of those who might have been expected to have a bust-out 2014. Nesbitt instead pitched brilliantly at Lakeland (24 games, 0.79 ERA) and had a nice follow-up at Erie (23 games, 1.12 WHIP, .182 opposing batting average. He is 23, a right-hander, and is on the hefty side: 6-1, .237. A decent bet to be in Detroit at some point in 2015. Honorable mention: Josh Turley (Lakeland, Erie).
Rookie of the Year (Pitcher): Johan Belisario, Single A Connecticut: Again, youth creates news for the simple fact fresh faces who dazzle always act as wake-up calls. Belisario’s work in 18 games at Connecticut was beyond brilliant: 32 innings, 17 hits, 33 strikeouts, six unintentional walks, two earned runs, good for an ERA of 0.56 and a WHIP of 0.78. He turned 21 in August, throws right-handed, and is 5-11, 165. The Tigers signed him out of their most fertile hatchery, Venezuela.
Rookie of the Year (Position performer): Domingo Leyba, 2B, West Michigan: Talk to various people (Baseball America, for example) and this wasn’t big news. Leyba, who next week turns 19, was considered a fairly terrific young talent when he arrived in the United States after leading the 2013 Dominican Summer League in hitting and slugging percentage. He was shipped a month ago to West Michigan and proceeded to bat .398 in 28 games with a .926 OPS. He is a switch-hitter, not as strong as Willy Adames, the star shortstop traded to the Rays in July’s deal for David Price, but scouts see in Leyba a steady hitter who obviously will get stronger as a 5-11, 160-pound teenager matures.
Biggest Disappointment (Position performer): Daniel Fields, OF: A prospect projected to be Detroit-bound by September of this year broke his hand in May and never got rolling. Fields is a center fielder and, naturally, must hit. He did too little of it in 2014, batting .218 in 73 games at Toledo, with a .608 OPS. He is still young enough (23) and athletic enough (6-2, 215, and a left-handed batter) to rebound in 2015.
Biggest Disappointment (Pitcher): Casey Crosby (Toledo, released): Tigers paid bonus money ($748,500) in 2007 to keep Crosby from a University of Illinois scholarship. Immediately had Tommy John surgery and in ensuing years too many injuries and too many issues finally pushed him from the Tigers’ picture. Big arm, big talent — but too many setbacks finally ended his days with Detroit.
Most Likely to Play in Detroit in 2015 (Position players): Moya, James McCann (catcher), Devon Travis (now a center fielder). Others with big league experience (Hernan Perez, Tyler Collins) also could return to Detroit.
Most Likely to Pitch in Detroit in 2015 (debuts): Nesbitt, Ziomek, Jonathon Crawford. Pitchers who made it to the Tigers clubhouse in 2014 who could factor in 2015: Robbie Ray, Buck Farmer, Kyle Ryan.
Significant Possibility in 2015: That the Tigers could have two, or even three, first-round draft picks. They are likely to net an extra pick when Max Scherzer, as is anticipated, signs elsewhere. They also could be in store for an extra early turn if Victor Martinez is made a qualifying offer and signs a multi-year deal in another town. Of course, should the Tigers sign any upper-tier free agents during the offseason — a reasonable bet — an early pick would be forfeited. But a more interesting 2015 draft is probably on the horizon.