Detroit Tigers prospects are viewed, nationally, as resting somewhere in the bottom one-third of big-league teams when it comes to projecting players who someday will work on baseball’s grand stage.
It doesn’t mean the Tigers farm is as barren as a salt flat in Utah.
It’s anything but barren. And because an inevitable number of Tigers farmhands will someday play at Comerica Park, or at another big-league outpost, it’s proper to identify those Most Likely to Succeed, as well as many more who might find the minors is as far as they’ll rise in professional baseball.
The Detroit News Top 50 Prospects is an annual rundown of players whose talents and dossiers vary from potential All-Star to likely career farmhand.
The group consists of players who have been working their way up the minor-league chain or, in some cases, have had short stints with the Tigers but remain more minor-league than big-league as far as their 2017 status. Such a dividing line explains why shortstop Dixon Machado remains classified as a Tigers prospect, while outfielder Steven Moya, who is out of minor-league options and in danger of landing with another organization, does not.
The lines dividing prospects varies, in some cases, so little that a player ranked in the Top 10 could in a few months be swapping places with a prospect today listed no higher than the Top 40. It’s the nature of minor league baseball. Stocks rise and fall each year, sometimes dramatically.
It’s also all but inevitable that a few names from a Best of the Rest grouping could find their way far up the ladder by season’s end.
With the above realities and qualifications explained, The Detroit News presents its 2017 list of Top 50 Tigers Prospects.
1. MATT MANNING, 19, RH starter, 19, 6-6, 190: Manning is an athlete — a big man who could have played college basketball in the fashion of his father, Rich, who worked two seasons in the NBA. Pedigree doesn’t matter here as much as an important, related fact. Manning has played other sports along the way. He is a pitcher with fewer miles on his odometer than often is the case for teenage standouts. Toss in his big fastball and helpful package of secondary pitches and the Tigers were confident last June they had added (signing price: $3.5 million) a potential ace right-hander to a farm system begging for bright lights. Manning is progressing nicely: fastball in the mid-90s, curveball, baby change-up that steadily should grow. He struck out 46 batters in 29⅔ innings during last summer’s debut in the Gulf Coast League. Expect a few more signs in 2017 for why the Tigers made him last year’s ninth overall pick.
2. JOE JIMENEZ, 22, RH reliever, 6-3, 220: Jimenez sits in Comerica Park’s green room, awaiting his first public appearance as a Tigers pitcher, which almost certainly is set for this season. Perhaps as early as Opening Day. Jimenez has all the component parts. And he is no mystery, particularly to opposing batters who knew him at three minor-league levels in 2016: Single A Lakeland, Double A Erie, and Triple A Toledo. He was promoted every other week, it seemed, all because he rolled up these combined numbers: 55 games, 1.51 ERA, 0.30 WHIP, with some dizzying secondary stats to show for his 53⅔ innings of relief work: 26 hits, 78 strikeouts, 16 unintentional walks. He still needs work on his slider if Jimenez is to stick in Detroit. But if it shows advancement during spring camp, expect him soon, very soon, to make that Comerica debut.
3. CHRISTIN STEWART, 23, outfielder, 6-0, 205: The Tigers admitted it from the start: left-handed power is tough to come by. And so, during the 2015 draft, when they had an extra first-round pick thanks to the Nationals having pilfered Max Scherzer in free agency, they went for a University of Tennessee outfielder whose left-handed crunch made him simply too enticing. Stewart followed last season with a 30-home run show that spanned Single A Lakeland, where home runs are absolutely earned in the Florida State’s super-sized ballparks, and Double A Erie after Stewart got a summer promotion. His trademark, apart from his knack for hitting pitches into the seats, is a batting eye that last season saw him draw 86 walks, which explains much of that radiant .386 on-base percentage. Add in the homers and you get a gaudy .903 OPS. Stewart strikes out plenty (131 times in 128 games) and he’s below average on defense. But don’t be surprised if he makes a Comerica Park cameo in 2017.
4. BEAU BURROWS, 20, RH starter, 6-2, 200: A midseason finger blister chopped down on his innings and particularly sliced into his velocity. And that explains a strikeout rate that slipped from 8.6 per nine innings in April to 3.1 in July before it rebounded (6.4) in August. The important part in Detroit’s view is that Burrows made it through a first full season of professional baseball, which is always tough on teenagers. The Tigers had made him their first-round honoree in 2015 following a handsome prep career outside of Dallas. Burrows will move to Single A Lakeland in 2017 and needs to simply add endurance and savvy to a repertoire that should make him a solid No. 2, maybe No. 3, big-league rotation staple. He finished his boot-camp year at West Michigan with a 3.15 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and .240 opposing batting average in 21 games (20 starts) that spanned 97 innings. Burrows allowed 87 hits and walked 30.
5. JACOBY JONES, 24, outfielder, 6-2, 205: Center field at Comerica Park is one of the largest land masses in all of sports. It is best defended by a center fielder who can run — and run some more. Preferably with supreme speed. If he can swing a bat that drills the balls up alleys and over fences in that same expanse, all the better. The Tigers believe they have at least a raw version of the above in Jones, who was targeted very specifically by former Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski when the Tigers shipped Joakim Soria to the Pirates in July 2015. Jones was then a center field / third base hybrid. But the Tigers saw last season how much landscape he could patrol and made him their favorite for regular duty in center in 2017 — if he can put some final gloss on his skills, probably after some additional time at Triple A Toledo. Jones has a fast bat and ample power. He needs to judge pitches with more aplomb and chop down on strikeouts (120 in 99 games in 2015). But the Tigers might have a happy option here as the year unfurls.
6. DIXON MACHADO, 24, infielder, 6-1, 170: This is a man the Tigers don’t care to lose. And probably will. He is out of minor-league options, meaning the Tigers can’t return him to the farm in March or April without first watching him walk the waivers wire, which almost certainly would result in Machado being plucked by another club. The problem, as much as it exists, is the Tigers have no room for a longtime prospect who could play shortstop, or second base, if either Jose Iglesias or Ian Kinsler were to be traded. But with no immediate moves in the wind, Machado will stick with the Tigers. He is a fine defender at short with a bat that could conceivably match or exceed that of Iglesias. But he needs to play every day and not languish as a bench sub. So, expect that this well-regarded Tigers prospect will be changing addresses soon, unless a spring-training deal is made.
7. MIKE GERBER, 24, outfielder, 6-0, 190: Once in a while, a team hits on one of those draft-day surprises. The Tigers haven’t had a surplus of stories here. But they might have found a dandy in Gerber, who was a 15th-round grab from Creighton in 2014. He has done little but hit since the day he slipped into a Tigers uniform. He played so well at Single A Lakeland last season he got a summer ticket to Double A Erie. He didn’t fare quite as well against advanced pitching, but he did well enough, finishing the season with a .276 batting average, a nifty .345 on-base percentage, and an .811 OPS, thanks in part to 18 home runs, 14 of which he slammed in the Florida State League. Gerber is a left-handed batter and figures to get a gander at Comerica Park maybe later in 2017. He could be a regular. He could be a fourth outfielder. Much depends on what happens this season. If the Tigers have learned anything in three years, it’s to prepare for a surprise.
8. KYLE FUNKHOUSER, 23, RH starter, 6-2, 220: It was unusual strategy, for sure, from a star college pitcher. Funkhouser had been a first-round draft pick by the Dodgers in 2015. But he didn’t sign. He instead opted for his senior year at the University of Louisville. He thought he’d benefit. Maybe be an earlier pick in the 2016 draft (he was picked No. 35 overall by L.A.) and sign for much bigger money. He’d also have his college degree (he does, in marketing). And that’s how he ended up signing with the Tigers in June after he fell to them in the fourth round, following a so-so senior year for the Cardinals. Funkhouser isn’t sorry. Nor are the Tigers, who believe they’ll have, in time, a right-hand option out of the bullpen, or in their rotation. In his first taste of professional baseball last summer at Single A Connecticut, Funkhouser put together 13 starts spanning 37⅓ innings, with a 2.64 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 34 hits, 34 strikeouts, and eight walks. The Tigers will allow him time to prove to himself, and to them, that he retains that old first-round skill.
9. MARK ECKER, 21, RH reliever, 6-0, 180: Here is a pitcher styled for big-league baseball’s fast track. Ecker was a sterling closer for Texas A&M ahead of the Tigers snatching him in the fifth round of last June’s draft. He has a typical mid-90s fastball, a slider, and a change-up — a three-pitch combination that could yet make him a starter. But it’s more likely the Tigers will ticket him for their bullpen’s back end. He started smartly last summer at Single A Connecticut, rolling up numbers that weren’t unanticipated: 20 games, 27⅔ innings, 16 hits, 31 strikeouts, five walks. He is the brand of reliever who could climb a couple of notches this year. Conceivably, he could reach Detroit. But the Tigers will ease off the throttle, measure what they have, and simply hope this man and his arm can be, in time, of help in a bullpen that always needs it.
10. BRYAN GARCIA, 21, RH reliever, 6-1, 203: You prefer to place Garcia ahead of Ecker in the Tigers’ early farm-crop reliever seeding? Go ahead. Garcia gave the Tigers every reason last summer to think he might be the quicker fix, even if Garcia was taken one round (sixth) after Detroit had drafted Ecker. Garcia’s days at the University of Miami, something of a big-league farm team unto itself, were special as he wiped out batter after batter, courtesy of a four-seam fastball that could hit 96, as well as a sinker that wasn’t at all fun if you happened to be standing at home plate. He also carries a slider and the customary “work in progress” change-up. His debut at Single A Connecticut, followed by a cameo at West Michigan, was statistically pleasing: 18⅔ innings, 16 hits, 22 strikeouts, three walks. He’ll be thrown into the incubator in 2017 with expectations he’ll soon pitch in the big leagues.
11. TYLER ALEXANDER, 22, LH starter, 6-2, 200: No blow-away stuff here. No big fastball that makes left-handed batters’ knees shake. No devilish 12-to-6 curveball. Alexander is one of those end-of-rotation guys who gets you six or seven good innings and keeps a team in the ballgame. The Tigers understood this fully two years ago when they decided Alexander was worth a second-round check after some very good years at Texas Christian. He learned fast in professional baseball, which is why he scooted last summer from Single A Lakeland to Double A Erie. He made 24 starts: 2.44 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 136⅓ innings, 123 hits, 105 strikeouts, 20 walks. You get the picture. He’s a pitcher. And if he shows the same brand of command this year at Erie and/or Toledo, he’ll at least put himself in line to punch a Comerica Park ticket.
12. GRAYSON GREINER, 24, catcher, 6-6, 220: Tigers students will recall those pre-Alex Avila days when Detroit’s farm system had seemingly failed to remember catchers are important to a roster’s health. They produced next-to-none. Then the Tigers got busy drafting guys who at least had a shot: Rob Brantly (part of the Anibal Sanchez trade), Chris Robinson, Bryan Holaday, Curt Casali, etc. They also snagged a starter in James McCann. Greiner isn’t a sure thing as a starter, given the unmerciful nature of life in the big leagues. But he clearly has a chance. A good one. His bat came around in 2016 following a tough 2015. Greiner, a third-round pick in 2014 from the University of South Carolina, played 91 games at Double A Erie. His numbers: .293 batting average, 339 on-base percentage, .763 OPS, with seven home runs. The Tigers will give him all the time he needs. But it looks as if the big leagues will be his ultimate stop. If not for the Tigers, for another club that more than likely will be inquiring about a tall catcher’s availability.
13. ADAM RAVENELLE, 24, RH reliever, 6-3, 185: One of these seasons there will be numbers to match the talent. They’re getting closer for something of a star-crossed bullpen specialist who could easily pitch in Detroit in 2017. Ravenelle was a fourth-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2014 and a big reason Vandy won that season’s College World Series. He has closer stuff, when healthy, which wasn’t the case in his first full professional season when strep throat and various non-arm ailments led to an early setback. He began last season to more resemble himself and show his potential ninth-inning repertoire. In a combined 50 games at Single A Lakeland and Double A Erie, Ravenelle had a 3.88 ERA and 1.38 WHIP. Those numbers remain well shy of his potential. But Tigers farm students will want to keep tabs on his 2017 progress. He struck out 57 batters in 58 innings last season and allowed 47 hits. He has some control issues to master (33 walks) but has the live arm a back end requires.
14. DEREK HILL, 21, center fielder, 6-2, 195: Can he hit? Enough to make, and hang around, the big leagues? The Tigers insist he will. Because if he picks it up with the bat, a defender and athlete as radiant as Hill could become a prize at Comerica Park or in any other big-league venue. He has not had the easiest of times since the Tigers drafted him in the first round, 23rd overall, in 2014. There was a strained quadriceps that chopped into his first full season of professional baseball in 2015. Then, last year, he tore an elbow ligament and had Tommy John surgery in August. He has work to do, a lot, particularly with his bat, as he eases later this year into what the Tigers hope will be a long stretch of everyday preparation. They invested heavily in Hill ($2 million) and in their conviction this right-handed hitter would become precisely the All-Star-grade whiz Comerica Park and the Tigers require in center. It’s up to his bat. For now, the Tigers, gulping hard, insist Hill’s offense will blossom and he’ll one day be in Detroit.
15. DREW SMITH, 23, RH reliever, 6-2, 190: All that matters is how rapidly that big arm and nice ensemble of pitches matures. Smith should, and could, be at Double A at some point this season, which means a phone call from Detroit would be within reach for a third-round pick in 2015 (Dallas Baptist) who has a mid-90s fastball and crisp 12-to-6 curve. Smith pitched all of last season at West Michigan and will be headed for higher rungs if all goes well at his presumed next stop, Single A Lakeland. He is part of a potential back-end bullpen stockpile the Tigers never had when thin relief most likely cost them that world championship a regular division winner otherwise couldn’t complete. Smith last season pitched in 35 games, with a 2.96 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. He struck out 62 in 48⅔ innings, walked 20, and allowed only 34 hits. The Tigers expect eventually to see similar numbers in Detroit.
16. SPENCER TURNBULL, 23, RH starter, 6-3, 215: Just one healthy season is all he asks. Turnbull spent most of 2016 shelved by a shoulder “impingement” that was as mystifying as its name. There was no damage detectable, simply pain that kept a former second-round draft pick (2014, Alabama) sidelined until mid-summer. Turnbull pitched in 12 games for three teams (GCL, West Michigan, Lakeland) in 2016 and showed the stuff that made him an early pick: 44⅓ innings, 31 hits, 39 strikeouts, 15 walks, good for a 1.06 WHIP. He has had other issues since signing with the Tigers (an oblique strain was another gremlin in 2016) and needs this year to prove durability as much as a skilled repertoire are part of his evolving Tigers profile. There was a reason the Tigers made him a second-round pick. They want him in their rotation. Soon.
17. GERSON MORENO, 21, RH reliever, 6-0, 175: A farm flush with young relievers offers in Moreno one of its better, full-throttle prodigies. Moreno has the high-90s (and has hit 100 mph) gas that teams want in the ninth inning, or just ahead of a game’s final frame. He is a Dominican Republic countryman who pitched so well last year at Single A West Michigan there was little choice but to give him a taste of Single A life at Lakeland. He didn’t fare as well there, but that was the point. Moreno needed another challenge, complete with its bruises. His combined stats: 44 games, 49⅔ innings, 41 hits, 54 strikeouts, 28 walks. For the season he had a 1.39 WHIP (1.09 at West Michigan) that will descend as he gets more comfortable with secondary pitches and with a strike zone he needs to know more intimately. But this is a talented young pitcher with the requisite high heat a wipeout reliever so often brings.
18. PAUL VOELKER, 24, RH reliever, 5-10, 185: Only because he got out of whack in May and saw his numbers rise did Voelker slip in his otherwise steady march toward Comerica Park. He pretty much did what he has done since the Tigers nabbed him in the 10th round of the 2014 draft (Dallas Baptist). Voelker averaged almost a strikeout and-a-half per inning (79 in 54), while walking 24. His secrets aren’t so secret: a fastball that cruises 93-96 mph and a slider that can bury hitters. He’ll likely get time to smooth his arsenal at Triple A Toledo ahead of what could easily be a big-league debut in 2017.
19. JOSE AZOCAR, 20, outfielder, 5-11, 165: He’s slight, with a big arm and nice outfield moves. He also figures to get stronger as he slides into his 20s, which will only help a young man from Venezuela who last year batted .281 during a full season at West Michigan. Azocar should be an everyday choice in right field by the time a couple more farm seasons have added durability, muscle, and maturity to one of the youngest, and most skilled, position prospects in the Tigers’ chain. It’s always about the bat. Always. Azocar had only 19 extra-base hits last year for the Whitecaps. But given the big ballpark there and the fact he was still a teenager on Opening Day, the Tigers will happily allow him time.
20. ANTHONY PEREIRA, 20, shortstop, 6-0, 170: Pereira played as a 19-year-old at four different stops in the Tigers’ chain in 2016, including a four-game shift at Double A Erie. Pereira probably will begin 2017 with the Whitecaps, at which time the Tigers will hope he might dance his way for extended stints through a farm system he got to know casually in 2016. Projections are strong, as is Pereira. He has nice size for a second baseman and a clean right-handed swing. He needs work in all phases, including a better sense for the strike zone’s contours. But there is talent here and the Tigers and Pereira are working to optimize it.
21. Sandy Baez, 23, RH starter, 6-2, 180: Might have made more progress relative to standing in 2016 than any pitcher in the Tigers’ system. Big fastball and repertoire won him a 40-man roster spot.
22. Ildemaro Escalona, 18, SS, 6-0, 170: Tigers signed him out of Venezuela two years ago and likely won’t regret it. Size, tools, talent. Remember the name.
23. Zac Houston, 22, RH reliever, 6-5, 250: No pitcher from last June’s draft made a bigger, faster splash than this 11th-round pick from Mississippi State. In 29⅔ innings: 12 hits, 49 strikeouts, 14 walks.
24. Carlos Lara, 22, RH reliever, 6-2, 170: Dominican gent who last year showed his stuff at Connecticut: 27 innings, 20 hits, 38 strikeouts, 10 walks. Had a 1.19 WHIP and .213 opponent batting average.
25. Jacob Robson, 22, OF, 5-10, 175: Eighth-round pick last year (Mississippi State). A prospect who could turn it on this summer and move into a potential future picture.
26. John Hicks, 27, C, 6-2, 230: A bit old for the prospects pen, but Hicks had a nice 2016 season (.310 batting average, .838 OPS) and is all but sure to be summoned if/when either James McCann or Alex Avila needs a trip to the disabled list. Former fourth-round pick the Tigers got from the Twins’ waiver wire a year ago.
27. Jose Salas, 19, SS, 6-0, 160: All kinds of upside with this Venezuelan who will get a taste of everyday, full-season work in 2017.
28. Jose Quero, 18, 1B, 6-0, 190: A terrific bat is why Tigers followers will want to chronicle this Venezuelan who could move to the outfield.
29. Victor Alcantara, 23, RH starter, 6-2, 190: Tigers got him in the Cameron Maybin swap with the Angels. Might be moving to bullpen. Nice arm. Must throw more strikes.
30. Wladimir Pinto, 19, RH reliever, 5-11, 170: Another of the Maracay, Venezuela, group that bears watching in part because of these numbers in last year’s Gulf Coast League: 23⅔ innings, 11 hits, 32 strikeouts, 10 walks.
31. A.J. Simcox, 22, SS, 6-3, 185: Tigers got him as college-talent protection in the 2015 draft (14th round) after he played at Tennessee. Chance to make it at least as a utility man.
32. Artie Lewicki, 24, RH starter, 6-3, 195: A pivotal year for Lewicki, a Tommy John surgery veteran who needs to show he can be a big-league rotation innings-eater. He was an eight-round pick (Virginia) in 2014. Pitched in 12 games at Erie in 2016: 3.48 ERA, 1.19 WHIP.
33. Jairo Labourt, 22, LH pitcher, 6-4, 205: A left-hander with his high-octane payload is always appreciated. Labourt’s issue is, perhaps destructively, a bad relationship with the strike zone: 70 walks in 87⅓ innings in 2016.
34. Connor Harrell, 25, OF, 6-3, 215: He has that Vanderbilt pedigree (seventh-round pick, 2013) and played presentably last season at Double A Erie: 103 games: .273 batting average, .340 on-base percentage, with a .742 OPS. Bat needs to climb at least a half-gear, but could see the big leagues.
35. Joey Pankake, 24, 2B, 6-2, 185: He batted only .215 in 96 games at Lakeland in 2016, but it’s those 15 home runs that stand out for a 2014 seventh-rounder (South Carolina). Needs work on that average and his on-base deficit (.283 in 2016).
36. Darwin Alvarado, 18, OF, 6-1, 170: Has every earmark of a potential long-term right fielder. Venezuelan native with talent to match his youth.
37. Gustavo Figueroa, 18, C, 6-0, 170: Good size, good skill set in another teenager from Venezuela who undoubtedly knows being a catcher improves one’s big-league stock significantly.
38. Francisco German, 20, RH starter, 6-2, 160: Keep this tender Dominican on the check-up list. Has a real chance.
39. Gregory Soto, 22, LH starter, 6-1, 180: Left-handers with a solid portfolio are always welcome. And that’s what Soto is showing. Had a strong short summer at Single A Connecticut.
40. Zac Shepherd, 21, 3B, 6-3, 185: Still so young. But it would behoove Shepherd to align his physical gifts in 2017 and become the prospect the Tigers envisioned when they signed him out of Australia.
41. Wenceel Perez, 17, SS, 5-11, 170: Tigers signed this switch-hitting Dominican teen to a heavy bonus last summer and expect his first full season in professional to confirm why.
42. Jhon Sandoval, 17, OF, 6-2, 172: Another youngster who won a fat Tigers paycheck in 2016, Sandoval, from Chivacoa, Venezuela, has the specs associated with potential stars, although that’s often the way it goes with prospects in their mid-teens who haven’t yet seen a full year of professional baseball.
43. Johan Belisario, 23, RH reliever, 5-11, 165: If injuries are finally in his rear-view mirror, Belisario could re-arrive as the big-league material he once resembled.
44. Austin Sodders, 21, LH starter, 6-3, 180: Seventh-round grab by the Tigers last June, Sodders had a nice start at Single A Connecticut, where college guys often overpower kid hitters. Still: 13 games, 39⅓ innings, 35 hits, 33 strikeouts, five walks, 2.29 ERA, 1.02 WHIP.
45. Arvicent Perez, 23, C, 5-10, 180: He’s a catcher, which means Perez has a prayer if that bat evolves. So-so numbers at West Michigan. A heftier 2017 is a mandate.
46. Melvin Ramos, 18, SS, 5-11, 155: A switch-hitting infielder, signed out of the Dominican Republic, who turned 18 in December. Stay tuned.
47. Juan Ramirez, 17, OF, 5-9, 160: He plays center field, which is why size makes a bit more sense here. At the minnow stage of development.
48. Julio Martinez, 19, OF, 6-2, 195: Still a teenager, but a right-fielder with big-league size and a bat that’s got the usual work ahead.
49. Cam Gibson, 23, OF, 6-1, 195: He was a fifth-round pick out of Michigan State in 2015. As always is the case with outfielders, even with Gibson’s speed: The bat must develop.
50. Felix Viloria, 20, LH reliever, 6-1, 165: Bearing in mind he’s a lefty, and that he turned 20 in December, note the numbers from 2016 (GCL and Single A Connecticut): 18 games, 25⅔ innings, 17 hits, 30 strikeouts, 11 walks.
BEST OF THE REST
Tigers prospects who were not included in the Top 50 but who, because of the leaps and drops prospects can take in a single season, could emerge as 2017 evolves:
Endrys Briceno, Anthony Castro; Harold Castro, Kyle Dowdy, Kody Eaves, Dominic Ficociello, Jason Foley, Matt Hall, Joey Havrilak, Gabe Hemmer, Eudis Idrogo, Myles Jaye, Jason Krizan, A.J. Ladwig, Josh Lester, Melvin Martinez, Jeff McVaney, Ryan Milton, Jimmy Mojica, Victor Mueses, Franklin Navarro, Joe Navilhon, Angel Nesbitt, Daniel Pinero, Brady Policelli, Warwick Saupold, Jordan Smith, Jeff Thompson, Christhin Tortosa, Shane Zeile, Kevin Ziomek.