It was a different kind of year on the Tigers farm in 2017.
And that was good news for a big-league team that needs more than a few bright lights to shine if a club’s remodeling project is to proceed with promise.
Some of the developments came from existing players whose talents and upside delivered at least on a par with what might have been expected. Others arrived following a string of summer trades.
A look at the best, worst, and in-between efforts from a newsy season on the Tigers farm.
■ PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Mike Gerber, OF, 25, Erie/Toledo: Gerber missed a bunch of mid-season games with an oblique, but otherwise was the organization’s best, and most consistent, hitter through 92 games at Erie and in a late-season taste of Toledo. He bats left-handed and has power. He can play three outfield positions. And he’ll go to spring camp with the Tigers with an outside chance to win a job. Most likely scenario: He’ll head back to Toledo for some trim work and join the Tigers part-way into 2018.
■ Runner-up: Christin Stewart, Erie.
■ PITCHER OF THE YEAR: Gregory Soto, 22, SP, West Michigan/Lakeland: Beau Burrows is younger and pitched a notch higher in 2017, so no argument if Burrows is the preferred pick here. But the steady proficiency with which Soto busted batters in 2017 makes him a narrow choice. He was 10-1 with a 2.25 ERA at West Michigan, and followed up with a 2.25 ERA after he joined Lakeland. He struck out 144 batters in 124 innings. Still needs to work on control and command, but the Tigers have in Soto a potential left-handed artillery piece.
■ Runners-up: Burrows, Lakeland/Erie; Sandy Baez, Lakeland/Erie; Anthony Castro, West Michigan; Kyle Funkhouser, West Michigan/Lakeland.
■ RELIEVER OF THE YEAR: Bryan Garcia, 22, West Michigan/Lakeland/Erie/Toledo: Not often do you see this, particularly in a pitcher’s first full season of professional baseball. Garcia was promoted more often than an employee with pictures of the boss. And everywhere he pitched, he dominated. He’s another Tigers youngster who will go to Florida with a reasonable chance to win a big-league job. It’s more likely he’ll make his Comerica Park entrance later in 2018, but figure on seeing him soon.
■ Runners-up: Jairo Labourt, Lakeland/Erie/Toledo/Tigers; Gerson Moreno, Lakeland/Erie; Zac Houston, West Michigan/Lakeland; John Schreiber, West Michigan.
■ BIGGEST MOVE (POSITION PLAYER): Jacob Robson, 22, West Michigan/Lakeland: He was an eighth-round pick in 2016 (Mississippi State) and played in 2017 as if he has Detroit on his mind. Hit well for the Whitecaps (.329) and then held his own in the Florida State League (.277). He’s a left-handed stick, on the small side at 5-foot-10, but a guy who could fight his way up the ladder.
■ Runner-up: Cam Gibson, West Michigan/Lakeland.
■ BIGGEST MOVE (PITCHER): Matt Manning, 19, SP, Connecticut/West Michigan. Manning wins because of where he started. A year out of high school, he was so raw the Tigers kept him at extended spring training rather than send him quickly to West Michigan. By mid-season, he was moved to Connecticut, then to the Whitecaps. It was smart, steady strategy by the Tigers and led to what became a fine first full year of professional baseball for Manning, who finished brilliantly.
■ Runner-up: Matt Hall, Lakeland/Erie. Joe Navilhon, West Michigan/Lakeland/Erie.
■ BEST PLAYER STILL FACING QUESTIONS: Christin Stewart, 23, LF, Erie: Stewart has slammed 58 home runs in the past two seasons. His on-base percentage in each of those years: .386 and .335. Still, the concerns: Will he hit enough to land everyday work in Detroit? And where will he play? His batting average this season was .256. He has struck out 269 times in his past two seasons, which is hardly a disqualifier. But check out his splits in 2017: .287 and .989 OPS at home. On the road: .227 and .697. This makes little sense. He will get ample developmental time next year, probably at Double A and Triple A, with his defense needing work, as well. Any doubts can be obliterated by a meaningful season from a first-round pick whose stock in 2018 could go either way.
■ PLAYER MOST IN NEED OF A BIG 2018: Derek Hill, 21, OF, West Michigan/Lakeland: It isn’t Hill’s fault he had Tommy John surgery in August 2016 and only made it back to everyday work this summer. But it has been three years since he was drafted in the first round and he’ll need to show next summer at Single A Lakeland that he’s on a flight plan to Detroit. It’s all about his bat. He has a .245 batting average and .655 OPS in his early minor-league forays. His glove and range are spectacular, and perhaps are good enough to make him a big-league defensive replacement. But that’s not why he was a first-round pick.
■ BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT FROM 2017 (PITCHER): Tyler Alexander, 23, SP, Erie: A second-round pick in 2015 from Texas Christian, Alexander showed what happens when guys who lack a big fastball don’t put sufficient location or illusion into their repertoire. After a nice 2016, Alexander this year at Erie had a disturbing effort: 5.07 ERA in 27 games (26 starts) and a 1.45 WHIP. He allowed 178 hits in 138.1 innings.
■ Runner-up: Adam Ravenelle, Erie.
■ BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT FROM 2017 (POSITION PLAYER): Jose Azocar, 21, OF, Lakeland: A ton of talent, but he swings at everything, and that’s poison as you move even slightly up the minor-league rungs. Azocar had 14 walks in 119 games, which is how you end up with a .220 batting average and .538 OPS. Those numbers aren’t going to cut it. Not if you wish to play outfield anywhere in professional baseball. Or, for that matter, anywhere else on the field.
■ Runners-up: Zac Shepherd, Lakeland/West Michigan; Joey Pankake, Lakeland.
■ BEST DEBUT BY A DRAFTED PLAYER: Sam McMillan, 18, C, Gulf Coast League Tigers: Considering that he is all of 18, McMillan, who could end up as one of the Tigers’ all-time, fifth-round steals, wins easily. The Tigers talked him out of his University of Florida commitment by way of an over-slot $1 million stipend and haven’t regretted it. He batted .288 in 37 games for the Gulf Coast League Tigers, with an .873 OPS. He’s a 6-foot-1, 195-pound, right-handed batter. Should be a fun one to watch.
■ Runner-up: Joey Morgan, C, Connecticut.
■ BEST DEBUT BY A DRAFTED PITCHER: Dane Myers, 21, SP, Connecticut: It’s likely Alex Faedo, the Tigers’ top pick in 2017, would have inhaled this citation, but Faedo was tuckered out from all his regular-season and College World Series work with the Florida Gators and was given the summer off. That left Myers, a sixth-round pick from Rice, to sparkle at Single A Connecticut. He pitched in 13 games, started 12, and his numbers were just fine: 2.33 ERA, 0.88 WHIP.
■ Runners-up: Will Vest, Max Green, Connecticut.
■ WORST DEBUT BY A DRAFTED PLAYER: Reynaldo Rivera, 20, OF, Connecticut: This can only get better. Rivera was the Tigers’ second-round pick and spurred a fair amount of early shudders as he reported to Connecticut and promptly hit .187 in 52 games, with a .541 OPS. He had two home runs. Rivera is 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, and a left-handed batter. The Tigers got him out of Chipola Junior College and thought they’d found a gem, which he still could become. It’s early, very early. But this past summer’s debut was ominous.
■ Runner-up: Teddy Hoffman, Connecticut.
■ MOST OVERLOOKED PLAYER: Kody Eaves, 3B, Erie/Toledo: He was so convincing in 2017 that the Tigers made him part of their Arizona Fall League cast. Eaves came to Detroit in a low-profile 2016 trade for Jefry Marte, but hit well (.271, .804 OPS) for Lance Parrish’s team and played a solid third base. He’s 24, and a left-handed batter who was a one-time, 16th-round prep draft pick by the Angels.
■ Runners-up: Harold Castro, Lakeland/Erie; A.J. Simcox, Erie; Danny Pinero, West Michigan; Dustin Frailey, Lakeland.
■ MOST OVERLOOKED PITCHER: Austin Sodders, 22, SP, West Michigan/Lakeland: He got a fair amount of attention, but not in step with his numbers, which were terrific: 36 games (all starts) between the two stops, with a 1.92 ERA, and 0.98 WHIP. He doesn’t crush batters with his fastball. But a 2016 seventh-round pick from Cal-Riverside, and a left-hander, will get a shot next season at Erie to show he’s worth pondering as the Tigers re-stock.
■ Runners-up: Paul Voelker, Lakeland/Erie/Toledo; Eduardo Jimenez, West Michigan/Lakeland.
■ BEST-STOCKED POSITION IN TIGERS FARM CHAIN: Catcher. The Tigers have had issues drafting infielders and outfielders, but their work mining catchers during the past decade has been excellent. Grayson Greiner, McMillan, Morgan, Gresuan Silverio — they become part of a group now joined by Jake Rogers, who was landed in the Justin Verlander trade.
■ PLAYER TO WATCH IN 2018: Isaac Paredes, 18, SS: If you’re pondering the possibility that a true franchise player now rests somewhere in the Tigers system, it’s probably Paredes, who was the bluest of blue chips the Tigers got in their deal that sent Justin Wilson and Alex Avila to the Cubs.
■ PLAYER TO WATCH IN 2018 (cont.): Jose King, 18, 2B: He has Olympic-brand speed and in 28 games, after the Tigers got him in the J.D. Martinez trade with Arizona, King batted .321 against Gulf Coast League pitching. Tigers scout Mike Russell, who worked a couple of seasons with the Diamondbacks, recommended that King be part of July’s deal that also brought Dawel Lugo and Sergio Alcantara.
■ PITCHER TO WATCH IN 2018: Faedo. The Tigers will neither hurry, nor delay, Faedo as he and his slider presumably make quick progress. He, Soto, Baez, Manning, Funkhouser, etc., could become the support beams for a new-era Tigers rotation.
■ BEST DEVELOPMENT FOR A NEEDY FARM SYSTEM: Four summer trades that brought nine players to a minor-league hatchery dying for players who have a valid chance at seeing Comerica Park as something other than ticket-holders.