Mensching: Health of Tigers' system can't be ignored

Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News

Late January and early February is the "silly season" of baseball's yearly calendar — and there's nothing sillier this time of year than all the attention given to prospect rankings and farm systems. But to disregard the message that prospect rankings is trying to tell us would be silly, too.

In Detroit, this has become a yearly flogging by the professional baseball equivalent of football or basketball recruiting websites. If the systems were similar, you get the feeling that the Tigers are short on four- and five-star prospects, and quite possibly aren't all that much better than the two- and three-star variety. Which is to say, doom is in the air.

ESPN's Keith Law declared the Tigers' farm system the worst among the 30 clubs. Derek Hill, a center-field prospect drafted last summer, earned the only spot among ESPN's top 100 list, at No. 85.

In MLB.com's 2015 top 100 prospects to watch, rightfielder Steven Moya was tabbed as the only Tigers prospect worth watching, sneaking in just under the wire at No. 100.

All of this would seem to bode poorly for the future of a top-heavy organization weighed down by a small number of players over the age of 30 already accounting for more than $100 million in payroll each year through 2017, and more than $90 million owed in 2018. This includes the annual money being sent to the Rangers for taking Prince Fielder off the team's hands.

And yet, we've heard this tale before. We've listened as figures in the national media have predicted the beginning of the end for Detroit — a prediction that came before the Tigers ran off four consecutive division titles, three ALCS appearances and one AL pennant.

Why should we believe this time will be any different?

Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski doesn't, telling The News a little more than two weeks ago: "(Law) can say whatever he would like, but I remember after 2006 people said we wouldn't win anytime soon, and people have talked about that after other years that we wouldn't be good for years to come."

He has a point, to a certain degree. Picking top prospects is an inexact science, much like with voting for baseball's postseason awards. You hope that a number of different systems and philosophies are able to come together as a whole, to tell you something more than any one individual's opinion.

Many are concerned more with ceilings than floors, and Detroit doesn't always have those sorts of high-ceiling players.

Even when the Tigers do, they don't always turn into star players. Take Cameron Maybin, for example. Some would (wrongfully) label him as a bust for never living up to the hype of being a perennial top-10 prospect early in his career. But for any player to overcome the odds and make a debut at 20 years old, as well as play on a major league roster every year since, is at least noteworthy.

You could go on to list any number of high-profile prospects here. Detroit didn't hang on to most of them, yet seldom can you look back and call exchanging these players a "loss."

The Tigers, for being perennial losers in prospect rankings, seldom seem to find themselves in big trouble. What they lack in blue chippers they make up for in blue collars, players who never may reach great heights but who fill in admirably around the superstars.

Although you might be tempted to call that the Tigers' philosophy, it's doubtful it is. No organization truly sets out to avoid the best young players. Detroit finds itself in the position it does because as a successful team, it doesn't generally have great draft positioning, and as a team trying to win every year, what players it does have tend to get moved to other organizations to maintain momentum.

There is, of course, a downside to all of this. The Tigers' depth is always an issue, as it is again this year. And at some point, the money might reach the limit of its ability to put a good team on the field without a few talented low-cost starters filling out the ranks.

A smart front office has managed to outrun these issues so far, but the pack in the AL Central Division is catching up. As a result of their trading and spending ways, the Tigers have less room to maneuver to counter it.

Paying too much attention to prospect rankings would indeed be silly. But with spring training about to begin, it would be beneficial to the Tigers' long-term health if a few thus-far unknowns step forward in the coming year.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.