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Henning: Beau Burrows continues steady climb toward Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Not often can you fast-forward a full year to Tigers spring camp.

But already one can get a bead on the 2019 storyline.

It will have to do, mostly, with starting pitchers who have a chance to head north as rotation regulars.

And one of those auditioning for full-time work next March in Florida could easily be a Texan and right-hander named Beau Burrows.

He has been following this methodical timeline since the Tigers made him their top pick in 2015.

First, the Gulf Coast League that summer of 2015 after he had been drafted out of Weatherford (Texas) High. Then, the following season at Single-A West Michigan. Last year, it was Single-A Lakeland and a late promotion to Double-A Erie, where he learned various facts of life about how next-tier hitters compete.

His numbers, until late last summer, have been remarkably similar at each minor-league rung. Cumulatively, he has a 3.01 ERA, a 1.21 WHIP, and a .239 opponent batting average. He has steadily added innings. And he has packed on muscle to the point a 21-year-old who stands 6-foot-2 now weighs 220.

“And my legs are bigger,” said Burrows, a cordial gent whose smile is as natural as his delivery.

He has been working on the back fields at TigerTown since the farmhands arrived, formally, more than a week ago. Everything so far has gone super-smoothly.

“All fine, all on the right path,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers vice president of player personnel, who has been watching scores of minor-leaguers, including Burrows, throw bullpen sessions, prance through teaching drills, and get their first taste of live bats and arms in intra-squad games.

“Very mature for a high-school draftee,” Littlefield said. “Advanced.”

Burrows probably qualifies more as a top-tier starting pitcher rather than as a budding ace. The distinction can be so insignificant, so irrelevant, it isn’t always accurate or fair to slot a pitcher in any 1-through-5 pecking order.

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But what the Tigers likely have in Burrows is what they believed they were drafting three years ago when they offered $2.15 million to pry him from his Texas A&M scholarship, which wasn’t easy, given Burrows’ ardor for the Aggies.

They have a top-tier rotation plowhorse who has the potential to throw 200 hardcore innings per season.

Make that hardcore, quality innings.

Note the secondary numbers totaled from his past three summers: 260 innings, 229 hits, 85 walks, 237 strikeouts.

Those might not be Justin Verlander-grade digits, but they’re not far removed. It is why projecting Burrows as a No. 2 arm, just behind some bat-busting, fireball-hurling, Mount Vesuvius of a starter, pre-supposes that a pitcher a full gear more skilled than Burrows likely will head a future Tigers rotation.

One might, or might not ascend to that ace cockpit seat unless Michael Fulmer hangs around a few more seasons. In the meantime, Burrows and his repertoire grows.

He has a fastball that runs 92-94 and can climb another mph or two if necessary. He has a standard, 12-to-6 power curve, so-named because it drops downward as if it were falling from the top of a clock-face to its bottom.

He has a “harder, shorter” slider that can look like his fastball until it careens from right to left.

Most heartening to his pitching tutors, Burrows says he “probably has the most feel” for his change-up.

“They say three (pitches) are all you need,” Burrows said, “but I can throw four well when I want to.”

It should be known he wants to do just that in 2018.

The plan now is for Burrows to get a long gulp of Erie once teams head for their minor-league posts at the end of this month. It was Erie where he had been ordered early last June and where he learned why Double A is considered the big leagues’ waiting room.

“Hitters are a lot better,” Burrows said. “They hit fastballs well. You’ve got to throw more off-speed more often.”

Consider those 2017 numbers as testimony.

Burrows had a 1.23 ERA in 11 starts at Lakeland ahead of his flight to Erie. He had an 0.95 WHIP and regularly beat up high-A batters who hit only .221 against him.

Life wasn’t as breezy during those 15 starts for the SeaWolves. His ERA jumped to 4.72, his WHIP to 1.47. Batters didn’t feast on Burrows, but that .269 average speaks to Burrows’ notes on how fastballs have their limits at Double A and why sharp secondary options are vital.

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The Tigers are not rushing him. If he spends all season at Double A, they’ll be happy, so long as Burrows is healthy and steadily polishing his game.

But neither are they closing doors. It is feasible Burrows will get the same mid-year bump he got last season in exiting Lakeland and moving to Erie. This time, the upgrade figures to be Triple-A Toledo. It could even be Detroit given the possibility, if not probability, that manager Ron Gardenhire’s rotation will need lots and lots of help from far and wide in 2018.

Much needs to happen in these next months if that were to happen. Realistically, no, Burrows is on a flight plan that needn’t be hurried, that can’t be ratcheted up. There is much to tuck away as he works on those four pitches — putting them where he must and defeating hitters’ minds as much as their swings.

He is 21. The Tigers thought this was one of those exceptions, a prep pitcher who could be lassoed in the first round and not leave a team regretting placing so much hope and faith in a teenager.

No qualms on Detroit’s side. Nothing but satisfaction for how this pitching project is progressing.