It was a better year in the Detroit Tigers' minor leagues, which beats most appraisals from the past decade.
Better draft position, more picks at the top, and -- most critically -- trades from the past 13 months that helped re-seed the farm's infield crop, all combined to renew the Tigers' kid corps. From the Gulf Coast League to Triple A Toledo, the Tigers moved from their old bottom-five status to a farm that ex-big-league general manager Jim Bowden now ranks No. 10 among 30 teams.
A few of the happy, and on occasion unhappy, stories that surfaced during a remarkable year in the Tigers' bushes.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Isaac Paredes, IF: One factor is age: Paredes is 19. Another is his pure talent, which saw him belt a dozen homers in the Florida State League before he was moved to Double A, where he’s been even better: .319 in 36 games, with a .404 on-base percentage and .858 OPS. Position is still a question, and don’t be surprised if Paredes soon moves to a corner outfield spot. What matters is his gifted bat. The Tigers could be bringing him to Detroit as early as late next season.
Runners-up: Daz Cameron, Danny Woodrow, Christin Stewart, Jacob Robson.
PITCHER OF THE YEAR: Matt Manning, RH starter: By season’s end, he was dynamic. Manning was throwing his fastball-curveball combination with such fury he made scouts appreciate why the Tigers had gambled with the ninth overall pick in 2016 on a prep right-hander who then was more of a basketball player. Manning has rotation-ace stuff and was throwing it with steadier confidence as his second full season of professional baseball unveiled enormous potential.
Runners-up: Beau Burrows, Matt Hall.
RELIEVER OF THE YEAR: Zac Houston, RH: He was excellent at three Single A stops. He’s been just as good this year at Double A and at Triple A. Houston has pitched in 45 games this season and his numbers are practically interchangeable no matter where he has pitched. Cumulatively, he has a 1.63 ERA and an .096 WHIP. Opponents are batting .150, which is just above his career minor-league OBA of .138. He has struck out 80 batters in 55 innings. He is a shutdown reliever who is 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, and who needs only to put a bit more bite on his breaking pitch, and throw a few more strikes, to earn a Comerica Park debut. The Tigers got him in 2016 with an 11th-round draft pick from Mississippi State. If his early habits continue, Houston will be viewed as draft thievery.
Runners-up: John Schreiber, Eduardo Jimenez, Paul Voelker.
MOST IMPORTANT PROSPECT: Jake Rogers, C: The Tigers need a quality, long-term catcher, and Rogers is their best two-way talent. His defense is exceptional, and now his bat is showing power and promise that could bring him to Detroit by 2020. Rogers had issues this season with his batting average, but a big second half, coupled with power that has seen him mash 17 homers, puts him on track for what could be a dress-rehearsal in 2019 ahead of regular work in 2020.
Runners-up: Willi Castro, Kody Clemens, Sergio Alcantara.
MOST REASSURING PROSPECT: Beau Burrows, RH starter: He is 21, three years out of high school, and the Tigers haven’t expected Burrows to exceed any speed limits on his way to Detroit, which is on the horizon. Burrows had his bumps this season at Double A but learned how to pitch through stresses every power-armed starter experiences, either with command, or a third pitch, or whatever. He’ll do more grunt work next season at Toledo. Would not be shocking to see him in Detroit at some point in 2019, maybe as a spot-starter. But the safer bet is 2020.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT (POSITION PLAYER): Reynaldo Rivera, OF: He hit a bit early, then tanked, and there are ominous signs with Rivera, who is 6-6, 250, and who it was hoped might be the left-handed hitting muscleman the Tigers need, either at first base or in the outfield. Rivera turned 21 in June, so be careful about write-offs. But he batted .205, with a .583 OPS, in the season’s second half for West Michigan. His numbers after 165 minor-league games: .219 and .638. There is bulk, and footwork issues in the batter’s box and, well, things can only get better in 2019.
Runners-up: Derek Hill, Joey Morgan, Sam McMillan.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT (PITCHER): Franklin Perez, RH: Give him a healthy season and Perez probably is back among the farm system’s elite. But he needs to pitch a full season, with prowess to match vitality, and that wasn’t Perez in 2018. The Tigers want him to be part of their new and rebooted rotation in 2020, but Perez, who was one of the prizes in the Justin Verlander trade, needs a sustained rebound in 2019.
Runner-up: Gregory Soto.
MOST CONVINCING 2018 DRAFT PICKS (PITCHER): Casey Mize was worth that first overall crown. He ran into some nasty professional hitters and realities during a cameo at Single A Lakeland, which was probably helpful as he heads into 2019. But no reason to think he won’t be ready for Detroit by 2020. He’s good. Very good.
Runners-up: Tarik Skubal, Adam Wolf.
MOST CONVINCING 2018 DRAFT PICKS (POSITION PLAYERS): Kody Clemens. Came out of the University of Texas with turbocharged numbers and then kept hitting as he was introduced to West Michigan and, at the very end, to high Single A. He’ll probably start at Lakeland in 2019, move quickly to Erie and, if all goes as he has hinted, Clemens could be in Detroit by 2020. Good left-handed hitter with muscle who has enough defense to handle second base. An excellent third-round grab.
Runners-up: Parker Meadows, Brock Deatherage.
BLUE-CHIP STOCK CONCERNS (PITCHERS): Alex Faedo needs to reunite with his fastball in 2019. It was down in his first full professional season, and if it doesn’t pick up, there isn’t enough separation between his fastball and slider. Tigers are working on posture and various mechanical revamping that might re-establish something closer to the mid-90s for his four-seamer. But those radar reads were ominous.
BLUE-CHIP STOCK CONCERNS (POSITION PLAYERS): Joey Morgan and Sam McMillan, a couple of previously high-rated catchers, had bad times in 2018. Morgan was a third-round draft pick a year ago who this season batted .219 with a .617 OPS at West Michigan. He had a traumatic game last week, throwing the ball everywhere but to a glove. Scary stuff on a level with McMillan’s rookie farm year when he batted .160 at Single A Connecticut with a .523 OPS. Jake Rogers – the Tigersreally need you to make it – and stick.
FORGOTTEN SOLDIERS: The Tigers farm will welcome back a couple of top-end relievers in 2019, both of whom were Tommy John departures in 2019: Jason Foley, a 100-mph right-hander who was quite the story before he was shelved late in 2017. Also: Bryan Garcia, a sixth-round pick from Miami in 2016, who was one of the system’s genuine quality back-end arms before he spent 2018 healing his new and improved elbow ligament. Both pitchers could and should be significant stories in 2019.
Keep in mind, also, Kyle Funkhouser, who this summer wrecked his ankle walking the streets of Toledo and who should be back, in one piece presumably, in 2019.
STILL TO BE SORTED OUT: How the Tigers’ potential shortstop sweepstakes plays out. Willi Castro, who was the FedEx package received when the Tigers shipped Leonys Martin to the Indians, has the best bat for shortstop. Sergio Alcantara has the better glove and the unparalleled arm. Paredes will be playing either a corner infield spot or the outfield. So, barring a trade or a super-quick trip to the big leagues from next year’s draft, Castro and Alcantara will shoot it out in a bid to be the Tigers’ next, fulltime, long-term big-league shortstop.
BEST FINISH BY A POTENTIAL STUD: Spencer Turnbull, who was a second-round pick out of Alabama in 2014 and who now is healthy and rolling. His last three starts for Toledo: 19.2 innings, 11 hits, three runs, 23 strikeouts, five walks. Turnbull might be in the process of pitching his way to Detroit, and in a hurry.
BEST TEENAGER NOT NAMED PAREDES: Wenceel Perez, 18, and – you can hear the Tigers shout hooray – a shortstop, who switch-hits and who looks as if he could be something quite terrific. He batted .383 in the Gulf Coast League, was sent to Connecticut, then to West Michigan, where in 14 games he’s at .333 with an .822 OPS. He’s 5-11, 170, which means there’s more to come from a kid so young. If you’re looking at a potential star on the super side, Perez is a name to jot down.
BIGGEST NEED FROM 2019 DRAFT: Bats, bats, bats. Outfield bats. First base bats. Bats who can double as catchers. The Tigers didn’t like a hitter at first overall in 2018. They’ll likely be picking top-five in 2019. Hitting talent is expected to be thicker. It needs to be deep, real deep, as the Tigers work to stock a system with offense.