Tigers' kids impressing in Arizona Fall League

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

It's not easy fitting 37 players into a game, or two, during a typical week in the Arizona Fall League, where Tigers farm manager Lance Parrish is working this autumn as skipper of the Glendale Desert Dogs.

But even with rosters that have about as many bodies as a Saguaro cactus has needles, Parrish is writing in names, including some from the Tigers system: Steven Moya, Robbie Ray, Daniel Fields, Domingo Leyba, Zac Reininger, Chad Smith and Joe Mantiply.

The AFL, which began Oct. 7 and wraps up with its championship Nov. 15, is a high-caliber laboratory for baseball's best and more mature prospects, and often the final step ahead of making a big-league team at the next year's spring camp.

That would explain why Moya and Ray are on duty a couple of weeks after the Tigers finished their season with a speedy exit from the American League Division Series.

Moya, who could find work in right field at Comerica Park in 2015, was hitting .308, with a triple, double and an .819 OPS his first six games. Parrish was Moya's manager this year at Double-A Erie when Moya set records for home runs (35) and RBIs (105).

Moya joined the Tigers in September and played little (3-for-8), but soaked up a sense for big-league realities.

"I can tell just from what I've seen of him here," Parrish said of the 6-foot-6, 232-pound, left-handed hitter, "that after a month in Detroit, with all the big boys up there, he's had a chance to talk and get some concepts from Miggy (Miguel Cabrera) and Victor (Martinez) — guys who really have a good grasp of hitting and for being patient — and who could talk to him and give him concepts.

"And even after the first few games here, what I had hoped would happen I think did happen. He's being much more patient and not chasing some of the pitches he had been chasing. He's still aggressive, but I can see him working on it, paying attention to what pitchers are trying to do to him."

Moya turned 23 in August and is not being counted on for Opening Day, although the Tigers expect him to move closer to regular shifts in right field as the season unfurls.

Ray of hope

The same probably is true of Ray, a left-handed starter who was part of the motivation last December for trading Doug Fister to the Nationals. Ray had his moments in 2014, in Detroit and at Triple-A Toledo, but ditching his curveball at mid-season for a slider said everything about a 23-year-old pitcher's timeline.

If the Tigers were expecting Ray to steadily dazzle and to bid for a rotation job ahead of 2015, he didn't come close. But the slider is getting better and so are Ray's reviews, even after two starts and five total innings for the Desert Dogs. Ray has allowed two hits and no runs, while striking out seven and walking two.

"I really didn't get a chance to see him in spring training (2014), but for the two innings he threw here, I was impressed," Parrish said. "He's got a good arm. I can see why the organization feels the way they do about him.

"It looked to me like he was throwing his fastball where he wanted to. And he threw some good sliders with some good action. For me, as an ex-catcher, throwing that fastball where you want it is a good part of the battle.

"He hides the ball well," added Parrish, who, for now, expects to return as Erie's manager in 2015. "He's kind of sneaky fast. I was a little surprised when I saw the radar readouts: kind of an easy mid-90s."

A look at the rest

Other recruits from Detroit's farm chain are slowly getting cameos as Parrish parcels out playing time for 12 more players than an active roster typically carries.

Mantiply, who had a 2.46 ERA and 1.11 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) in 46 games at Erie and Single-A West Michigan, is maintaining his summer pace in three games for the Desert Dogs: 2.45 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. Mantiply, 23, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound left-hander, was a 27th-round pick in 2013 from Virginia Tech.

Relative to age, Parrish is particularly impressed by Leyba, who last month turned 19, and who on average is two or more years younger than the typical AFL player. Leyba is a switch-hitting middle infielder, 5-11, 160, who is 1-for-9 at Glendale. But the manager approves.

"I had never seen him before, and he's a little young for here, but he looks like he belongs," Parrish said of Leyba, who in 30 games at West Michigan hit .397, with a .914 OPS. "He's not in over his head by any stretch.

"And he fields his position (second base) well. He swings aggressively. He knows what he's doing at the plate. I like him. You don't hit the way he hit (at West Michigan) by accident."

The AFL isn't always the most hospitable of spots for prospects who tend to be tuckered out from six months of minor-league ball and travel. But players realize it's often a dress rehearsal for the big leagues, which makes it a different experience entirely from the Fall Instructional League, which the Tigers this year decided to re-schedule for spring, 2015.

Fatigue was the big factor, said Al Avila, the Tigers assistant general manager. Autumn's instructional drills at Detroit's minor-league headquarters in Lakeland, Fla., often made teaching a challenge the Tigers believe can be avoided by moving the instructional schedule to March and April, immediately after the Tigers have headed north for the regular season.

Instructional League baseball is designed heavily toward younger players who otherwise tend to begin their seasons in June at Single A Connecticut and the rookie Gulf Coast League.

That leaves the AFL and its rigors to the farm system's elite. It might be viewed on most days as a penance more than a preparation. But spring camp is four months away. And any AFL player knows a job in the big leagues could be that close to arriving.