New Flying Tigers flying high for Lakeland

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Christin Stewart

People whose jobs require a commute now include the Single A Lakeland Flying Tigers.

Their old home, Marchant Stadium, is being remodeled this season, which means the Flying Tigers are taking a bus not only to Florida State League road games, but when they play at their new digs, ancient Henley Field, where old-time Tigers greats Hank Greenberg, Mickey Cochrane, Hal Newhouser, Al Kaline, etc., all began or ended their spring-camp days with Detroit.

Differences in Lakeland’s 2016 season extend beyond a home ballpark.

The roster is stronger, particularly on the position side, thanks to the arrival of outfielders Mike Gerber and Christin Stewart, as well as infielders Zach Shepherd, Joey Pankake and A.J. Simcox, and catcher Kade Scivicque.

“That West Michigan club (Whitecaps, low Single A) from last year kind of graduated some of those guys to Lakeland,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers’ vice president of player development, who oversees the Tigers’ farm system. “And that’s going to be helpful for the Lakeland team.

“They’ve got a good group of position players, and quite a few prospects sprinkled in there. Gerber, I think, will be a fine player. Stewart’s got a lot of power, Scivicque is doing a good job behind the plate, and then you’ve got the infielders.

“Dave’s a veteran,” he said of Flying Tigers manager Dave Huppert, “and he’ll make the best of that situation, with the players and the change in ballparks. It’ll be as seamless as it can be.”

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Gerber, 23, and a left-handed hitting outfielder, has been a steady surprise since a 15th-round draft pick arrived two years ago from Creighton University. He was Tigers Minor League Player of the Year in 2015 after batting .292, with 13 home runs, at West Michigan, and had three homers in the Flying Tigers’ first seven games after they opened the season April 7.

Stewart, 22, was Detroit’s second pick last June (University of Tennessee) and had four homers in the 2016 season’s first 10 days. A left-handed hitter, Stewart is 6-foot, 205 pounds, and could be in Detroit inside of two years.

Mike Gerber

Scivicque was a fourth-round grab last June (Louisiana State) and might become another in a line of homegrown catchers (Alex Avila, James McCann, and former Tigers backup Bryan Holaday) to be of help either in Detroit or in future deals.

Scivicque, 23, is a right-handed batter, 6-foot, 225, who heading into Sunday’s game at Bradenton was batting .294.

Pankake (seventh round, 2014) and Simcox (14th round, 2015) were Tigers draft picks from the Southeastern Conference, while Shepherd is a 20-year-old, right-handed batter, on the large side (6-3, 185), who was signed four years ago out of Australia.

How quickly some of the above migrate to Double A Erie will, as always, depend upon how things go in their Florida State League tour, which is annually viewed as a grind because of hot days and big ballparks that hit players with a workout both physical and mental.

The inventory at Lakeland includes pitchers subject to promotion, as well, beginning with hotshot right-handed reliever Joe Jimenez, who has pitched in two games, spanning two innings. He has allowed a hit, struck out five, and walked none.

“Part of it,” Littlefield said of Jimenez’s Lakeland assignment, “is we wanted to be cautious with a young guy (21) who’s performed extremely well, and whose innings we wanted to limit after he played winter ball into early January.

“We think it’s prudent to be cautious. Warm weather early in the season always helps, too, as we manage his innings. Also, they’ve got Ravenelle (Adam, right-handed reliever, fourth-round pick in 2014), so he can close and we won’t need to rely on Jimenez in every single save opportunity.

“Frankly, the way Gerber’s played,” Littlefield continued, revisiting the Tigers’ top outfield prospect, “we feel that with the way things might proceed, he could be at Double A sooner rather than later.

“He had a little shoulder issue off and on during spring camp, which limited him to DH much of the time. We thought, too, with the cold weather up north, it would be good to get some games under his belt in Florida and put that shoulder behind him.”