Tigers prospect Azocar a ‘highlight reel’ for Whitecaps

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Jose Azocar

For sheer talent, spiced by the fact he is still a teenager, no Tigers prospect made a much bigger splash during spring training than outfielder Jose Azocar.

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus had no problem lassoing Azocar, 19, at minor-league camp and sticking him into one of those late-inning Grapefruit League games where kids often are stationed.

He covers plenty of ground. He has an upper-tier arm. And he can hit, which is one more talent that’s been on display during the early weeks at Single A West Michigan.

“The last five games have been like a highlight reel,” said Whitecaps manager Andrew Graham, who was talking Sunday about not only Azocar, but Derek Hill, who along with prospect Cam Gibson gives Graham three outfielders who can all play center.

Wednesday against Lake County, Azocar was playing right field when a Lake County runner planted at second base decided to tag and dash to third on a fly ball Azocar played with perfect anticipation.

Azocar threw a lightning bolt, measured at 280 feet, to third baseman Steven Fuentes, who dropped his glove on the sliding runner for an out that had everyone at Fifth Third Ballpark gasping.

Two nights later in a home game against Dayton, it was Hill’s turn as he made a gorgeous, back-to-the-infield catch of a fly ball against the center-field wall.

But it is Azocar who in the early going has been matching defense with offense. As the Whitecaps got ready for a Sunday series finale against the Dragons, he was batting .322 in 15 games, with a triple and two doubles.

Azocar is 5-foot-11, 165 pounds, and a right-handed hitter who was signed as a 16-year-old out of the Tigers’ pet prospect hatchery, Venezuela. He played in 58 games in 2015, most of them with the Tigers’ Gulf Coast League team at Lakeland, Fla., and batted .325, with a .350 on-base average.

“The kid’s got great instincts,” Graham said. “He gets great reads, has an above-average arm, and he’s hitting.

“He’s very athletic. And he’ll fill out.”

With that mass and muscle, of course, should come a fair share of hits against and over various ballpark fences.

“What’s interesting is he hasn’t yet shown pull-power – it’s middle of the field and away,” Graham said. “But he has a lot of bat speed. When he develops, physically, you’re going to see more power. I don’t know how much power, but he takes good-quality swings.”

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Azocar also gets the heaviest percentage of starts in center. Graham is careful there, making sure three legitimate center-field contestants get at least an occasional shift at an outfield’s key station.

But with Azocar showing so much promise, it’s up to Hill in 2016 to stay healthy and develop as a hitter. That is, if he’s to validate that first-round pick (No. 23 overall) the Tigers two years ago invested in a California prep star whose defensive skills were never questioned but whose bat then, and now, remains an open question.

He arrived for Sunday’s game with a .244 batting average and .295 on-base percentage in 14 games.

“He needs repetition,” said Graham, who managed Hill in 2015 when a strained quad held Hill to only 53 games. “He needs to play 130, 140 games. His bat is coming along.”

Gibson, of course, is related to a certain former Tigers star and current Tigers broadcaster whose son, like his father, was drafted out of Michigan State. That happened last June when the Tigers snatched Cam Gibson in the fifth round, banking that a 6-foot-1, 196-pound outfielder who – no surprise – could run like a stallion, would find a place in the big-leagues, armed with his left-handed bat.

Gibson, 22, has been a bit like April’s weather: chilly. He was batting only .216 on the season, .270 in his last 10 games, when he awoke Sunday.

“He was a little inconsistent with his bat through the zone,” Graham said, “but he’s been making some adjustments.

“He’s got speed and gets down the line really well.”