Toledo — Not many years — or months — ago a visitor to Fifth Third Field would ask what the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens had done to have been sacked with a roster so, uh, challenged.
But it’s a different landscape in 2016.
There was Steven Moya, towering above teammates as they romped across the outfield grass during warm-ups ahead of Tuesday night’s game against Gwinnett, which the Braves won, 3-1. Moya was batting .306 a night after walloping his fifth homer in April, and slipped only to .303 after he had a single in four at-bats Tuesday.
Michael Fulmer, the most talented and perhaps the most powerful pitcher in terms of a two-pitch repertoire in Detroit’s minor-league chain, bounced through the dugout, fire in his eye and black in his beard, on the way to the clubhouse. No student of Fulmer will be shocked if he shows up at another clubhouse in 2016 — at Comerica Park.
Bruce Rondon stepped from the field and politely nodded. He’s not pitching at the moment as he heals from a strained hamstring. But he had been doing just fine, even if he had pitched but a single inning for the Mud Hens, striking out two and walking none.
“And the bad part is he got the injury doing extra work,” said Lloyd McClendon, the first-year Mud Hens manager and former Tigers coach, taking a break during Tuesday’s batting practice.
“It was tough. It’s disappointing, because he’s in a real good place here.”
So, the Tigers believe, are Moya, and Fulmer, and Daniel Norris, and Dixon Machado, and many more players who are almost sure to work in Detroit or at another big-league post. This would differ from some earlier years at Fifth Third when too many Mud Hens were carried only because the Tigers needed bodies and some of those bodies hadn’t yet given up on improbable big-league dreams.
Moya and Fulmer are the more colorful names, only because there is so much more mystery to two players so potentially helpful. Norris is a left-handed starter and more known quantity whose ticket to Detroit could come as soon as he finds a groove following hairline back fractures that cut short his spring camp and left him on the disabled list until this week.
Same with Machado, a shortstop who has played for the Tigers and who figures to re-appear, either in Detroit, or with another big-league club, after he shakes an early slump and spurs the Tigers to consider options.
But it’s Moya, the 6-foot-7, 270-pound right fielder, and Fulmer, the hotshot right-hander Dave Dombrowski grabbed in last July’s trade of Yoenis Cespedes, who probably most intrigue Tigers followers.
“Moya’s swinging the bat very well,” McClendon said of the left-handed batter whose OPS has been a handsome .914, thanks to a .591 slugging percentage (four doubles with his five homers) and .323 on-base average.
“We’ve said all along, he’s a work in progress. And there’s a lot to like. Sill some rough edges, but he’s working on it. He’s done a real good job of cutting down on strikeouts (13 in 16 games and 66 at-bats). And he’s been getting some big two-out hits.”
Fulmer, 23, has eyes galore on him because of pitching issues in Detroit that some theorize could be eased if he were to join the Tigers rotation.
He had two terrific starts out of the gate for McClendon when Fulmer allowed a lone run over 11 innings, all before he got socked for six runs last weekend at Columbus.
“I have to be honest with you,” McClendon said, “that last start he was very good. Columbus is a small ballpark and a couple of home runs would have been fly balls anywhere else.
“But his stuff’s electric: fastball at 96, wipeout slider, and a change-up that’s coming along. For him, it’s a matter of slowing things down. Slowing down his pace a bit.”
McClendon, who last year was managing the Mariners is, admittedly, “having a ball” at his new gig — all while laughing, acceptingly, when the Tigers summon a player to Detroit who was helping the Mud Hens win a game and whose priority now is to help the Tigers do the same.