Tigers likely will have to wait for help from the farm

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Right-hander Joe Jimenez, left, might help the Tigers in the bullpen this season after posting a 0.76 ERA in Toledo.

As can be discerned from the American League standings, or from a nine-inning game sampling, the Tigers need help.

But they won’t be getting much from the farm system. Not soon, anyway.

They’ve pilfered from Triple A Toledo one Michael Fulmer, who has been something of a season-saver, and Matt Boyd, who has worked to patch a starting rotation that had taken its whacks.

They gave outfielder Steven Moya a chance to prove he, at least, is on his way to regular duty at some point. His weekend return to Toledo affirmed he has heavy chores ahead in all game phases.

JaCoby Jones’ raw skills are tenderizing at Toledo, and he should be making his Detroit debut in 2017, and perhaps in a couple of months if the Tigers can clear 40-man roster space.

But beyond a handful of prospects, a couple of whom should be part of September’s roster inflation, the Tigers have few players who might help in 2016, although lineups and pitching staffs in 2017 and 2018 should get a boost.

Joe Jimenez almost certainly will be working late in the bullpen, and soon. But because this right-handed relief stud (35 games, 0.76 ERA, 0.74 WHIP) is young (21) and his innings are being guarded, the Tigers will keep him on the farm, where he’s polishing a slider and change-up each in need of approaching in devastation his deluxe fastball. Because of his workload and roster status (not yet on the 40-man manifest) Jimenez is no better than a 50-50 bet to be part of September’s call-ups.

Jeff McVaney, an outfielder who has had a fine 2016 at Toledo and at Double A Erie, is also a 40-man non-resident and not easily added when someone with fewer options and risks would need to be chopped to make room.

Dixon Machado? You’ll see him in September, for sure. And perhaps next season, as well, if a gifted shortstop’s bat develops into a steadier weapon, as the Tigers pretty much expect.

While Dixon Machado's offensive output has fluctuated this season in the minors, he'll likely be donning a Tigers jersey again in September.

Others loom, but not in 2016.

Christin Stewart and his big left-handed bat will be arriving next season at Double A Erie, after which he would be a quick phone call from Comerica Park. The same holds for another outfielder, Mike Gerber, who was shipped Thursday to Erie following a scalding-hot June and July at Single A Lakeland.

Tyler Alexander is a finesse-hewn left-handed pitcher who could be shipped to Detroit in a year or so. But he is hardly a sure bet, as is the case with most Tigers farmhands.

Trades have been costly

And why is a system so light on inventory?

Three reasons, essentially.

Draft position generally hasn’t been the greatest for a team that two years ago wrapped up a four-year run as American League Central champion. The earlier the pick, the better the prospect, which applies as much in baseball as in other sports.

Signing handsome free agents has cost the Tigers plenty. Three first-rounders were lost in 2010, 2011 and 2012 as part of the ransom for signing Victor Martinez, Jose Valverde and Prince Fielder. The Tigers then bade farewell to their second- and third-round picks in June as penalty for signing Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton.

Third — and probably fourth — reasons their farm crop is so thin has to do with trades and missed gambles. The Tigers have dealt their share of help: Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel, two pitchers who could have been assisting now, were spent on a deal two years ago for Joakim Soria.

Willy Adames, who is on Baseball America’s list of Top 30 Midseason Prospects, is having a lovely time at Double A and will soon be displaying to Rays fans why Tampa Bay insisted on him (and Drew Smyly) in the David Price trade. Devon Travis was awarded to the Blue Jays in a deal for Anthony Gose the Tigers at the moment don’t care to discuss. Chad Green was dealt to the Yankees as part of the payment for Justin Wilson.

Another culprit is the Tigers have drafted, at best, no better than average, if even that well, during the past decade.

Ronnie Bourquin (second round). Wade Gaynor (third round). Aaron Westlake (third round). Jeff Larish (fifth round). Austin Schotts (first round).

All teams make mistakes on draft day, all because projecting talent is so perilous it makes casino odds look like a slam dunk.

But the Tigers, who have done their share of quality work in early rounds (Rick Porcello, Nick Castellanos, James McCann, Smyly, Jimenez, Thompson, Travis, etc.) and who have signed prospects other teams found alluring at trade time, simply have not hit on a sufficient percentage of picks.

The best prospects

Which brings a playoff-seeking team to examine help it might tap this season or in 2017. The candidates:

Outfielder JaCoby Jones is one of a handful of prospects who could crack the Tigers 40-man roster come September.

•Jones, center field: He arrived last July as Pittsburgh’s payment to Detroit when Soria was traded. He satisfied a 50-game suspension in May and slugged the ball in stunning fashion at Erie before being air-mailed to Toledo, where he since has been batting .213.

So, there’s work ahead. Probably too much to expect Jones, who is 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds and also can play third base, will be of any great value in 2016, even if he lands a 40-man roster spot.

“We’re very impressed with his physical package, his tools, his athleticism, the way the ball comes off his barrel — it’s all eye-opening,” said Dave Littlefield, vice president for player development for the Tigers. “I feel very confident he’s going to be a good major league player, and an asset. Having said that, the reality is, guys struggle, and moving to the next level (Toledo, in Jones’ case) is about adjustments.

“Jones got off to good start at Erie, and since hasn’t performed as well. Sometimes, that’s the league adjusting to you, even in the minor leagues. We’ll see how he re-adjusts. But we’re confident with his athleticism that things are going to go well.”

•Machado, shortstop: Machado could be working today in a big league lineup if he figured out his bat, which can confuse. He hit .314 in June and is at .225 in July. He tore it up the second half at Erie in 2014, then had a lousy 2015.

But he’s 24 and, yes, has a better arm and more range (to his right, anyway) than does Jose Iglesias. If the bat steadies, and that’s perhaps not a big “if,” Machado will be an asset. As well as a September call-up.

“Oh, I think he will (develop),” said Lloyd McClendon, who manages Toledo. “He’s hit into some tough luck this year. But a solid, solid player. When he’s on the field, you feel pretty good. And he’s never over-matched at the plate by any stretch of the imagination. He’s getting stronger and stronger. He’s got a bright future.”

Machado, a right-handed batter, is 6-1 and 170, with power the Tigers insist will evolve as he gets older and adds muscle.

“Since I moved into this positon (in 2015) I didn’t realize the quality of defender he is,” Littlefield said. “He’s got the skill set to play major league shortstop. He has been streaky. And that’s probably more due to inexperience and youth, but I think he’s going to be a solid player. He’s got the athleticism to do a lot of different things.”

•Jimenez, reliever: The Tigers probably have in Jimenez their future closer. He is 6-3 and 220, throws a fastball in the upper-90s, and has 59 strikeouts against a dozen walks in 351/3 innings.

Why he hasn’t been delivered to Detroit during a time of need is, in the front office’s eyes, easily explained. He worked heavily last season and pitched winter ball, which has capped his innings and pitch counts in 2016.

He also must refine those secondary pitches.

“He’s having a phenomenal year,” said Littlefield, referencing Jimenez’s ticket to last week’s Futures Game at San Diego, where Jimenez pitched to one batter, getting him on a fly ball to center. “We’re working at developing here a real good major league pitcher. But it’s only natural that he’s got to finish off a few things.

“They’re going to time that fastball pretty well in the big leagues, so you need some other stuff to throw. His change-up at the moment is probably more advanced than his slider,” Littlefield continued, speaking of meetings about Jimenez he’s had with Erie manager Lance Parrish and Erie’s pitching coach, Willie Blair, along with roving minor league pitching coach A.J. Sager. “He needs that pitch the same as Fulmer needed another. Joe’s been able to get away with fastball and command, but the next couple of levels get tougher.

“As for his slider, it was mentioned even during spring training that it needs to get harder and tighten up some. And that’s kind of where he is.”

•Stewart, left field: The Tigers love his power (21 home runs). They’ve been pleasantly surprised by his eye (68 walks in 88 games). They also know a left-handed batter, barely a year out of Tennessee, is hitting .262 (.406 in his last 10 games) and that the first full year of professional baseball is an enormous grind, which is why the front office has been in no rush to push Stewart to Erie.

He figures to wrap up a hot season at Lakeland and move quickly to Erie in 2017. A guess on Stewart’s first at-bat at Comerica Park? September of next year.

•Gerber, outfield: Consider a .436 batting average in his last 10 games. That’s how overheated Gerber had been at Lakeland as he prepared for a flight to Erie and work at Double A ahead of a possible Detroit debut in 2017. And that’s why he was promoted Thursday.

He remains one of those prospects teams sometimes bump into deeper into a draft. Gerber played at Creighton, wasn’t drafted until his senior year, and promptly began attacking minor league pitching as if he had been saving some aggression for pro ball.

He is a left-handed batter, is 6-foot and 190, and can play three outfield spots, which means, with his reasonable power, he can be more than a fourth outfielder. It makes Tigers farm followers wonder if Single A pitching is doing Gerber justice.

“I know there’s this desire to have guys shooting through the system, and we’re all for it, too,” Littlefield said earlier this week, before Gerber’s relocation to Erie was announced.. “But it’s kind of like A comes before B and before C, historically, when it comes to development. The exceptional guys will blaze their own trails, but those are so few and far between. Prospects are going to show you where they belong. Gerber had a tough spring (.246 first half in 2016) and then for the past two months has been killing it. That earler two months is semi-unexplainable. At some point we know we do have to move on a player.”

The Tigers moved Thursday.

Help in the future

Other prospects, of course, will be moving closer to Detroit.

But not soon.

Wait until 2017 to see if Alexander or left-handed curveball ace Matt Hall could be a fit. Or if Gerson Moreno’s high-octane bullpen arm moves him into consideration, as likely will be the case next season with Adam Ravenelle, a fourth-round pick from Vanderbilt in 2014 who is understudying at Erie.

In subsequent years other names will become part of the farm hounds’ consciousness: Beau Burrows (slowed this summer by a finger blister), Jose Azocar, maybe Derek Hill.

There is help on the way. A limited portion, anyway.

For the Tigers to add quantity and quality to their farm hatchery, a ban on forfeiting draft picks, and an insistence on better judgment, are goals worth adopting.