It’s a brand of problem any big-league organization welcomes.
How to clear roster space for a talented prospect who’s outgrowing his current team and level and might benefit from stiffer competition.
It seems so simple. And yet it sometimes isn’t. The Tigers, for example, are pondering how to make room for power-hitting Christin Stewart, not that he’s exactly in development jail at Single A Lakeland.
But the numbers are pushing him closer to Double A Erie. And the Tigers know it.
Their problem: You don’t want to release or bench players, or discard resources at any level, even when a 22-year-old left-handed hitter of Stewart’s promise continues to wallop Florida State League pitching.
Stewart has slammed 23 home runs and has drawn 74 walks for the Flying Tigers. He has a season (97 games) on-base average of .408 and a slugging percentage of .542, good for a hearty OPS of .950. He is batting .315 with an 1.060 OPS since the Florida State League All-Star Game (31 games). For the year he is hitting left-handers (.890 OPS) only a half-gear less than right-handers (.975).
But if the Tigers push him to Erie, not quite two weeks after outfielder Mike Gerber was shipped to Double A (.353 in nine games since his promotion), they must dislodge players there who have been having important seasons: Wynton Bernard (.459 in his last 10 games and .310 in 40 games at Erie); Connor Harrell (center fielder, .724 OPS on the year), and Jason Krizan (.368 in his last 10, .819 season OPS), and even Anthony Gose, who isn’t hitting any better at Erie (.125) than he did at Toledo (.185) but who isn’t yet ready to be jettisoned by Detroit.
It doesn’t mean the above cast, apart from Gerber, is as highly regarded as Stewart. But the Tigers must weigh moving him from Lakeland, in his first full season of professional baseball and when he’s still getting important nurturing in Florida and the cupboard’s full at Erie.
It’s the same situation at Triple A Toledo. The Tigers want playing time for JaCoby Jones, Steven Moya, and Alex Presley, and don’t care to clutter the scene at Fifth Third Field, particularly if the Tigers choose to stick with 13 pitchers and 12 position players. In that case, there’s a real chance Tyler Collins must return to Toledo when J.D. Martinez is soon freed from the disabled list.
Why not flip-flop Stewart with one of the Erie crew and send a Double A outfielder to Lakeland? The Tigers don’t see that as helpful, either.
“We’re just trying to fit in all the at-bats everywhere,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers’ vice president for player development. “We want to get him there (Stewart to Erie), and he’s a priority because he’s such a good prospect. I’m guessing sooner rather than later.”
Another reality is the Tigers do not see Stewart stagnating at Lakeland. Not when any prospect’s first full season in professional baseball is a version of boot camp. It’s an adjustment. It’s grueling. And it’s meant to be a test that challenges a prospect no matter where he’s playing.
The Tigers also understand Stewart is likely headed this autumn for the Arizona Fall League, where he’ll get a taste of top-tier competition that exceeds much of what he’s seen in the Florida State League.
“He’s doing a great job, no doubt about it, and you’ve got to give him a lot of credit,” Littlefield said. “It’s hot down there and it’s grind of playing in 100 degrees every day. It’s something people have to experience. We’ll see where it goes, but he’s doing all he should be doing in that first full year.”
The Tigers a few weeks ago were staring at a similar situation with top pitching prospect Joe Jimenez as he mowed down batters at Lakeland. Last week’s promotion to Toledo meant Jimenez soared two notches in the Tigers’ chain in two months.
It brings into play another scenario, all but assured: Jimenez likely will join the Tigers in September when 25-man rosters expand. The hang-up is Jimenez isn’t yet on the 40-man roster and must be added if a call-up’s ordered.
The Tigers will worry then about clearing a roster spot, and only if general manager Al Avila, assistant GM David Chadd, manager Brad Ausmus and pitching coach Rich Dubee decide Jimenez would be helpful in Detroit. But it’s probable, and it’s one more piece of potential personnel shuffling a front office is obliged to sort out.
Jimenez’s ticket to Toledo, following 60 days in Double A, was sudden but not surprising.
“We talked to the staff, and continually the message from the people on the field with him, is that the next level would be another nice challenge for him,” Littlefield said of Jimenez’s move to Toledo. “He’s continuing to work on those secondary pitches. He’s got a real good fastball and commands it well.
“In my position, we just try to get the ball on the tee,” Littlefield said, repeating that Avila and his lieutenants will decide on any September invitation. “But often when you’re fighting for the playoffs, it’s all hands on deck.”