Tigers prospect Azocar flashes power for Lakeland

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Take lightly those biographical numbers that say Jose Azocar is 5-foot-11, 160 pounds.

They would be closer to the 2016-model Azocar, who played at Single-A West Michigan and failed to hit a single home run the entire year.

When he fetched the most recent data on his regular center fielder, Andrew Graham, the manager at Single-A Lakeland, had updates. Azocar is indeed 5-11, but he now weighs 175, which might have been obvious the first week when Azocar and his added muscle slammed two home runs for the Flying Tigers at Publix Field.

Note those homers came at a ballpark that, in keeping with all Florida State League venues, does not offer giveaways.

Ten games into Lakeland’s 2017 season, Azocar was batting .304 and showing why he has steadily grown into one of the Tigers farm’s more interesting position products.

“Last year, he was more of an opposite-field-hitting guy,” said Graham, who is in his first year piloting the Flying Tigers after he and Azocar each spent 2016 at West Michigan. “Now he realizes you can get the head of the bat out front and put a ball on the barrel and there’s a chance it will go out.”

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Graham, in fact, says the usual Florida elements — heavy night air, wind, etc. — have probably cost the right-handed hitting Azocar a couple of more bombs that normally would have carried out.

Of course, there’s a to-do list that ultimately will help decide Azocar’s big-league future. It begins with pitch selection.

He had not taken a walk in his first 10 games, which is why his on-base percentage was identical to his batting mark. His slugging percentage of .500 was the result not only of those two homers, but of a triple and a double.

He had struck out eight times, as well. Not anything dire there. But an example of how discipline and growth could, and should, help a Venezuelan native who next month turns 21.

“He’s just a little too aggressive with pitches outside the zone,” said Graham, a day after Azocar had gone 4-for-5, with a double, at Port Charlotte. “He needs to work the count a little more. He’s got to walk a little more (25 in 2016 versus 119 whiffs). But when he put it in play, he hits the ball hard.”

Bruce Fields, the Tigers’ roving minor-league batting instructor, is on board with Graham, mentioning upgrades that, like Graham, he has seen in just the past year.

“He’s young — and improving,” Fields said. “Yes, his strike-zone discipline needs to continue to improve, along with his pitch recognition, but at this point I’d rather he be aggressive than passive. He’ll start to adjust his strike zone.”

A year ago, Azocar starred in some of West Michigan’s national video snippets that featured spectacular defense, either by him or by Derek Hill before Hill was lost to Tommy John surgery.

Azocar then played right field. But his range works fine in center, as does an arm that last year made him an easy call in right.

“He’s had two assists already, throwing guys out trying to stretch either a single into a double or a double into a triple,” Graham said. “He made an error last night (at Port Charlotte), but it was a tough error. He probably ran 60 yards into the gap and had the ball bounce out of his glove when he thought he had caught it.

“He did the hard part — and got rewarded with an error. But it showed the kind of range he has. He covers a lot of ground.”

Azocar is one of Lakeland’s few position players enjoying April, at least in terms of his offense. But some of Graham’s better-known pitchers are beginning 2017 as if they can’t wait to get to the next stop, Double-A Erie.

Chief among them is right-handed starter Beau Burrows, who was the Tigers’ first-round pick in 2015.

Burrows in two starts has a 1.74 ERA and 1.16 WHIP, with 10-inning totals of nine hits, nine strikeouts, and three walks. As with Azocar, Burrows was with Graham last season at West Michigan. He dealt with a nasty finger blister at mid-season that helped drop his fastball velocity to the 90-mph neighborhood.

Now, it’s back. And so is Burrows.

“He’s now sitting at 94, touching 96, and the other day he hit 97,” Graham said of a 20-year-old who goes 6-2, 200. “He has a lot more refined pitches this year. Last year, he was a good prospect, yes, but I didn’t always see the flashes of excellence.

“This year, it looks like the ball is coming out of his hand better.”

Just as gratifying to Graham has been the work of two relievers, each right-handers: Gerson Moreno, 21, hasn’t allowed a run in three games while striking out five and walking one in 3 2/3 innings. Moreno’s fastball, which last year hit 100, has been running 96-99.

Mark Ecker, a fifth-round pick last June from Texas A&M, has been as impressive early as he was during his summer 2016 cameo, striking out six in 4 1/3 innings against a lone walk. Ecker’s fastball has been cruising 94-96, and is backed up by a slider and change-up.

Another potential story rests in left-hander Jairo Labourt, who has a high-90s fastball and who until this month acted as if strikes were something to be avoided.

So far, so good, on his strike-zone reforms. Labourt has walked only one batter in seven innings while whiffing 10. He has allowed a lone earned run.

Labourt was part of the July 2015 deal with the Blue Jays that sent David Price to Toronto and brought Daniel Norris, as well as Matthew Boyd and Labourt, to Detroit.

How much progress, or regression, is ahead for any of the above isn’t yet clear. But the pedigrees in all cases are promising, and so, Graham hopes, will be some ongoing updates from Tigertown.