Lance Parrish is paying attention. Not only to the pitchers working so pleasingly for his Double A Erie team, but to the waiting-list at the Tigers’ two Single A clubs, Lakeland and West Michigan.
“The arms race is on at the lower levels,” Parrish, who is Erie’s skipper, was saying during a weekend conversation.
Parrish’s team has been playing nearly break-even ball in 2017, which figures to be a nice improvement on last year’s 62-79 club. The progress can be seen in a lineup that has Christin Stewart, Mike Gerber, and Dominic Ficociello helping regularly. And also in a pitching staff, whether it’s the newly-promoted Beau Burrows shining, as he did in his last start (5.2 innings, one hit, five strikeouts), or, particularly, in the bullpen battalion the SeaWolves feature.
Tigers students accustomed to too many years of bullpen skids in Detroit will be tracking the crew there, with relish. And they should, given the quality of pitches and the radar-gun readings flowing these days from Erie.
Jairo Labourt, who throws left-handed and who turned 23 in March, has been one of 2017’s farm-system headliners. A pitcher who had so much upside Dave Dombrowski insisted he be part of the package the Tigers got two years ago for David Price, has abandoned his old strike-zone woes and has a 2.03 ERA in 29 games covering 44.1 innings for Erie and Lakeland. Labourt has been nicked for only 31 hits, has struck out 58, and walked but 10.
“If he did it only once or twice, you’d still question if it were real,” said Parrish, speaking of Labourt’s control a year after he walked 70 batters in 87 innings. “But he’s been that way ever since he’s been here. He’s a strikes-thrower and I think he’s taken a big step forward.
“I know the knock early on was that he was out of the zone a lot. But there’s been a lot of hard work on his part, and Willie (Blair, pitching coach) has done an incredible job with him. I just think he’s starting to trust his stuff. He doesn’t feel like he has to nip corners. He comes right at hitters.”
And why not? Parrish says Labourt has “three above-average pitches,” beginning with a high-90s fastball that has hit 98.
“He’s above 95 – I can tell you that,” Parrish said. “Probably, more realistically, he’s at 96, 97. But he’s got a major-league slider, no question, and his change-up is above average. He’s got all the necessary ingredients.”
Labourt, of course, has company, all of them right-handers, which is why Parrish tends to trust any lead the SeaWolves might have taken on a Stewart or Gerber home run, or a big game from the switch-hitting Ficociello.
Bryan Garcia, like Burrows, was one of those June arrivals from Single A Lakeland and has shown Parrish the same routine for which Garcia was known at three lower farm-team outposts in the year since the Tigers drafted him out of the University of Miami.
He has been fairly unstoppable: 0.82 ERA in nine games for the SeaWolves, with only a single run allowed, which happened Thursday in a game at Richmond.
“And, in all honesty,” Parrish said, “he pitched very well in that game. But things happen: a broken-bat single, then an intentional walk I wanted, and then, with two outs, a ground-ball single.”
Garcia also has a mid-to-higher 90s fastball and secondary options to match. He turned 22 in April and is a year older than another of the Tigers’ brighter lights, Gerson Moreno, who has hit 100 mph and whose numbers explain why he, too, got a ticket this spring from Lakeland to Erie: six games, 10 innings, six hits, 14 strikeouts, three walks.
“How many guys can you find who throw 97, 98, who’ve got a real good slider, and who can throw a change-up, as well?” Parrish asked. “For him, it’s just a matter of being consistent with his location. But, at times, you see it, and while it’s maybe not as consistent as you’d like, he’s at Double A, he’s young, and he has a great arm. I would have expectations he would be a guy high on this organization’s radar.”
So, too, could be another man whose name disappeared for most of 2016 because of Tommy John surgery. Zac Reininger, an eighth-round pick in 2013 (Hill College), is back and throwing bullets: 1.03 WHIP in 26 games (42.2 innings) with Erie and Lakeland. He has struck out 44 and unintentionally walked 10.
“Got a real live arm,” Parrish said of Reininger, who is 6-foot-3, 170 pounds. “Gets it up there around 98, and has a quality slider. He’s working still on his change-up. But that fastball-slider are worthy of taking notice. He’s the real deal.”
Adam Ravenelle could be part of the mix, as well, and certainly should be based on his pedigree. He was a fourth-round pick in 2014 after he had helped pitch Vanderbilt to a College World Series party. He has been like a Cedar Point ride for much of the past three years, up and down, his ascents and descents often steep. But health has not always been an ally for a pitcher whose fastball has cracked 100. It’s still there, as are the ins and outs with Ravenelle’s command. His ERA (3.81) and WHIP (1.35) speak to issues that haven’t yet been resolved.
But these are better times, overall, at Erie and not all because Parrish can relax a bit more in the late innings.
Stewart has 19 home runs and should have 20, Parrish is quick to explain, all because umpires missed a Stewart-bashed ball at Akron that sailed beyond the fence and bounded back onto the field for what the umps mistakenly ruled a ground-rule double. Stewart has an .879 OPS (.346 on-base percentage) and boosts his manager not only because of Stewart’s pitch-selection but as much for his progress in left field.
Defense, of course, has been the hang-up for Stewart, a first-round pick (University of Tennessee) by the Tigers in 2015. He plays left field and is an ongoing mission for the Tigers’ developmental staff.
“He has stepped it up,” said Parrish, making sure his compliment was appreciated in context. “My evaluation of outfielders is that you’ve got to cover some ground. And while he doesn’t have great foot-speed, he still runs pretty well. He doesn’t have the strongest arm on the block, but he’s smart enough to hit the cutoff man. I definitely think his routes have gotten better, his reads are better. He works very hard at it.”
It’s the bat, however, the Tigers drafted. No complaints there.
“He’s dialed it up a notch in the last few weeks,” Parrish said. “He’s a good hitter, he’s patient, he’ll take his walks. He’s selective maybe to a fault. Selfishly, I want him to be a bit more aggressive. But he really works hard, trying to swing at strikes and not swing at bad pitches.
“To be honest,” Parrish said, “most teams we play see this 20-home-run guy with 60 RBIs (61 entering Sunday), this big, imposing guy, and they do everything in their power to make him chase bad pitches.
“But to his credit, he’s remained very selective.”