Tigers brass beaming over talent at West Michigan

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — Some things haven’t changed.

Triple-A Toledo hasn’t made the playoffs in a decade, and fortunes aren’t changing for the sub-.500 Mud Hens in 2017.

Single-A Lakeland has had offensive headaches for years and is still fighting realities there, although pitching has helped keep the Flying Tigers near breakeven.

But elsewhere in the Tigers’ farm chain, life has gotten better and brighter, even if on a relative level.

The Double-A Erie SeaWolves found themselves on July 27 tied for first place. They’ve since slipped and were only 59-63 heading into Friday’s game. But the overall boost in player quality has been obvious on manager Lance Parrish’s team. Pitchers, as well as hitters, have been winning upgrades to Toledo, in many cases not only because a fresh body was needed from below, but because a player earned a legitimate promotion.

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There weren’t a lot of those bump-ups in previous years at Erie, as last year’s team, with its 62-79 record, attested.

But the best story in 2017 has been at Single-A West Michigan, where the Whitecaps were 36-16 and in first place in the Midwest League Eastern as they got ready Friday for a weekend series at second-place Bowling Green.

“In the minor leagues, you’re trying to win, but also to develop,” said Tigers general manager Al Avila. “You’re happy with anything over .500.”

Avila acknowledged Friday that Detroit’s farm, which paid a price during the big-league team’s playoff years, has been perking up in 2017.

Last month’s trades helped.

Deals with the Cubs and Diamondbacks brought aboard five infielders, including Jeimer Candelario, who already has gotten one call-up from Toledo and who figures to join the team in September.

Dawal Lugo is Erie’s new second baseman. Isaac Paredes, a shortstop for the Whitecaps, has been showing why the Tigers insisted he be part of last month’s trade that sent Justin Wilson and Alex Avila to the Cubs.

Erie, though, has changed profiles more than any of the Tigers’ outposts in 2017.

Mostly, it has been a story of pitching. Jairo Labourt, Zac Reininger, Myles Jaye, Artie Lewicki — all pitched well enough to move up the Ohio Turnpike from Erie to Toledo.

Early on, before they also got a ticket to Toledo’s Fifth Third Field, Dominic Ficociello and Jason Krizan were part of a steadier Erie offense. The SeaWolves lineup is surviving nicely thanks to outfielders Christin Stewart and Mike Gerber, as well as young second baseman Harold Castro, a somewhat mystifying talent who might have come closer to figuring out his potential in 2017.

Kody Eaves, a third baseman, has had a big season for Parrish’s gang (.848 OPS), although his numbers dipped during a cameo at Toledo ahead of Candelario’s arrival.

Single-A Lakeland, as usual, has been living on its arms. But a batch of fresh June talent from West Michigan included outfielder Cam Gibson, who has an .860 OPS for the Flying Tigers and who in his past 10 games is batting .375.

West Michigan has been cranking out so many victories and winning streaks the Whitecaps have made clear they don’t care who’s on their roster. One group moves to Lakeland? Another crew arrives at Comstock Park and resumes a ballclub’s winning ways.

Avila understands, as well, that he could have something brewing at the Gulf Coast League, where various teenagers, from Gresuan Silverio to Christian Tortosa, have been making some earlier scouting reports look prescient.