Fall guys: Tigers prospects grow for long haul in AFL

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Most of their minor-leaguers were home Tuesday. Working out. Possibly hitting a Halloween party. Doing something that might not have involved, for a change, a bat and a ball.

Seven other Tigers prospects were busy playing a game in Arizona, in front of scouts and player-development people and with maybe a handful of fans sitting in an otherwise empty Phoenix-area ballpark.

Mesa Solar Sox infielder Kody Eaves (left), a Tigers prospect, is hitting .333 with a .928 OPS in 12 Arizona Fall League games.

Why most prospects get the school kid’s equivalent of summer vacation and others are asked to work (play) overtime can be a subjective but generally flattering burden most players relish.

It’s because they’re identified as youngsters with a real chance to crack the big leagues, men who can benefit from that rarefied desert air in the Arizona Fall League.

“There’s a little bit of strategy,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers vice president for player development, who, in tandem with the Tigers front office and general manager Al Avila, as well as the team’s minor-league managers, decided on the Tigers’ select seven: pitchers Spencer Turnbull, Gerson Moreno, Zac Houston, and Adam Ravenelle, along with outfielder Cam Gibson, and infielders A.J. Simcox and Kody Eaves.

“Generally, they’re your more advanced performers. It’s a little complicated. You have a kind of draft to choose your priority players, guys you’re strategically trying to get there (Arizona).”

The AFL is run by the office of Commissioner Rob Manfred and is designed as a concentrated post-season stage for higher-end talent. The basic mix each big-league club can contribute is fairly rigid: three position players, a starting pitcher, and often three relievers.

The Tigers wanted catcher Jake Rogers to be part of the mix. But he came to the Tigers from Houston in the Aug. 31 trade for Justin Verlander, after rosters had been submitted. He could yet find himself on a flight to Phoenix should a catcher get hurt or a slot otherwise surfaces.

The AFL, which runs through mid-November, has another benefit that could be appreciated Tuesday as the Astros and Dodgers got ready on the last night of October for Game 6 of the World Series.

Teams need players who have the fuel to play deep into autumn. This is a rich training ground, the AFL, with top minor-league managers and coaches selected from across baseball acting as teachers and supervisors.

Players from a particular club play on one of six teams to which Manfred’s office assigns them. The league’s names, unlike the game-day atmosphere, are vibrant: Mesa Solar Sox, where this year’s Tigers prospects are rostered; Glendale Desert Dogs; Scottsdale Scorpions; Peoria Javelinas; Salt River Rafters; and the Surprise Saguaros.

Mesa Solar Sox relief pitcher Gerson Moreno (72), a Tigers prospect, has struck out eight in 5.1 innings so far in the Arizona Fall League.

Mixed results

Tigers prospects thus far are having a mixed time: Eaves, 24, is batting .333 in 12 games with a.928 OPS. He is a third baseman/second baseman and left-handed batter the Tigers got from the Angels in a 2016 trade for Jefry Marte.

Gibson, 23, is of course the son of Kirk Gibson and is batting .200 in 13 games. But he had a game-winning triple Friday and is getting the kind of hardtack experience clubs want from the AFL, which teams see as a kind of springboard for a prospect heading into a new season.

Simcox, 23, and a 2015 draft pick from Tennessee, is hitting .186 in 16 games. The Tigers love Simcox’s glove at shortstop and hope he can develop another notch with his bat and become something other than a future big-league back-up.

Turnbull, 25, the Tigers starter, is 1-1 in three games with a 4.35 ERA and 1.65 WHIP. A pair of relievers are doing better: Moreno, 22, has a 1.65 ERA and 0.75 WHIP in four games and 5.1 innings, with eight strikeouts and a lone walk. A right-hander with a fastball that can clip 100 mph pitched at Double A Erie last season and could find himself in Detroit as early as next year.

Houston, 22, and an 11th-rounder from Mississippi State in 2016, is another fire-thrower with AFL numbers to match: four games, five innings, three hits, no runs, eight strikeouts, zero walks. He is 6-foot-5, 250 pounds and pitched explosively in 2017 at Single A West Michigan.

Ravenelle, 25, has had a tougher time, in rhythm with his pogo-stick seasons on the Tigers farm since he was a fourth-round pick from Vanderbilt in 2014. Ravenelle’s four-game digits are not pretty: 10.38 ERA, .389 opposing batting average, through 4.1 innings in which he has been socked for seven hits, five earned runs, with a pair of walks and one strikeout.

Pitching assignments are not always to be confused with pick-of-the-litter prospects getting an Arizona call. Everything depends on how much pitchers have worked the previous season.

Most of a club’s farm cream will have maxed out its innings during the regular season. And for those who haven’t, the AFL isn’t there to simply exploit arms and availability.

“There’s a fatigue limit that MLB supports,” Littlefield said. “There’s a system for having determined that a guy has pitched enough. Generally, doctors will guide us on all of that. You like to have the pitcher have some downtime. There are throwing programs, long-toss, how many years they’ve been playing, physical maturity — it includes all of that.”

For position players, flexibility means everything in getting game-time and at-bats.

Gibson was an easy pick as an outfielder because he can play center field as well as both corners. Eaves has two-position dexterity in the infield. Simcox was different, but because he was guaranteed steady work at shortstop the Tigers chose a prospect whose defense has consistently impressed, among others, Alan Trammell, the Tigers great who now works as a special assistant to Avila.

Tigers relief prospect Adam Ravenelle has struggled so far in the Arizona Fall League, to the tune of a 10.38 ERA in four appearances.

Staying strong

The AFL comes on the heels of a month-long Instructional League the Tigers and other clubs convene in mid-September, after the minor-league season has ended.

Instructional League is a kind of post-season boot camp in which some of the year’s more focused teaching occurs. It’s a daily diet of baseball, which can be followed by another month of the AFL’s baseball-intensive classes.

It can be a long calendar-year of game rigors for a prospect. By design.

“Things have changed with pitch-counts,” Littlefield said, “but the business of training players carries on. We tell our players: ‘You’ve got to get rid of that mentality that you’re tired.’ We want them to stay strong, ultimately, for the playoffs.

“Tram (Trammell) was telling me that when he came up the Instructional League was 40 to 50 games. They’d play all the way until Thanksgiving.”

The prestige of being picked for the AFL has a kind of All-Star Game status that can bring pep to a weary player.

“It’s something of an elite group,” said Littlefield, who later this week will be joining front-office lieutenants David Chadd, Scott Bream, Dave Owen, and Trammell, in Arizona. “It’s a feather in their cap to be asked. Plus, they have great major-league facilities. Good teammates.

“And it can make a difference. It can make the difference in whether you’re added to a 40-man roster or not, whether you’re Rule 5 eligible (advanced minor-leaguer not on the 40-man roster). It’s an opportunity to see how your prospects are performing against high-quality competition.”

Playing winter ball in the Caribbean or Mexican leagues is another way in which the supposed offseason can be anything but a breather.

It’s also not a mere matter of simply signing up for games that can stretch to the eve of spring camp.

These are competitive arenas in the Venezuelan, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rican, and Mexican leagues. Players need a certain level of skill to get there. And then they need to perform. Competition is as intense and cutthroat in the winter culture as it is anywhere in baseball.

Tigers players now working in Venezuela include Double A second baseman Harold Castro, catcher Miguel Gonzalez, first baseman Keyder Aristigueta, and infielder Arvicent Perez.

Dawel Lugo, who has a chance to replace Ian Kinsler as the Tigers’ next second baseman, is playing in the Dominican League, as well as Steven Moya, the bewildering outfielder who is still trying to corral his swing and forge an overall package that might earn him a big-league reunion.

Anthony Vasquez, a 31-year-old left-hander who has had a taste of the big leagues during a long career that began with the Mariners, is pitching in the Mexican League, while Tommy Collier, a longtime Tigers farmhand, is trying to gain some offseason polish in Venezuela.

Winter baseball can be of dubious gain for players who might find a few weeks into their sojourn that they’re out of work.

“You can put together an All-Star team of guys who’ve been released in winter ball,” Littlefield said. “You’ve got to be ready to go there and perform. Down there you’ve got ownership pressures, media attention — if you don’t do well you’ll be looking for a ticket home.

“It’s not about being at the golf course.”

The Tigers have decided there can be better options than winter baseball for developing players — at Lakeland, Fla., where their minor-league headquarters is based.

Thanks to a $40-million-plus project finished a year ago, the team has a glorious weight-training facility where 35-40 players now are stationed in a bid to build bodies and endurance.

Better diets are the rule, also, at Lakeland, which can make a dramatic difference compared with what players might otherwise ingest at home, especially in Latin America.

“The focus is on nutrition, strength and conditioning,” Littlefield said. “You want to put some good pounds on some of these younger guys, particularly young pitchers. They’re able to get a lot of good work in there.

“That strength and durability will help them over the long haul.”