One thing you can say about the Tigers farm system, and one thing they would prefer wasn’t true, is that their minor-league affiliates have been remarkably consistent in recent years.
Triple A Toledo: No winning seasons since 2009.
Double A Erie: One plus-.500 finish in last eight years.
Single A Lakeland: One winning season in its past seven summers of baseball at the Tigers’ spring-training and minor-league headquarters.
Single A West Michigan has been the Tigers’ happy exception, with winning efforts in 11 of the past 13 seasons. But it seems that, so often after those early stops, players either were traded, got hurt, or washed out. Others have moved to higher rungs and are part of what could be the Tigers’ best overall minor-league season in a decade or more.
The Tigers’ farm has been a low-yield venture explained in great part because the big-league team was thriving. Four consecutive division championships meant late draft positions. A long series of expensive free-agent signings cost the Tigers five early-round draft picks. Meanwhile, prospects were traded for players that factored in those division championships and two World Series reservations.
Life on the farm should indeed be better in 2018 just as, not coincidentally, times figure to be tougher at Comerica Park.
The Tigers began reviving their minors last year when prospects were pumped into the chain by way of trades for Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Justin Wilson, Alex Avila and Ian Kinsler.
They are expected to follow suit this year when other deals — possibly for Michael Fulmer, Nicholas Castellanos, Shane Greene, etc. — could bring more fresh flesh to the farm.
“I think this is part of the transition,” said Dave Littlefield, Tigers vice president of player development. “And you’re starting to see some dividends. I don’t want to underestimate winning the division four years in a row, but when you’re making a fair amount of trades and gaining quality major-leaguers, you’re going to deplete some of the farm system.
“We didn’t have that many (quality) guys at Double A and Triple A, but things are changing. We’ve signed approximately half the minor-league free agents we did a year ago. It’s one little sign that we got a bunch of players in trades the past year, that we’re developing some more, and they’re moving up the ladder.”
Significant upgrades should be coming to Toledo and Erie in 2018. Two teams that, along with Lakeland, have paid the steepest price for a top-down focus on baseball in Detroit the past decade, are almost sure to see better rosters and better outcomes.
Mike Gerber. Christin Stewart. Beau Burrows. Sandy Baez. Gregory Soto. Franklin Perez. All could, or should, help make the Mud Hens and SeaWolves something more than stitched-together, sub-.500 groups, which has essentially been their profile this entire decade.
Lakeland should get a boost this year from various West Michigan stars who last year helped make the Whitecaps one of the more astounding stories in minor-league baseball, thanks to their 91-45 record.
A very early look, not factoring for injuries, or for spring performances that could change the picture dramatically, either way, might include these roster possibilities:
TRIPLE A TOLEDO
Grayson Greiner/ Derek Norris, C
Edwin Espinal, Dominic Ficociello, 1B/DH
Dawel Lugo 2B
Kody Eaves, 3B
Ronny Rodriguez, Niko Goodrum, Pete Kozma, SS
Chris Stewart, Jim Adduci, LF/DH
JaCoby Jones, CF
Mike Gerber, RF
Rotation: Chad Bell, Buck Farmer, Artie Lewicki, Ryan Carpenter, Josh Turley, Grayson Long, Matt Hall.
DOUBLE A ERIE
Jake Rogers, C
Gabriel Quintana/Blaise Salter, 1B/DH
Harold Castro/Will Maddox, 2B
Josh Lester, 3B
Sergio Alcantara, A.J. Simcox, SS
Jake Robson, LF
Daz Cameron or Cam Gibson, CF
Troy Montgomery, Jason Krizan RF
Rotation: Beau Burrows, Sandy Baez, Franklin Perez, Spencer Turnbull, Tyler Alexander, Austin Sodders, A.J. Ladwig
SINGLE A LAKELAND
Joey Morgan, C
Dylan Burdeaux, 1B
Anthony Pereira, 2B
Danny Pinero, 3B
Isaac Paredes, SS
Dustin Frailey, LF
Cam Gibson or Daz Cameron, CF
Jose Azocar, RF
Rotation: Alex Faedo, Kyle Funkhouser, Anthony Castro, Tom de Blok, Eudis Idrogo
SINGLE A WEST MICHIGAN
Sam McMillan, C
Jose Quero, Gerardo Rivera, 1B
Junnell Ledezma or Alexis Garcia, 2B
Colby Bortles, Ryan Karstetter, or Zac Shepherd, 3B
Cole Peterson, SS
Luke Burch or Ignacio Valdez, LF
Derek Hill, CF
Garrett McCain/Cole Baumi, RF
Rotation: Matt Manning, Dane Myers, Gio Arriera, Jose Vasquez, Ken Figueroa
The Tigers expect to add more minor-league muscle in June when they’ll have the overall first pick in the 2018 draft, as well as three of the top 100 choices. Potential mid-summer trades could change more dramatically the construct of a farm system that now is getting attention the big-league club once enjoyed, almost singularly.