Tigers top prospect Perez braced for a rapid ascension

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Initially, the news shocked him. After all, he was one of the top pitching prospects in the Astros’ organization last season, at age 19 already promoted from High-A ball to Double-A. The last thing he expected was to be traded.

Then he found out the details of the deal. On Aug. 31, Franklin Perez was traded to the Tigers in the deal that brought Justin Verlander to the Astros. Heady stuff.

“I didn’t think I would be traded,” Perez said on Friday through interpreter Bryan Loor-Almonte. “But when I found out who it was for, I was really excited. It made me feel like all the hard work I’ve done paid off. People are seeing me and wanting me.

“The fact that I was traded for someone like Justin Verlander, that was really exciting for me.”

What you notice first about Perez, who turned 20 in December and is the top prospect in the Tigers organization — rated No. 39 in the major leagues by MLB.com — is his maturity, both physically and emotionally.

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His solid, 6-foot-3, 200-plus pound frame was easy to spot amongst a throng of blue-capped minor leaguers working out on the back fields at TigerTown Friday morning. His 40-pitch bullpen session also stood out.

Perez features a mid-90s four-seam fastball that topped at 96 mph last season. He also throws a curveball, change-up and slider – the curve and change-up are considered by scouts to be above average and the slider a work-in-progress.

“I am also learning to throw a sinker,” he said. “I feel like when there are runners on base it could be a crucial pitch for me.”

Twenty years old and polishing up a five-pitch arsenal — his high prospect rating is legit. Then you listen to him talk and again, he sounds older than his years. He was asked about the pressures of being an organization’s top prospect.

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It’s on the arms of prospects like Perez, Alex Faedo, Beau Burrows and Matt Manning that the Tigers are hoping to build their next championship run.

“I don’t feel nervous about it,” he said. “I set a goal for myself to be the No. 1 prospect. Obviously, it didn’t work out in Houston (he was the No. 4 prospect there), but I felt like I worked hard enough to be the No. 1 prospect here.

“Since I was a kid, I always wanted to be the top guy. Now that I am, I feel like the work has paid off.”

Perez has yet to throw a pitch as a Tigers farmhand. He threw a combined 861/3 innings between Class A and Double-A last season in the Astros system. He was assigned to Double-A Erie after the trade but was shut down for the season after a blister formed on his middle finger.

He also dealt with a sprained knee earlier in the season. But in those 861/3 innings, Perez struck out 78 and walked 27. He posted a 3.02 ERA and 1.135 WHIP. The Tigers had him skip winter ball and instead put him on a weight-training program.

“I am grateful for that,” Perez said. “It’s a great facility (at TigerTown) and being with these trainers, it’s something I had fun with. I feel really good, a lot stronger in my legs and I feel like that is making my pitches more potent, especially the fastball.

“But as far as velocity, I don’t know how much I’ve gained.”

Perez is expected to start the season at Double-A Erie. He’s at that “so close, but yet so far away” point in his career. The Tigers have said they won’t rush any of the young pitchers, but if he puts everything together, it’s not a stretch to think he could be in Detroit by September.

None of this fazes Perez. He seems content to climb the ladder one rung at a time.

“Since I’ve been in the minor leagues I’ve been progressing really well,” he said. “I feel like if I continue to work hard and do what I’ve been doing, I will continue to get better and learn – especially with these coaches – and I will get to the big leagues.

“Obviously, that’s the ultimate goal.”

And being on the ground floor of the Tigers’ fresh rebuilding plan, he feels closer to that goal now than he did with the Astros.

“I feel it’s a great opportunity, especially with the organization being where it’s at,” he said. “But right now I only want to focus on working on myself and progressing through the system.”

Twitter @cmccosky