Better times on the Detroit Tigers farm in 2018 have corresponded, not surprisingly, with an uptick in personnel.
Healthier drafts, trades that have helped re-stock some shelves, and more money for free-agent minor leaguers have paid off as midseason approaches, happier win-loss records abound, and as three short-season teams (Connecticut, two in Gulf Coast League) join the party after they began play during the past weekend.
There could be more help coming.
Franklin Perez, the top Tigers prize in last summer’s deal with the Astros that sent Justin Verlander to Houston, is healing from a spring mishap and should be pitching at either Single-A Lakeland or Double-A Erie within three weeks.
Perez is the billboard player among Tigers prospects who have had assorted ills the past year and whose timelines vary.
Perez, 21, RH starter: He was delighting Tigers staffers galore during spring camp as he settled into a Tigers uniform following his years on the Astros farm.
Then, in late March, he tore a lat muscle in his back, and goodbye, Perez, until sometime this summer.
The original timetable called for Perez to miss 12 weeks. It will be just about 12 weeks to the day when the Tigers expect him to pitch in a game. He has been working at their Lakeland, Fla., headquarters, tossing 30-35 pitches from a mound.
By the end of this month, or the first days of July, the Tigers expect him to be game-ready. Perez is viewed by many appraisers as the Tigers’ top prospect.
Grayson Long, 24, RH starter: He became a Tigers card-holder last summer as part of the payment when Detroit shipped Justin Upton to the Angels.
A pitcher who was strong enough at Texas A&M to have landed a third-round draft tag from the Angels was expected to give Triple-A Toledo a boost and perhaps offer the Tigers help either as a spot-starter or long reliever in 2018.
Those plans were shelved, at least temporarily, early in April when Long was found to need surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. It’s the same procedure Tigers pitchers past and present (Shane Greene, Drew VerHagen, Jeremy Bonderman, Kenny Rogers, etc.) have undergone, and it likely will keep Long from throwing a pitch in any 2018 minor-league game.
He is expected to be at full throttle when 2019 spring camp convenes, at which point the Tigers could add a bit of innings-eating organizational depth.
Jason Foley, 22, RH reliever: Foley, some might remember, was one of the 2017 season’s farm phenomena as he struck out scads of hitters at Single A West Michigan and at Lakeland, courtesy of a 100-mph fastball.
This was a Hollywood script waiting for Clint Eastwood’s direction in that Foley had not been drafted in 2016. The Tigers found him in the northeast’s abandoned baseball lands, pitching for Sacred Heart University and in sandlot games, when they convinced him to sign as a free agent.
Then, of course, the movie script’s dark-side plot twist arrived when Foley’s elbow needed Tommy John surgery last summer.
But the comeback is on track. Foley is throwing from 120 feet and is expected to begin tossing from a mound in July. He will not pitch in a game in 2018, but, as with Long, the Tigers expect him to be in fine fettle by the start of February’s spring camp.
Bryan Garcia, 23, RH reliever: He was moving steadily closer to Detroit and might already have debuted had he not joined the Tommy John club in February.
Garcia was a sixth-round pick by the Tigers in 2016 and pretty much did nothing but strike out people and make hitters thoroughly miserable during his first two seasons in the minors.
Consider those two-year numbers: 69 games, 73.2 innings, 52 hits, 100 strikeouts, and 25 walks. He throws daggers and was looking as if a pitcher who last year shot from West Michigan, to Lakeland, to Erie, to Toledo, would stick the final stop, Comerica Park, in 2018.
He won’t be pitching in any games in 2018. But at some point next year, perhaps by the start of the regular season, he is expected to be firing his fastball en route to eventual work in Detroit.
Gerson Moreno, 22, RH reliever: He has had happier years, for sure. Moreno was one of the Tigers’ hotshot farmhands through the first half of last season. Things didn’t go as well at Erie, even with Moreno’s near-100-mph fastball making for some unpleasant at-bats.
He followed with a bad spring at Erie, then lost his place on the 40-man roster and was free to be waiver-claimed. But there was a reason for the upheaval: Moreno needed Tommy John surgery, which he had last week (June 12).
He was re-signed by the Tigers and will likely spend most of 2019 rehabbing a right arm the Tigers yet believe could be important to some future bullpens.
Kyle Funkhouser, 24, RH starter: Most Tigers academicians will recall Funkhouser as a fourth-round pick two years ago who a year earlier had been a Dodgers first-rounder. He didn’t care for the money, decided on getting his degree from Louisville, then was plucked by the Tigers in 2016 after a so-so senior year.
He was throwing wonderfully last year at Lakeland until he ran into a tender elbow, but has settled into a second full season on the farm and has been throwing in the past month like a man who could be part of the Tigers’ rotation picture by 2020. His fastball has been burning as high as 97. Pay close attention to Funkhouser, who of late has been overlooked. He is very much part of the portrait.
Junichi Tazawa, 32, RH reliever: The Tigers added Tazawa earlier this month after he washed out with the Marlins during the last months of a two-year contract. The Tigers, though, believe Tazawa was a sensible, low-cost addition (the Marlins bear the brunt of his paydays) when he remains on the fruitful side in terms of age and when his rich background (Red Sox, strikeouts) suggests a reclamation is possible.
He has been working into shape at Tigertown and has impressed the Tigers overseers. Expect to see him at Toledo – soon.
Hunter Cervenka, 28, LH reliever: The Tigers need left-handed depth and decided a dice-roll was in order after Cervenka was a late cut by the Orioles during spring camp. He later caught on with the venerable Sugarland Skeeters of the Atlantic League and was destroying Skeeters enemies, striking out 21 in 17 innings.
Cervenka pitched in two games at Single A Lakeland, allowing a hit and no runs, while striking out five in 3.1 innings. He since has been shipped to Double A Erie.
Expect additional recruits and shuffles to arrive and occur as the farm season moves, with stunning speed, toward its second half.
There are new – and old – faces changing the scenery at various stops in the Tigers minor-league tributaries.