Down on the Tigers farm much has been happening. Most of it good.
The higher-profile teams have been winning a good deal more than was the case in some past years. The pitchers have been quite good at most of Detroit’s minor-league stops. And here and there, that rarest of Tigers farm species, the occasional hitter, is likewise surfacing.
A look at the up, down, and sideways performers with two big months remaining on the farm calendar:
BEST OFFENSIVE SURPRISE: My goodness, Daz Cameron. Where was that bat during the season’s first half?
Cameron headed into Sunday with a .375 batting average and a 1.090 OPS through 12 games after he was bumped to Erie from Single A Lakeland. It wasn’t as if he had been a washout ahead of his upgrade – he had shown particularly during a hot May stretch that he could hit, just as he had bashed the baseball during last season’s second half (.332, .958) when he was in the Astros system. But for Cameron, at age 21, to be adjusting this torridly to Double A explains two things: That the Tigers knew he was better than his numbers at Lakeland. And, more fundamentally, that they have a potential plus preparing to play center field in Detroit.
BEST PROGRESSION BY A PITCHER: Note that Kyle Funkhouser during the past month has been gunning down Double A batters with regularity at Erie. This is not some farm-system phenomenon. Funkhouser was a first-round draft pick three years ago. He didn’t sign with the Dodgers. Nor had he changed biology when the Tigers a year later got him out of Louisville with a fourth-round pick. He simply hadn’t had a big senior season. But that 6-foot-2, 220-pound body and power arm remained. It is back on display. Funkhouser isn’t an ace. He doesn’t need to be an ace. But he has the makings of a solid, mid-rotation starter. And he could be headed for Detroit as early as next year.
BEST SIGN OF DOWN-THE-ROAD TIGERS STABILITY: Their pitching. Other general managers have been paying attention. They wouldn’t mind lassoing one of those Tigers prospect starters. But it isn’t going to happen. Not yet. A potential Tigers rotation as early as 2020 is this: Franklin Perez, Alex Faedo, Beau Burrows, Funkhouser, Casey Mize, and perhaps Matt Manning, if it’s judged that he’s ready. Assume by then that Michael Fulmer will have regained his market sizzle and that he’s dealt, which is a prevailing thought. Assume also that Sandy Baez will have been moved to the bullpen where his near-100-mph fastball can be heated to maximum velocity in shorter stints. Now you’re talking one tough rotation. With some back-end bullpen help, to boot. Will the usual culprits – Tommy John surgery, circulatory issues, oblique muscles, etc. – arise? Sure. But there is significant pitching depth in this system. It’s still the shortest path to winning regularly in the big leagues.
AN EARLY BEAD ON SEPTEMBER CALL-UPS: Bet on maybe four or five of the following group: Ronny Rodriguez (if he’s not already in Detroit), Christin Stewart (needs to find a place on the 40-man roster), Mikie Mahtook, Baez, Sergio Alcantara, Dawel Lugo. The Tigers need to get a peek at Stewart ahead of spring camp. He could be their Opening Day left fielder in 2019.
MOST OVERLOOKED POSITION PLAYER: Jacob Robson, the Windsor product who quietly was bumped last week to Triple A. He batted .286 with an .832 OPS in 67 games at Erie, two years after the Tigers drafted him in the eighth round from Mississippi State. He’s batting .500, with a homer, in two games since being shipped to Toledo. Robson’s a left-handed hitter, 23 years old, is all of 5-10 and 175 pounds, and he’s hit and hit and hit since the Tigers grabbed him in 2016. He can run and play anywhere in the outfield. And because those numbers have been so consistent, never for a moment count him out of the picture in Detroit.
RELIEVERS WHO SHOULD BE FOLLOWED CLOSELY: You can begin with John Schreiber, who knows all about the Detroit River waterway, since he grew up nearby in Rockwood. This dude is a fascination. He’s given up four earned runs in his last 19 games. After a June 11 game last season, he never allowed a single earned run spanning the next three months. Three months of regular appearances in 2017 and no earned runs. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not operators are on call. He’s at it again this year with Erie, averaging about a strikeout per inning, less than one hit per inning, and walking a batter a bit less than once every three innings. He is 6-3, 215, and he throws right-handed.
Consider also Zac Houston, who like Robson, was pulled from Mississippi State in 2016, three rounds after Robson. Houston, 23, is chucking at Triple A Toledo and hasn’t allowed a run in his last 10 games. This, after he was shipped out of Erie after having put up a 2.60 ERA and stingy 0.98 WHIP there. Last year, he had an 0.30 ERA in 20 games at Single A Connecticut and West Michigan. His cumulative minor-league opponent batting average is .132. He has struck out 185 batters in 117.2 innings. He is 6-5, 250, so he won’t be missed when he arrives in Detroit, which looks as if it’s not far from happening.
MOST ANTICIPATED DEBUT BY A JUNE DRAFTEE: Looks as if the early clubhouse leader is Kody Clemens at West Michigan, who sold his share of tickets to Saturday’s Whitecaps game. He didn’t have a hit, but drew a walk. Those who wanted the Tigers to bite on Nick Madrigal with last month’s first-overall pick might be soothed by Clemens, who has the left-handed power Madrigal lacks and the pop the Tigers want in their next long-term second baseman. Clemens won’t be rushed. But if his progression is anything close to internal projections, Clemens could be one of the fastest-movers of any player drafted in June.