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Henning: Tigers reload farm system with shortstop a priority

By Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Sergio Alcantara, top, is the best defensive shortstop prospect the Tigers have in their farm system.

Notice how many shortstops were taken early in the 2018 baseball draft’s first round.

There was one top-10 pick: Nick Madrigal of Oregon State, a slick hitter grabbed fourth by the White Sox, who looks as if he’s eventually ticketed for second base because of a lower-caliber arm.

“It’s just hard to find shortstops in our business,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers’ vice president for player development, who saw June’s draft as more proof that those who can play an infield’s flagship position, and swing a bat with punch, are pure gold.

With their first turn, the Tigers opted for a pitcher who wasn’t to be confused with chopped liver, Casey Mize. But taking Mize meant general manager Al Avila soon would resume his safari for a shortstop, which led to Tuesday’s deadline deal with the Indians for 21-year-old Willi Castro.

“We had identified Castro as our guy,” Avila said Tuesday, a few hours after Detroit had shipped Leonys Martin to the Indians. “We held out to the end to get him. We had tried to get him last year.”

Somewhere within a group that includes Castro, and two more young contenders, Isaac Paredes and Sergio Alcantara, the Tigers expect a new and longer-term answer. Deeper in the farmlands, a couple of teenagers, Wenceel Perez and Alvaro Gonzalez, are now shining.

To which those who follow Detroit baseball might say: It’s about time.

More: Henning: Tigers avoid July trade shutout, but still need mega-deal

The Tigers 13 months ago were so starved for prospects, up the middle and at the corners, Avila all but called Amazon. He made three trades involving J.D. Martinez, Justin Wilson, Alex Avila and Martin, which delivered to Detroit six infield recruits, at least three of whom are percentage bets to play in the big leagues alongside one who already has made it: Jeimer Candelario.

There is no promise any of the remaining five will be big-league regulars or even back-ups. But it looks finally as if the Tigers are restocking with reasonable strength in an infield where defense and offense must meld and where numbers are finally going Detroit’s way.

Possible scenarios

Tuesday’s trade-deadline deal means the Tigers could, in as few as two seasons, be looking at an infield conversion at all four bases.

Possibilities include:

■ Shortstop: Castro.

■ Second base: Kody Clemens, snatched by the Tigers in June with a third-round pick.

■ Third base: Paredes, who is 19 but already at Double A and showing power that could make him a potential All-Star.

■ First base: Candelario, who could ease a potential logjam and, like Miguel Cabrera, move to an opposite infield corner that might strengthen two positions. Candelario is having ups and downs in 2018, but given the usual adjustment to a first full season of big-league ball, the Tigers are comfortable.

For now, Avila said Tuesday, the Tigers will rotate their three heaviest contenders at three different spots.

Prospect Willi Castro is one of several candidates to be the Tigers' future shortstop.

Castro was to begin shortstop shifts Thursday at Double-A Erie. He also will take turns at third and second, as will Paredes and Alcantara. The idea, Littlefield said, is to follow recommendations made by Alan Trammell, a special assistant to Avila, who Sunday got his Baseball Hall of Fame plaque.

Trammell’s advice was to allow each player three or four consecutive starts at each position, which would help develop rhythm.

“I think we tend to lean on Tram’s advice as our most recent Hall of Famer has played some shortstop,” Littlefield said. “He knows how we should go about it. We’ve been talking about situations (position shifts) here and there.”

The shortstop club is not limited, exclusively, to Castro, Paredes and Alcantara.

Dixon Machado now works at Triple-A Toledo and could become a stopgap option in 2019 given that Jose Iglesias is three months from free agency.

The Tigers have Cole Peterson at Single-A Lakeland and believe, if he can add muscle, a backup, at least, could be bubbling.

Danny Pinero probably will move positions and yet needs to show he can hit. Also in mind is Jose King, a 19-year-old speedster who along with Alcantara and second baseman Dawel Lugo arrived last summer in the J.D. Martinez swap.

A.J. Simcox officially is part of the Tigers’ farm class, although Simcox, a 14th-round pick three years ago from the University of Tennessee, never has hit and probably has reached his ceiling.

Two kids with celebrity potential are farther down:

■ Perez, 18, is a switch-hitter who two years ago cost the Tigers a half-million dollars, heavy by international standards, when they signed him out of Azua, Dominican Republic. He now is playing at Single-A Connecticut after batting .383 with a 1.006 OPS in 20 games for the Gulf Coast League Tigers.

■ Gonzalez, 17, was an even heavier Tigers investment when they signed a Venezuelan teen a year ago for $1 million. Premier money was the price for an athlete who, at 6-foot, 170 pounds, has the size Detroit believes could deliver a plus hitter.

“They all have the ability to play,” Littlefield said, speaking mostly of the Castro-Alcantara-Paredes trio now working at Erie. “The overall theme from Al is to get as many good players as you can, and ultimately you find a way to sort it all out.”

Three to watch

Tigers scouting reports on the more advanced cast are in line with outside appraisals:

■ Castro: He turned 21 in April and has size (6-1, 165) the Tigers especially like when there’s room for muscle.

Baseball America had Castro as the Indians’ seventh-ranked prospect heading into 2018, saying: “Castro sprays line drives from both sides of the plate. He started coming into his power more in 2017, when he hit 11 home runs to more than double his career total. He is an aggressive hitter, limiting his walks, but controls the strike zone well and makes a lot of contact. He has above-average speed and is a threat on the bases.”

Castro also makes a few too many errors, more because he has aggression to match his range. The Tigers insist Castro can be smoothed and that a defender who is less of a thrill-ride will soon be on display.

Isaac Paredes

■ Paredes: He became one of those rare Florida State League stories when he, while still in his teens, this summer reached double-figure homers at Single-A Lakeland.

The Tigers moved him to Double A, which appears shrewd. Entering Thursday he was batting .389 in 12 games with a .967 OPS.

Paredes is a right-handed hitter with such upside the Tigers made him, along with Candelario, their trade price when Wilson and Avila last summer were shipped to the Cubs.

There has been a single question about Paredes: Can a man who is 5-11 and 225 pounds stick at short? Probably not, given range requirements, which is why he is part of the current rotation at Erie.

The Tigers say his arm is strong enough for third base, which is where Paredes seems most likely to land. Today’s forecast suggests he could push Candelario to first, which might be Detroit’s best answer as Miguel Cabrera prepares for eventual duty as a fulltime designated hitter.

■ Alcantara: The best defender of the three has a splendid arm, and like Castro, is a switch-hitter. Alcantara last month turned 22 and is batting .277 at Erie with a .334 on-base average.

The issue is slugging percentage: .347. Alcantara is 5-9, 168, and can expect to start only if he can produce something better than the 19 extra-base hits in 95 games racked up this season at Erie.

This bid to make shortstop more than a defensive bastion is heavy in the Tigers’ reconstruction thoughts. Once upon a time, shortstop was a place where gloves mattered more than bats. No longer, though, is a team with thoughts of playing in a World Series willing to live with great tradeoffs there.

Flexing muscle

The Tigers have been trying to add not only players, but pop, as they plot their re-design, pounding home a particular message to kid candidates, not only at short, but elsewhere. They have the largest weight-room of any minor-league headquarters in baseball a year after their Lakeland, Fla., renovations wrapped up. And they want it at full occupancy.

One example of what weight-room rigors can produce is now on their payroll, Don Kelly, the former Tigers handyman who works as a team scout.

Kelly a decade ago turned himself from a string-bean first baseman into a multi-position, left-handed hitter and nine-year big-leaguer.

“Some of those skinny guys you project will fill out, and often they do,” said Littlefield, who knows customizing bodies can mean adding beef to Castro and Alcantara, or trimming an overly thick Paredes.

“This is all part of player development, whether it’s nutrition, or enhancing skills. We’ve got this beautiful new facility and we want to take advantage of that.”

They’ve also got a looming hole at shortstop. Their dream is that at least one of the kids now auditioning can take command — not only with a glove, but with a booming bat. It’s a combo, missing for a while in Detroit, that tends to be seen in October when baseball’s best teams are still at work.