Bob Wojnowski, Lynn Henning and Chris McCosky wrap up the season for the 2018 Detroit Tigers. The Detroit News
Amid tall cactus and short bus rides that make the Arizona Fall League distinct from other minor-league baseball ventures, Tigers prospects are getting graduate-level schooling with the Mesa Solar Sox.
Results, for the most part, have been upbeat.
Daz Cameron, for example. A lad who could be the Tigers’ starting center fielder in 2020 is doing just fine: .286 in 12 games, with a .434 on-base average, courtesy of 11 walks.
Gregory Soto has work to do with the strike zone, but a man who probably is the Tigers’ best left-handed pitching project has thrown in four games spanning 16 innings, with 15 strikeouts, 13 hits, a 3.38 ERA, and 1.25 WHIP. He has walked seven, but that’s not overly bothering his Tigers bosses when baseball’s better-hitting youngsters are featured daily in AFL games, and when Soto was good enough to be anointed the AFL’s Pitcher of the Week after some late-October mastery.
“Good to see Soto pitching effectively,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers vice president of developing. “That’s another level out there, a higher brand of competition.”
Eduardo Jimenez is a right-handed reliever now on the Tigers’ 40-man roster and behaving like a 23-year-old who might be of interest in 2019 when the Tigers need a fresh bullpen arm. Jimenez has pitched neatly the past two seasons on Detroit’s farm and has shined during five games with the Solar Sox: 1.86 ERA and 0.93 WHIP based on 9 2/3 innings in which he has allowed eight hits and struck out nine against a lone walk.
Jake Rogers? His batting average is nothing he cares to advertise (.160), but catchers can find it rough getting everyday work in the AFL. Teams like to have catchers in supply. But getting them starts can be rugged, as Rogers knows when he has played in only seven games since the AFL schedule got rolling early in October.
On the plus side, Rogers has struck out only five times in 25 official at-bats, which is a tiny window into why the Tigers believe 2019 could be a year that proves Rogers will be ready for full-time work in Detroit by 2020.
Danny Woodrow? Daniel Pinero? They have two more weeks to polish their numbers, as does Sandy Baez, a pitcher who worked 118 innings between Erie and Detroit during the regular season, and who has been getting pounded (15.19 ERA) as he perhaps loses steam. Even side-arm stalwart John Schreiber has been having a rougher time in the desert (9.00 ERA) than he had during some sparkling past minor-league summers on Detroit’s farm.
There are similar studies in the offseason chronicles of Tigers prospects that extend to baseball’s Winter Leagues.
Willi Castro’s march toward becoming a regular Tigers shortstop in 2020 hasn’t been hurt by his 14 games with Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Winter League: .302 batting average in 54 at-bats, two home runs, an .824 OPS.
“Good-looking young player,” Littlefield said of a 6-foot-1, 21-year-old switch-hitter the Tigers got from Cleveland in July as part of their Leonys Martin trade.
Daniel Norris wrapped up three starts with another Dominican League tenant, Aguilas Cibaenas, and continued to show why his days with the doctors might have passed, and why his status as a sizzling Tigers starter might finally have arrived: 1.84 ERA in three starts and 14 2/3 innings, which document 11 hits, 12 strikeouts and four walks.
Victor Reyes is catching up, as well, following a season in which he became official Tigers property, having withstood the unease of a Rule 5 season. Reyes is working for the Leones del Caracas.
In seven games and 29 at-bats, Reyes is batting .379 with a.400 on-base percentage. The Tigers intend for Reyes to get everyday shifts next season at Toledo, and perhaps uncoil a swing more befitting the power a man 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds should show a month after he turned 24.
Another part-time Tigers player who had designs on working overtime in the Dominican League, Grayson Greiner, is now at home healing from wrist surgery that removed a bone chip.
"He felt a little bit of clicking in his right wrist, felt some pain,” Littlefield said. “He said it’s something he’s had since college — a clicking sensation, kind of an odd thing.
“But he’ll be all ready to go for spring training.”
The Tigers are convinced Greiner’s surgery was minor, relatively, which could lead them to decide Greiner and John Hicks will be their two primary catchers in 2019. That might spell an end for James McCann’s days in Detroit as the team decides whether to offer him a contract and salary arbitration for 2019.
A pitcher who was billboard-grade heading into 2018 is back as a headliner while working out at the Tigers’ minor-league headquarters at Lakeland, Fla.
Franklin Perez, who tore a LAT muscle in spring training, then had shoulder inflammation later in the season, resembles the pitcher Tigers execs were happy to have nabbed 15 months ago from Houston in their high-drama trade centered on Justin Verlander.
“Looks great,” Littlefield said of a right-handed pitcher, 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, who in five weeks turns 21. “He’s been working real hard in strength-and-conditioning camp. Big, physical guy — he looks like a horse.
“I think he’s feeling good having all this (physical ills) behind him. He’s really impressive.”
The scene at Lakeland is different from past autumns. There are more minor-league players on hand. And there is more staff and technology as the Tigers continue to work with University of Michigan’s strength-and-conditioning experts in a bid to add muscle and endurance.
The alliance with UM comes as the Tigers move to make the most of their $40 million-plus expansion, in concert with Lakeland’s governing bodies, which wrapped up in 2017 and includes the largest weight room in minor-league baseball, as well as hydro-therapy facilities, etc.
“The technology is something,” Littlefield said. “There are sensors and extremely high-speed film where you can see different movement patterns, with testing and identifying areas of strength and weakness.
“There’s a wide range of things involved — swings, pitching efficiencies, firing muscles at the right time. Very, very interesting high-tech things we’re doing.”
Another 40 players are following similar protocol at the Tigers’ developmental camp in Dominican Republic, with 50 more at their Venezuela academy, which is functioning despite Venezuela’s domestic ills.
“A lot of chaos there,” Littlefield said, “but we’ve got safe housing for them, medicine, and good food that can be hard to come by.”
Plans are in place to spruce up the development blue-binder in 2019, much of which was nailed down during last month’s organizational meetings when manager Ron Gardenhire and his staff talked about changes they would endorse — and not only when it comes to hitting cutoff men.
“It was tremendous to have everything thrown on the table,” Littlefield said, “where to tighten things up.
“We’re going to tighten things, have stronger checks and balances,” he said, without offering details. "There are things we need to do on the minor-league side to get these young guys better-prepared for when they get to the big leagues.
“You always need to revisit that.”
Discussions are ongoing, of course, and will begin with general manager Al Avila and conversations he and his lieutenants figure to have with various free agents. Avila will also button-hole colleagues at the annual General Manager Meetings, which are set for next week at Carlsbad, Calif.
A big month will follow ahead of December’s Winter Meetings at Las Vegas. Five weeks later the Tigers Caravan and TigerFest (Jan. 26) will put the lid on an ever-brief Tigers offseason, only days before the team heads for Lakeland and for the next phase of a long franchise remodeling project.