Do Tigers have a future Big Four? Pitching prospects sure hope so
Detroit — They're "guys," barely having graduated from "boys," so they talk about a lot of stuff. And not all of it pertains to their profession, which is baseball.
But when they do talk baseball, sure, they talk about one day — one day making it to The Show; one day taking turns pitching on that mound over there, just a couple hundred yards from where on this chilly winter day they're putting their golden hands to other uses, signing autographs; one day, being the faces of the Detroit Tigers.
Such is the story of four baby-faces — Alex Faedo, Matt Manning, Casey Mize and Franklin Perez — who, along with a few others, are widely considered the future of the proud if floundering franchise.
And, absolutely, they know it.
"It's super exciting," said Mize, who carries himself as the wiser elder of the group. He's preparing to get married, for gosh sakes. "I'm happy to be a part of the group. We talk about it, sure, like looking forward to getting up to Detroit, playing together, things like that. We're just trying to become boys, build a relationship, build that foundation.
"That's honestly the most important thing right now. Once we move up and once we get to the big leagues, that's when we can start moving forward with that."
Depending whom you ask, the Tigers — who made the postseason five times from 2006-14, including the World Series twice, but now have logged back-to-back 98-loss seasons — are anywhere from three to 300 years from again being seriously competitive.
How quickly it happens will, almost assuredly, depend on the rise of the four prospects who were in town this offseason, some in Detroit for the very first time, plus a few others, like fellow pitchers Beau Burrows and Kyle Funkhouser and position prospects Daz Cameron, Christin Stewart, Isaac Paredes and Jake Rogers.
The Tigers farm system never will be confused with the diamond mines that eventually turned the Kansas City Royals into the 2015 World Series champions, or the Houston Astros into the 2017 champs.
But there are signs of progress. For instance, ESPN's Keith Law recently included three Tigers (Mize, Manning and Cameron) on his list of the top 100 prospects, and has Detroit's system ranked 18th — just four years after he ranked it 30th out of 30. So, most objective prospect analysts will concede there's more promise and talent in the Tigers' minor leagues than there has been for several decades, when a combination of factors — first, for so long, ineptitude in the front office; then, more recently, mortgaging the future to go for broke in the present — turned Detroit's pipeline into Uncle Buck's muffler.
"I think we're all gonna come up together," Manning said, "and win a lot of games."
Experience agrees with Mize
Spring training is right around the corner — the equipment truck already has arrived in Lakeland, Florida — and not long ago, this used to be a time of extreme optimism among Tigers fans. Things have calmed, severely, in recent years, especially this year, as general manager Al Avila has confirmed the rebuilding Tigers won't be serious players for big-named free agents until 2021 at the earliest.
That means most if not all interested eyes will be focused on the faces of tomorrow, and Faedo, Manning, Mize and Perez, all right-handers, are certainly atop that list. It's why the Tigers brought the foursome into town in December, for a pre-holiday meet-and-greet with the fans.
Mize, 21, is the most interesting of the bunch, given that he was the No. 1 overall pick out of Auburn last June. (The $7.5-million bonus is being put to good use already, with new wheels and wedding planning.) The Tigers limited his innings last summer, with good reason — and with his blessing. His college workload was extreme, and there's no need to rush him, even though many experts believe he could help a major-league contender right now. Instead, his focus has been on conditioning. His body mass is up — he's around 225 — while his body fat is going down.
Still, those 13 2/3 innings he pitched professionally in 2018 were beneficial.
"Even if it was a small sample size, now I just have the confidence that I've done it before. I know what to expect," said Mize, who was invited to big-league camp.
"Obviously, I don't know what a full season entails, spring training, things like that. That'll all be new. But just to say I've pitched professionally and I know what to expect a little bit makes it a little bit better."
Manning, also 21, who was the ninth overall pick out of high school in 2016, would come in next among that foursome, and might be the closest to seeing Detroit, given that he's entering his fourth professional season and is coming off a season in which he made great strides.
Manning's stock dipped in 2017, as command became a serious issue. Some outside the organization were whispering the "b" word: bust. But the Tigers brass stepped in, tweaked his mechanics, and in 2018, he put together his most-impressive season yet. With stops at low-A West Michigan, high-A Lakeland and, finally, Double-A Erie, he struck out 154 in 117 2/3 innings. He allowed just 90 hits. He still walked too many, 51, but the walk ratio still was down considerably from 2017. In 2017, Tigers brass even held him out of some low-pressure instructional ball games, because they were afraid piling up the walks would continue to damage his psyche.
Manning's curveball took a big step in 2018; this year, he wants to have the same development with his change-up.
"I got more seasoned, I guess," Manning, who jumped back into Law's top 100 after being left off the list a year earlier, said of his 2018 development, dismissing any radical change. As for 2019, "This year, just more consistency. ... Trying to log innings and just learn how to compete and get deeper in the games."
Perez, another 21-year-old, isn't technically homegrown, given that he was acquired from the Houston Astros in the August 2017 trade for Justin Verlander.
But he's another one of the big ones to watch, particularly in 2019, as he tries to rebound from a 2018 season in which he acknowledged he was "really, really frustrated."
Perez had a 1.135 WHIP between stops at high-A and Double-A in the Houston system in 2017, but only pitched 19.1 innings, total, between brief stops at rookie ball and high-A for Detroit in 2018. A lat injury came first, shelving him for two-plus months, and then in late July he was shut down with shoulder inflammation. He started throwing relatively early this offseason, in November, first from 60 feet, then to 75. By late December, he was at 90, and prepared to be ready for the start of spring training.
"It was hard, but he learned a lot. What he learned a lot was patience. God has plans," Perez said through a translator. "That helped me a lot, like my mind is stronger."
And then there's Faedo, the elder statesman of the group at 23, who was drafted in the first round, 18th overall, in the 2017 draft out of Florida. He was a celebrated pick by many, given that he was on his way to leading Florida to the national championship, earning College World Series Most Outstanding Player honors along the way.
It was that workload that had the Tigers shut him down after drafting him. He debuted, professionally in 2018, first at high-A Lakeland, where he was good, then at Double-A Erie, where he was not.
The home runs went way up at Erie — 15 in 60 1/3 innings — while the velocity dipped, and noticeably so, leading some scouts to utter the "r" word: reliever.
Faedo is a cool kid from Tampa, who might not let on if his house was on fire. And he wasn't fretting the home runs ("I threw a lot of strikes, we played on a little-smaller fields) or the dip in velocity ("I couldn't care less, no, I don't care, honestly").
Faedo, oddly a left-hander in just about everything but pitching, was part of a Tigers contingent that attended a sports science seminar at the University of Michigan, where, "I was informed of a lot of things." But he's not spilling the beans.
"Everyone's on the same plan," Faedo said of his development timetable and such.
Other young arms to watch include Funkhouser, 24, a fourth round pick in 2016 out of Louisville, so long as he watches his step. He was shut down in July with a broken bone in his right foot, after tripping on an uneven sidewalk; as well as Bryan Garcia, 23, yet another right-hander who was a sixth-round pick in 2016 out of Miami (Fla.), and who is returning this year from Tommy John surgery.
Signs of progress
In Law's rankings, Mize is the No. 15 prospect in baseball, with Manning No. 65 and Perez and Faedo unranked, given their frustrating 2018 seasons. Law told The News recently that while the Tigers system has made significant progress, there is a ways to go, and things will hinge on nailing the next couple drafts, at least, while also dipping their toes into the international market.
Still, it's a long way from when the Tigers were the worst farm system in Law's estimation, just four years ago.
As for where the Big Four pitch this year, that remains up for discussion, though each is expected to see Double-A Erie at some point, with Faedo likely to start there. Mize and Manning might be the lone candidates to see Detroit in September, when rosters expand, though there might not be much reason to start the clock on their contract statuses, given Detroit, again, is years from contending. The sooner they come up, the sooner they'll be free agents. Why rush it.
That hasn't stopped Mize, Manning, Perez and Faedo of envisioning what it'll be like when they all do arrive, perhaps together, and perhaps with a bang, not unlike 2006, when Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya burst onto the scene — and turned Detroit into a frenzy en route to a stunning World Series appearance.
"Oh, it's an honor," Faedo said, when asked about being lumped into the "faces of the future" group.
Said Manning: "I think we understand that the five of us, with Beau, we really kind of know what's going on. The Tigers have communicated with us kind of what they want and their goals. I think we're all on the same page. We also have a lot of position players that are really, really good. Daz. Christin Stewart. Brock (Deathrage). They're all really good. So I think we're bringing in the right guys."
The Tigers have been optimistic about their prospects before. Remember that three-year draft from 2008-10? It netted them Ryan Perry, Jacob Turner and Chance Ruffin.
There's a sense this time is different, though. The front office has been overhauled. The scouting department has been beefed up. Analytics is actually a word you'll hear in the halls of Comerica Park. It might not be Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery. But it shouldn't be Perry, Turner and Ruffin, either.
Time, as always, will tell.
"I think there's pressure on most anything, doing anything," Mize said of the great expectations being heaped upon this group, even if by the fans more than the front office. "That's a positive thing. Expectations, pressure, they can be a positive thing. It just depends on how you handle it."