Lakeland, Fla. — Three of the Tigers’ super six-pack of pitching prospects have been in big-league camp all spring, staying in the big-league clubhouse, eating from the big-league spread, working with the big-league training, medical and coaching staff and, most significantly, pitching to big-league hitters.
Right-hander Franklin Perez, the No. 3-ranked prospect in the Tigers system, pitched a scoreless inning Monday against the Phillies, his fastball hitting 96 mph and getting a strikeout with a knee-buckling curveball.
Right-handers Casey Mize, No. 1-ranked prospect, and Kyle Funkhouser, No. 11, were scheduled to throw Wednesday against the Yankees. Mize faced one batter, allowing a hit, in the Tigers' rain-shortened 10-4 victory. Funkhouser did not pitch.
That’s three of the six pitching prospects that helped the Tigers farm system get ranked 10th in baseball by MLB.com — a 20-step climb from where it was four years ago.
But what about the other three? All good.
Matt Manning (No. 2), Beau Burrows (No. 6), and Alex Faedo (No. 10) are all healthy and soldiering on at minor-league camp. Maybe, if they had time to think about it, they might be just a smidge envious of their buddies on the big-league side.
But that’s a small part of a broader kind of anxiety all six are dealing with.
“We get older, we get a little antsy, going through the levels,” Manning said Wednesday. “We get a little more excited. We can see the opportunity in front of us with the big-league team.”
Besides Perez, who was acquired from Houston in the Justin Verlander trade, the other five were first-round picks — including Funkhouser, though he went back to school after the Dodgers took him in 2015. Manning has been in the system since 2016, Burrows since 2015, Faedo in 2017 and Mize was taken first overall last year.
Being an elite prospect is all fine and good for a year or two, climbing the minor-league ladder is part of the deal. But sooner than later, like about now for some of these guys, patience starts to run thin.
“It’s a little frustrating at times,” said Funkhouser, who the Tigers were able to nab in the fourth round in 2016. “Even last year, Double-A, Triple-A, yeah, you are a little bit closer. But even in Double-A when I was scuffling, it was frustrating.
“You do so well at a level and you get promoted, and you don’t have the immediate success you had before. It’s tough. But you just get back down to basics, do what you do best, make adjustments and go from there.”
Burrows hit that snag last season. He blew through Low-A and High-A, but now has been at Double-A Erie the last year and a half. In 15 starts there in 2017, he posted a 4.72 ERA and 1.47 WHIP in 15 starts. Last year, in 26 starts, he had an ERA of 4.10 with a 1.36 WHIP.
“The goal is to get to the big leagues, as soon as possible,” Burrows said. “I mean, I have to get better as a pitcher. I have to be more consistent than I was last year.”
Pitch efficiency is the next hurdle for Burrows. Too much nibbling, too many long counts, too many starts where he gets to 100 pitches in five innings.
“I got banged up in a few starts, just trying to do too much, trying to be too fine,” he said. “I need to get the out in four pitches or less. I think my mentality has to change and go after hitters and not try to be too fancy with them.
“I mean, if I get ahead in the count, I am going to go for the punch-out. But if I’m behind in the count, I can’t try to paint the corner. Just throw it over the plate. I’d rather they put in play than walk a batter.”
Burrows may start in Double-A again, but he likely will spend a good chunk of the year in Triple-A.
“I wouldn’t call it impatient,” he said. “I would say I need to be more consistent. I feel like I’m ready. I’ve got the stuff. It’s just whether or not I can do it more often, more consistently.”
Faedo’s first year in pro ball last season was bumpy, but probably not as bad as the numbers make it look. Although he hates to talk about it, his velocity dipped, which was a source of worry for the Tigers’ front office.
There were a lot of smiles on Tuesday when Faedo was sitting at 92-93 mph in a bullpen session, hitting 94 repeatedly.
“I feel good,” he said. “Nothing mechanical, really, just throwing. I added a little bit to my throwing program, taking care of my body a little better.”
He said he didn’t look at the gun and doesn’t pay attention to all the data collected by the Rapsodo machine. As far as assessing his pitches, he prefers the old-fashioned method.
“I like to see more how the swings are,” he said. “I like to take into account how the swings look. Sometimes people throw hard and guys turn on it. I feel like there’s a lot more that goes into it.”
Faedo, who expects to start the season at Erie, seems to have his patience level in check.
“I finished in Erie last year and I don’t feel like I pitched well enough to say I deserve to be somewhere else,” he said. “I am going to try to pitch as well as I can, do whatever I can every day, but try to be realistic with myself.
“I feel like I have to master every league and learn from every league. There is still stuff I can learn from (Double-A).”
Manning, it’s easy to forget, is only 21. With his size (6-6), length, the extension in his delivery and his newly-gained strength, he may be poised to make a dash up the ladder this season.
“I’ve got my foundation right and I’m not worrying about it when I am pitching now,” he said of the mechanical adjustments he's made the last year or so to accommodate his basketball player's body. “I’m just out there competing now. That’s probably been the biggest thing, knowing where my checks are so that when I’m out of sync I can get back in.”
Manning, at the request of the training staff, lifted more weights this offseason than he has in the past. The result, he reached his target goal of 220 pounds over the weekend. He was 185 pounds when the Tigers drafted him.
“I did a lot of work gaining weight and mobility,” he said. “It’s going to help me a lot this season … I think it’s going to help my durability. I find I don’t have to try so hard to reach back for velocity. It’s just a nice, smooth, easy delivery.”
Regardless of where these six prospects start this season, there is an unspoken goal — more like a hope — that a few of them will be knocking on the big-league door as early as 2020.
“They want us to come out and do our thing,” Manning said. “I think we all know people want us up there. They want us to perform. But we’re here, we’re around good guys in the clubhouse, good coordinators and coaches. Just take it day by day.”