Comstock Park, Mich. — Even the harshest critics of Al Avila’s Tigers front office would be hard pressed to find much fault in its first-round draft selections.
Since 2016, from Matt Manning to Alex Faedo to Casey Mize and Riley Greene, Avila’s team has used the top pick to procure cornerstones of the Tigers slow-moving rebuild.
It’s after that where things have sometimes gone off the rails.
Led by Nick Quintana and Andre Lipcius, the 2019 class is trying to reverse the trend of futility after the first, with six draftees already in Low-A West Michigan, an aggressive amount for draft year pro newbies.
“This group of college guys is probably one of the best groups that I’ve seen in the time I’ve been here, as far as overall talent in one draft,” Whitecaps manager Lance Parrish said Thursday. “I appreciate guys that come in that are talented like that and give a lot of energy, and just demonstrate the way they play, the leadership skills that I look for. They lead by example, they go out and play the game the way it’s supposed to be played, they play hard. That’s really what a lot of these other guys they need to see.”
Through Friday, the six draft year Whitecaps have combined for 346 plate appearances and four innings pitched, with fifth-round outfielder Bryant Packard, sixth-round catcher Cooper Johnson, seventh-round left-handed pitcher Zack Hess, and eighth-round shortstop Jack Kenley also in tow.
Over the past three seasons combined, six Whitecaps totaled 293 plate appearances and four innings pitched through July 26 of their draft year.
Before August even hits, fast friends Quintana and Lipcius are already camped in the Whitecaps infield: Quintana, the second-round pick from Arizona, at third base, and Lipcius, the third-round pick from Tennessee, mostly learning a new position at second base for the first time in his career.
For the Vols, Lipcius played third base as a junior, shortstop as a sophomore and first base as a freshman and sees his ability to move from second to third to first to shortstop as an organizational asset.
“He’s got really good instincts everywhere,” Parrish said. “The thing that impresses me most about him is he’s got an accurate arm and he throws really good on the run, as does Quintana.”
While Quintana has struggled to hit out of the gates, Lipcius is batting .264 with a .341 on-base percentage. However, the third part of his slash line, a .339 slugging percentage, could use a boost. “The numbers will go up and down. It’s not really an issue right now,” said Lipcius, a nuclear engineering major at Tennessee, who grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia. “I’m just trying to get comfortable, and I’m excited to play.
“I’m just having a lot of fun right now.”
Lipcius and Quintana, who showed up in Lakeland together after being drafted and were sent to West Michigan at the same time, have one home run apiece in 256 combined plate appearances.
They even hit a breakfast spot in Plainfield often.
“They know who we are there,” Lipcius said, although we’ll decline to name the establishment to protect their privacy. “It’s nice to have someone that you enjoy being around that knows exactly what you’re going through. A good buddy to be around.”
Though he has a strong arm, Quintana has been struggling with batted balls with 13 errors in 30 games. Through Friday, Quintana was hitting .194 with 39 strikeouts in 120 plate appearances.
“It could definitely be better,” Quintana said. “But every baseball player goes through the ups and downs. So, for me, having experienced that before, I’m not really worried too much.
“I know there’s a lot of expectations people have, so to speak, but for me I’m really getting my feet wet, really just grasping the whole thing of minor league baseball. But every day I’m trying to get better, and every day it’s easier.”
Quintana looks his part well — the guitar player from Las Vegas as long hair flowing out of his hat. He’s enjoying the Lake Michigan coast, visiting Saugatuck with his girlfriend on a recent day off and also stopping by Windmill Island Gardens in Holland.
“He’s got a great temperament, nothing bothers him,” Parrish said. “He can have a bad day at the plate, and you’d never see it by the way he plays defense. You know those guys who lead by example, he just plays hard every day.
“I guess in baseball terminology he’s what you call a gamer. He just goes out there, plays hard and whatever happens, happens.”
Added Quintana: “I’ve always been a very energetic, positive person. I’ve just grown up that way, that’s how I’ve always been. I’ve just found the more positive you are, the better things are going to be for you, the better outlook you’re going to have.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.
To cap it off
Manager Lance Parrish weighs in on four other 2019 draft year players making an impact at West Michigan.
►Bryant Packard, fifth round, OF: “It’s unfortunate that we lost Packard for a while (with an injury) because he was just heating up and swinging the bat well, showing signs of doing what he was advertised to do, swinging the bat well. He’s a contact hitter, drives the ball well. So yeah, he’s going to be big for us when he gets back in the lineup.”
►Cooper Johnson, sixth round, C: “He has really looked good. If (Wednesday) was any example. In very crucial situations, he made some great blocks, balls that had to block, that he couldn’t afford to let by him. I think that shows our pitching staff that they should have the confidence to be able to throw the ball in the dirt when they have to - try to get a chase pitch when they have to. He throws the ball really well. Set up is great, frames the ball really well. Whoever worked with him early on did a great job. He’s very polished in what he’s done. He’s driven a few balls really well. He doesn’t back down, he’s aggressive at the plate and you like to see that. You look at him, the way he’s built, you know he’s going to hit the ball out of the ballpark at some point. All things considered, he’s a solid draft pick as well.”
►Zack Hess, seventh round, LHP: “(Wednesday night) he was money. Really the only rough outing he had was a few days in Kane County. He came in with a two-run lead, gave up a single, then walked a couple guys, a couple things happened defensively. I had to take him out of the game because he was out of pitches, I can only let him throw so many pitches a game. But with the exception of that game, every time he’s come in, he’s just been lights out. He’s a high velocity guy, he’s got a good breaking ball, he’s got a great mound presence, he’s a big guy (6 foot 6). Probably looks a little intimidating out there, so he’s the real deal too.
►Jack Kenley, eighth round, SS: “Kenley has come on strong as well. Had a little bit of a rough first game but has played solid defense ever since and can swing the bat. He’s got three home runs (in West Michigan). He would’ve been the last guy of the group that I thought would’ve hit home runs, but he’s been able to square it up three times. I like what I see. He’s a worker too. I can’t work him enough, really.”