Tigers infield prospect Isaac Paredes takes batting practice on Friday in Lakeland, Fla. The Detroit News
Lakeland, Fla. – It wasn’t all that long ago that Beau Burrows was the first name mentioned when you talked about the Tigers’ top pitching prospects.
“I felt like I was on top of the world for a year or two,” he said with a wry grin, peeking down at the far end of the Tigers’ spring training clubhouse where the current core of top prospects -- Casey Mize, Alex Faedo and Matt Manning -- were holding court Friday morning.
This is a tale about the fleeting relevance of prospect status. It’s compelling. It creates plenty of chatter and debate. It provides some weight and measure for a club’s minor league system. For most players, though, it is meaningless. For others, the weight of attending expectations can be harmful.
Prospect status might speed your ascent through the lower levels of the minor leagues. It might afford you more notoriety and a longer leash in the organization. But it can’t help you once you get between the lines. You sink or swim with your talent and performance.
Just ask Burrows. A first-round pick (22nd overall) in 2015, he was the Tigers' No. 1 prospect for nearly two years. But a rough season at Double-A Erie in 2018 and an injury-shortened season at Triple-A Toledo last year has bucked him down to No. 14 and thrown him into a fight to keep his big-league dream alive.
“It was cool being a prospect when you are 18, 19 years old,” said Burrows, still just 23. “It’s cool when you are young and in the minor leagues. I don’t really care about prospect status. Getting to the big leagues is all I care about.”
Center fielder Daz Cameron came to the Tigers in the Justin Verlander trade in August 2017 and was immediately ranked third in the Tigers’ system. There was as much buzz about him last spring as there has been already this year about the elite, young pitchers.
In fact, when JaCoby Jones injured his shoulder late in camp, there was some spirited organizational discussion about bringing Cameron north to start the season.
Didn't happen. And here we are a year and one rotten Triple-A season later and Cameron has fallen a few pegs on the prospect list (to No. 8) and there is no talk of him making the club this spring.
“My goal is just to come in and be myself,” Cameron said. “I’m not trying to do anything. I feel like when you try to prove things, you add extra pressure, and that’s when other things start to happen. That’s when you start to press.
“You want to play freely, go out and have fun and help your team win ballgames. That’s it.”
That's the opposite of what he did last year.
Cameron, just 22, is still considered one of the organization's top prospects. But when he was sent down to Toledo last spring, he made the hasty and ill-advised decision to change his swing. He’d hit eight home runs in 2018. Perhaps he thought increasing power numbers might hasten his path to the big leagues.
The result: He did hit 13 home runs, but he also struck out 152 times in 528 plate appearances, hit .214 and slugged just .377.
“A lot of it was just me not being myself,” he said. “When you think about it, me being myself and not trying to be something I’m not. What I mean by that is, by changing my stance, changing my approach. I just need to stick to what I do best.”
He tried to increase the launch angle on his swing, to get more balls into the air.
“Little bit of that,” he said. “Instead of squaring the ball up, I tried to lift it over everyone. When you get outside of what you do, you start losing your strength.”
Cameron played 21 games in the Puerto Rican Winter League, and although his numbers weren’t great (.205 average), he said he feels like he has gotten back to his old swing mechanics and hitting more balls on a line.
“I’m back to doing what I’ve done and I’m not trying to change anything,” he said. “I am just believing in myself and what I can do. I feel like I did get a little (greedy) last year, for sure. Trying to push myself and prove myself instead of letting it come to me.”
Burrows’ reality check came in 2018. While he was giving up a lot of crooked numbers at Double-A Erie (4.10 ERA, 1.35 WHIP), the Tigers were loading up on young, elite arms and a few of his contemporaries, like Spencer Turnbull and Tyler Alexander, were leap-frogging him.
“I feel like that definitely helped me mature,” Burrows said. “Having those struggles in 2018 when I plateaued in Double-A, I had to mature a little bit.”
He started last season at Triple-A Toledo and was still on track to get to Detroit by September. But biceps tendinitis and shoulder inflammation shut him down for two months. Then, after 10 rough starts through July and early August, an oblique strain shut him down for the season.
“It was frustrating,” he said. “But it’s a curse and a blessing because being hurt makes you realize what you need to do to maintain things a whole season. And it helps you focus on getting your small muscles ready, stronger and it just helps your mindset to be a more mature baseball player.”
What had to cut him deep, too, was that general manager Al Avila told the media earlier in the season that Burrows was one of the young pitchers he thought could make an impact in 2019.
“When he said that, it was cool to hear,” Burrows said. “But I knew I had a lot of work to do. Obviously, getting injured didn’t help the cause. But that was last year. I’ve put that behind me and I’m just thinking about 2020.”
Burrows is healthy. He threw a bullpen on Friday and got a lot of atta-boys from pitching coach Rick Anderson. For now, Burrows is being stretched out to start. He’s scrapped his slider and added a cutter that he thinks can be a difference-maker for him.
Still, his quickest path to Detroit might be in the bullpen.
“I’m flexible,” he said. “I’ll do whatever it takes. Right now, I’m still starting and I’m feeling good. My body is good. Just ready to get out there and compete and see what happens.”
And that’s the real reality for both Burrows and Cameron. Your career doesn’t have to end after the light of prospect status dims.
Tigers key dates
► Sunday: Full squad reports.
► Monday: First official full-squad workout.
► Feb. 21: First exhibition game, vs. Southeastern University, 1:05 p.m.
► Feb. 22: First Grapefruit League game, vs. Phillies at Joker Marchant Stadium, 1:05 p.m.
► March 7: Tigers and Twins play Grapefruit League game at Juan Marichal Stadium in Dominican Republic.
► March 26: Opening Day vs. Indians at Progressive Field, 1:10 p.m.
► March 30: Home opener vs. Royals at Comerica Park, 1:10 p.m.