Tigers cautiously optimistic over impressive early outings by Franklin Perez

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. – The Tigers haven’t exactly let veteran Cameron Maybin ease into things this spring, though he has gotten a bird's-eye view of what they’ve been building since he last left in 2016.

On his first day of live batting practice, he faced No. 4 lefty prospect Tarik Skubal. Second day, he’s taking 98-mph bullets from lefty reliever Gregory Soto. But that was just the warmup for Thursday when Maybin went up there hacking first at right-hander Franklin Perez (No. 6) and then No. 2-rated prospect Matt Manning.

Franklin Perez

“There’s a lot that makes you smile in here,” Maybin said. “Yeah, it’s youth and growth is part of it. But there’s some things in here – I know I’m smiling walking out of the cage going, ‘OK. All right. That’s not bad. Especially throwing 95-96 this early? Not bad.’”

For Perez, who came in the Justin Verlander trade, it was his second live session and both were impressive.

“We have a lot of really top prospects that have been talked about an awful lot,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “But Andy (pitching coach Rick Anderson) said watching Perez throw his pens, he can be THE top prospect if he can stay healthy.

“The ball really comes out of his hand. It’s pretty powerful. And that’s encouraging.”

Grayson Greiner caught Perez for the first time Thursday and came away impressed. Brady Policelli, who caught his two appearances in Lakeland last season, caught him in his first live session on Tuesday. He said the ball was coming out livelier than he’d ever seen it.

“He’s been really impressive,” Policelli said. “The best I’ve ever seen him.”

Tigers special assistants to the general manager Lance Parrish and Kirk Gibson talk during batting practice at camp Thursday.

It’s almost ghoulish to say, but with his history, you almost watch Perez’s sessions like a NASCAR race, anticipating a crash. Because of shoulder injuries (non-surgical), he’s only thrown 27 innings the last two seasons, 7.2 last year.

“If we can keep him on the mound,” Gardenhire said. “Hopefully he will get through this and he is past all this (injury) stuff. Because he’s got great stuff.”

He just turned 22 and is starting to fill out his 6-foot-3 frame. He was listed last year at 190 pounds, but it’s likely he’s over 200, solidly, these days.

“It’s early and he’s working on stuff, command and stuff,” Maybin said. “But he’s definitely got something in the tank, for sure.”

Perez will likely start at High-A Lakeland this season and would progress quickly if he stays healthy. The obstacle will be his innings limit, something the Tigers will keep a wary eye on especially as he gets near 100 innings.

But as general manager Al Avila said during the winter meetings, “If he’s healthy and he’s on that mound, and all we have to worry about is building innings, that’s a good thing.”

Super emergency catcher

In a perfect world, Gardenhire would use the 26th spot on the roster for a utility player who could also catch, like he had with Chris Herrmann for three years with the Twins.

In Brady Policelli, the Tigers have that kind of player, but he’s 24 and hasn’t advanced above High-A ball. Most likely, veteran Jordy Mercer and Harold Castro will be the two utility players this season, neither of them catch.

So, what’s Gardenhire going to do?

“If our two catchers go down, (Ramon) Santiago is catching,” he joked. “They won’t know who he is. I’ll just put a name on his shirt.”

Ramon Santiago, who built a 13-year career as a utility infielder, is the Tigers' third base coach. 

Around the horn 

The more Gardenhire learns about his new catcher, Austin Romine, the more he likes him. “He’s a quiet guy, but he handles himself very well,” Gardenhire said. “I was talking to him before batting practice and he pays attention to a lot of stuff. He’s going to be really good for our ballclub. He’s played with those big boys, those great players over in New York and he has a good handle on this game – what pitchers can and can’t do, stuff like that. He’s going to help immensely.”

… Catcher Jake Rogers, who was supposed to start in the exhibition game against Southeastern University Friday, was pulled out of drills Thursday because of back stiffness. He will be evaluated daily, but he will not play in the game.

… Gardenhire said his starting lineup for Friday will be Daz Cameron, Derek Hill and Jorge Bonifacio in the outfield, Dawel Lugo at third, Willi Castro at shortstop, Harold Castro at second and Brandon Dixon at first. Eric Haase will catch lefty Tarik Skubal.

Twitter @cmccosky