This month, the Tigers will be forced to make decisions on the protection of 37 players in their system. Many of the decisions will be relatively easy to make, as very few players on the list of 37 would draw interest from another team in the Rule 5 draft.
In my estimation, and based on discussions I've had with many people in the industry, there are between ten and twelve players that at least bring reason for pause when considering their roster status over the next few weeks. Those players include Duane Below, Charlie Furbush, Cale Iorg, Ramon Lebron, Luis Marte, Gustavo Nunez, Lester Oliveros, Jose Ortega, Wilsen Palacios, Zach Simons, Brayan Villarreal, and Brendan Wise.
Of those players, though some prospect followers may pause and consider protecting the likes of Lebron and Palacios, it is simply not practical to expect them to be added to the roster. Both players offer a fair amount of upside, but neither is anywhere near close enough to worry about a potential selection in the draft.
Left-handers like Duane Below and Charlie Furbush offer a different problem, as budget-conscious teams in need of a lefty reliever could be enticed by a pitcher like this as an option during spring training.
Below's numbers with Double-A Erie last year were not flashy by any means, but he showed an 89-92 mph fastball, while touching 95 on occasion, along with a curveball and change-up that both showed promise. As with many pitchers in their first year back after Tommy John surgery, his command was hit-or-miss, but there is big league potential in his left arm.
"I like him," said a veteran scout. "He's got big league stuff, and he grinds out there. You'll see him up there soon."
Much of the same can be said for Furbush, who blazed through Lakeland and Erie last summer, before stumbling with Triple-A Toledo. In his second year removed from his own Tommy John surgery, Furbush showed an average fastball, getting up to 92 at times, and flashing a solid-average curveball. His command was never a strong point of his game prior to surgery, and it remains well below average.
Both Below and Furbush would be stretched in big league roles in 2011 – even if asked to only provide the occasional low-leverage out of a lefty hitter in the middle innings.
Several Tigers relievers offer a much different decision process. Marte, Oliveros, Ortega, Simons, and Wise are all solid right-handers with good stuff, and the potential to pitch in the big leagues in some capacity.
Marte doesn't have the velocity that put his name on the tongues of Tiger fans two years ago, but he still works with an average fastball that touches 93, and one of the system's best sliders. He profiles as more of a middle reliever, working in the sixth or seventh inning.
Oliveros and Ortega both offer power arms that still need to be fully harnessed. Oliveros has been on the radar as a solid Tigers prospect for several years, and his mid-90s heat and very good slider have the potential to make him a dynamic late inning reliever. Ortega can also get his fastball up to 94 or 95 with some regularity, though he has less deception, and profiles more in the 7th inning.
Zach Simons has been on the Tigers 40-man roster before, but was removed and cleared waivers following the 2009 season. He was outstanding in 2010, pitching at both Double- and Triple-A, where he further cemented himself as a viable big league relief prospect.
Wise has been working in the Arizona Fall League as he tries to earn his place on the 40-man roster. Though he offers the least flashy stuff of the relievers discussed here, he could be a middle relief option with his outstanding sinker-slider combination.
The final pitcher worth of attention is skinny right-hander Brayan Villarreal. Often dinged for his short stature and thin frame, Villarreal offers plus velocity, touching 96 several times an outing. He also mixes in a breaking ball and change-up that have shown some promise in the past. Most scouts are a bit skeptical of his ability to demonstrate the durability and stamina to remain in the rotation, but they also recognize that he has enough stuff to get big league hitters out; likely in a 6th or 7th inning role.
The final two players that the Tigers must consider, easily offer the most interesting discourse, and are possibly the most controversial among fans as well. Shorstops Cale Iorg and Gustavo Nunez are polarizing figures among fans, though scouts routinely see the same things. Neither player offers the ability to hit at anything but a below-average level, but both provide at least plus speed, plus arm strength, and brilliant defense at the infield's most demanding position.
After a breakout season with West Michigan in 2009, Nunez's offense disappeared at Lakeland in 2010, but he still earned big league grades from scouts who loved his speed and defense, and felt he could still get to the game's highest level, even without much of a stick.
"When you pick it like that, you're going to get a chance," said one AL scout. "That kind of defense isn't easy to find at shortstop, and teams are starting to lean toward defense-first options there now. At worst, he's a slick-fielding, fast running utility guy for me, and I really think he could be an everyday guy at short."
Iorg is much the same type of talent, though he offers a bit less speed, and the ability to hit for average power. Like Nunez, his defense is also spectacular.
Though they offer many of the same things on the baseball field, their similarities don't end there. They both wear the tag of a player Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has discussed in interviews as potentially very good big leaguers; even calling Iorg a future All-Star prior to the 2009 season.
The one constant with both Iorg and Nunez is the final grade on their scouting reports throughout the season; that grade signifying a future big league shortstop, even without the ability to hit consistently.
"As long as you aren't expecting them to hit, then [Nunez and Iorg] are fine big league shortstops," said another AL scout. "If you expect them to hit and contribute anywhere but the field, you'll be disappointed. I'd let them gobble up everything in sight on my team, no doubt."
All of that provides quite the conundrum for a team like the Tigers, a team that just signed Jhonny Peralta to a two-year deal.
In the end, the Tigers are likely to add anywhere from 2-4 players to the 40-man roster in advance of the roster deadline. With the roster currently sitting at 33 players, The Tigers will need to keep some space for off-season acquisitions, knowing that they may have other player jettisoned from the roster through non-tenders or designating other youngsters for assignment.
The Tigers will almost certainly have to give serious consideration to adding both Iorg and Nunez to the roster, or they may risk losing them during December's Rule 5 draft. The difficult part comes when considering, as mentioned, that Peralta is now in the fold for two years, and two other young infielders with the ability to play short – Audy Ciriaco and Danny Worth – are already on the roster. Just how many similar players can one team protect?
The organization is also likely to give serious consideration to protecting a host of young pitchers, of which my list would include Charlie Furbush, Brayan Villarreal, Zach Simons and Lester Oliveros. The merits of each pitcher has already been discussed, but given Oliveros' potential to be a late inning stopper, he is the only no-brainer of the bunch for me.
Simons and Villarreal both offer quality stuff and 7th inning possibilities, but it is unclear how many teams would be willing to stash them on the 25-man roster for the year. Furbush also runs the risk of being selected, particularly after his electric start to the 2010 season, but his struggles in Toledo may hold teams back from popping him.
As a means of prediction, it seems logical that the Tigers would protect at least one of – and very possibly – both slick fielding shortstops, as well as two of the pitchers mentioned immediately above. My best guess involves the addition of both Iorg and Nunez, along with Lester Oliveros, and one more pitcher.