2012 Toledo Mud Hens Season Preview

History tells us that the Major League organizations try to keep Triple-A stocked with experienced players ready to help the big club should a need arise. While the Tigers have done that this year, the Toledo roster also features a starting rotation and bullpen full of budding prospects who are as much a part of the future as they are any present emergencies.

The Tigers held an open competition for the fifth spot in this year's big league rotation and among the candidates were right-hander Jacob Turner and left-handers Drew Smyly, Duane Below, Andy Oliver, and Adam Wilk.

Both Below and Smyly will see time in Detroit in April, while the other three remnants of the competition will anchor the Toledo rotation along with left-hander Casey Crosby.

"That rotation is going to be filthy," said an NL scout. "Seriously, it has everything. Power, finesse, top-end guys and back-end guys. Everything."

Though the rotation members may change throughout the summer, one constant should remain the same, and that is that some of the Tigers best starting pitching prospects will be starting every day in Toledo this summer.

Backing up that rotation will be an equally talented bullpen that includes hard-throwing right-handers Luke Putkonen, Brayan Villarreal and Jose Ortega, along with talented lefties like Austin Wood, Matt Hoffman and Fu-Te Ni.

Putkonen was a revelation this spring after the Tigers moved him to the bullpen. One scout this spring walked away extremely impressed with his 95-96 mph fastball, breaking ball and splitter that all showed well in short spurts. There were some members of the Tigers organization that felt Putkonen should be seriously considered for the Detroit bullpen on Opening Day.

Villarreal held on in big league camp for quite a while, battling with the now-injured Luis Marte for a relief spot. At his best, "Villa" can dial it up to the upper-90s despite his slight frame. Another hard-throwing reliever is right-hander Jose Ortega who can hit 97 mph with his heater as well.

From the left-handed side, the Hens should have plenty of options for matchups late in games. Austin Wood was a recent addition to the Hens pitching staff, but he was very solid last summer in Erie and should be able to use his command of multiple pitches to keep hitters off balance.

Matt Hoffman may be the bigger name among the lefties in the bullpen, particularly after he touched 97 mph in the Arizona Fall League two years ago. "I still don't know where that came from," said Hoffman earlier this week. "I'd love for it to come back, but I'm fine with what I have."

The Tigers coaching staff worked with Hoffman more regularly to incorporate his change-up this year. As a near side-arm left-hander, Hoffman's fastball and breaking ball do the heavy lifting, but a change-up could really set him apart and make him very difficult to hit.

Rounding out the Tigers bullpen will be veteran right-handers Chris Bootcheck, Thad Weber and Brooks Brown. Both Brown and Weber could swing between the rotation and the bullpen as the team is hit with injuries and promotions.

In the end, this pitching staff could offer plenty of help to the big league club, while fans should be excited about the level of talent on display each and every day.

"You couldn't ask for a better pitching staff," said Hoffman. "There are four or five of the top starting prospects in the organization, then you've got ‘Villa,' Bootcheck, Ortega, who can bring it. We have the potential to dominate from start to finish."

While the everyday lineup may not have the wealth of top prospects that the pitching staff sports, they should still be a quality group of players highlighted by homegrown talents like Ryan Strieby, Bryan Holaday and Audy Ciriaco.

Strieby will likely be the everyday first baseman and could mix in at the position with veteran slugger Brad Eldred. Both players will provide plenty of punch to the lineup and could challenge for the International League home run crown.

Behind the plate, Holaday will be joined by a familiar face to Tiger fans, veteran Omir Santos. The Hens could be without Santos to start the year, depending on the health of Gerald Laird. If Santos is in fact promoted to Detroit, Holaday will get a chance to lock down the job as his own.

The rest of the infield will be a mixture of talented and versatile players that will give manager Phil Nevin the ability to move guys around. Ciriaco, Brent Dlugach and Argenis Diaz all have the ability to play shortstop, third base and second base, and they could see time at all three positions throughout the year.

Utility man supreme Justin Henry will get plenty of time around the infield, and could also venture into the outfield at times.

"I'm going to be moving around a lot again this year," noted Henry. "That's going to be my role, how I get to the big leagues. I think I can move around a lot and help the club, but I also think I can settle into one spot for an extended period of time, if necessary."

Minor league free agent Eric Patterson could also move between the infield and the outfield. An experienced second baseman, Patterson could get plenty of run at the keystone while also filling in on the outfield corners as needed.

The rest of the outfield time will be divided between speedster Quintin Berry and veterans Matt Young and Jerad Head. Berry made a great impression in big league camp, showing the coaching staff what he can do if called upon, including his ability to wreak havoc on the bases with his blinding speed.

While the lineup boasts more minor league veterans than prospects, the pitching staff picks up the prospect slack with a stacked group of pitchers that litter the TigsTown Top 50 prospects list.

"That may not be a sexy lineup, but it's going to score some runs," said an AL scout. "Any runs they score are going to be gravy with that pitching staff. They should contend in the International League pretty easily."

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