2014 Toledo Mud Hens Year in Review

The Mud Hens had an entertaining 2014 campaign, with a club that nearly cracked the .500 mark by season’s end, and highlighted by the crowning of the new International League home run king, Mike Hessman. The rotation also featured the Tigers top pitching prospect for much of the season, along with a number of solid prospects among the TigsTown Top 50.

From a team accomplishment standpoint, the Mud Hens had a relatively run-of-the-mill season, finishing five games under .500 after bouncing around the midway point much of the year. The Hens remained on the outside looking in at the playoff picture as well.

The two sides of the coin reinforced that as well, as the offense and pitching were both ranked in the middle in the International League. The Mud Hens’ OPS was good for fifth in the IL, which produced the eighth most runs in the league. Much like their runs scored, the club was also eighth in earned runs allowed, with an ERA of 3.90.

The offense was led by a handful of solid but unspectacular prospects, including four prospects among the top 30 in the organization in catcher James McCann, infielder Hernan Perez, outfielders Tyler Collins and Daniel Fields, along with minor league veterans outfielder Ezequiel Carrera and the new home run king, Mike Hessman.

When it came to power production, Hessman of course led the way. He led the Hens with 28 home runs, a total that was good for 2nd in the IL. He also belted his 259th home run of his International League career midway through the season, setting the new league record. Hessman also now has 417 career minor league home runs, putting him within striking distance of the 432 home runs hit by Buzz Arlett.

Aside from Hessman’s notoriety, a few key prospects looked to firm up their future in the organization. One of the most notable adjustments was that for Perez.

After coming up through the ranks almost exclusively as a second baseman, the injury this spring training to Jose Iglesias forced Perez to start working at shortstop, and with a potential utility infielder role in his future, the Tigers focused Perez there, where he logged 118 games.

While he started off slow there, improvement appeared to come over the course of the summer, with multiple scouts placing average (or better) defensive grades on Perez’s glove and arm at short, making Perez more versatile and potentially valuable to the organization.

In the outfield, the Mud Hens featured a pair of prospects who entered spring trending in opposite directions, and both immediately changed course.

Daniel Fields entered 2014 with lots of momentum – a strong 2013 in Erie had revived his prospect status where he hit for average and power while steadying his defense in center field. Fields was clearly trending up.

But he got off to a very slow start in spring, where TigsTown noted he wasn’t having productive at-bats on the back fields and wasn’t getting much of a look on the big league side of things, despite roster openings. He then got off to a very slow start with Toledo, hitting .169 in April, and just when he started to heat up in May, took a pitch off his hand that broke a bone, sidelining him for nearly two months. He returned in July but never got back on track, finishing the season with a .616 OPS for Toledo.

Even worse for Fields, with the Tigers decision to trade Austin Jackson in the David Price deal, he didn’t get any serious consideration for a look in Detroit, as the club instead turned to Carrera, a minor league veteran, who has given Detroit a speedy baserunner and a mediocre hitter, and not much else. The opportunity was ripe for Fields, and he simply didn’t take advantage in a pivotal year in his development.

He’ll try and right that ship this fall in Arizona, as one of the seven members of the organization heading to the Arizona Fall League.

On the opposite side of the coin, many scouts were down on Tyler Collins after his showing in Erie in 2013, where he hit for power but struggled to make contact and hit for a good average, leaving many wondering if he could combat big league pitching.

Collins though performed so well in the spring that he earned a spot on the 25-man roster when camp broke, and while the Tigers soon swapped him for J.D. Martinez (who hit 10 homers in 17 games for Toledo, basically demanding a call-up), Collins had newfound life. He improved his average by more than 20 points (thanks in part to a 30 point jump in his BAbip) while lowering his strikeout rate by a percent and earning a call-up back to Detroit when rosters expanded.

Finally, the man behind the dish performed well, and showed signs of improvement as the year wore on. James McCann started off slow offensively, but picked things up as the year went on, as he worked on trying to turn on pitches and using his strong frame (6-2, 210 pounds) to drive the ball, rather than just make contact. He raised his OPS more than 100 points from the first half of the year (.732) to the second half (.842), primarily by raising his ISO from from .102 to .187, including belting five home runs in 35 games.

McCann was also known for his good defense (42% caught stealing rate) in addition to work well with a pitching staff, and while the Tigers don’t seem to plan on giving him much of a look in September, he’s likely to be ready to compete for a job behind the dish for Detroit in 2015.

The revolving door on the bullpen in Detroit (and on the rotation in August), filtered down to Toledo and had a big impact. The Mud Hens had 33 different members of the roster appear on the mound for the club, with a dozen pitchers making at least one start.

Because of that, minor league veteran Derek Hankins led the team in innings pitched, while Duane Below, Shawn Hill and Mike Belfiore got a large chunk of innings as well. Kevin Whelan (the former Tigers prospects who was traded to New York in the Gary Sheffield deal) served as the club’s closer for most of the season, and even got a brief cameo in Detroit before returning to Toledo.

However, a few key prospects still logged plenty of innings for the Hens, including top pitching prospect left-hander Robbie Ray. The youngster who came to the organization in the Doug Fister trade from the Nationals made his big league debut in May, and ended up making six starts for the Tigers.

When he was in Toledo, he was refining his stuff, including making a change to his arsenal midway through the season. Ray struggled to consistently throw his curveball, as Tigers fans saw when he came up and relied almost exclusively on his fastball and changeup. In his four big league appearances in May, he only threw the curve 10% of the time, and half that time he threw it for a ball.

Mud Hens pitching coach A.J. Sager recommended he make the switch from a curve to a slider, a pitch that would have more bite, and would keep his arm slot and delivery much closer to his fastball. As Ray told John Wagner of the Toledo Blade after the switch, “Going from a slider to working on a curveball in the spring, then switching back to the slider in the middle of the season, that’s been a work in progress,” Ray said. “I’m working to stay consistent, especially with my arm slot.”

Despite Ray’s up-and-down season, the Tigers are still very optimistic about his future potential, and they’ll be sending him to the AFL as well, where he’ll likely look to refine that slider in hopes of competing for a rotation spot, if one is open, next spring.

Ray is heading to the AFL because another starter, righty Drew VerHagen, won’t be going. VerHagen had strong first half of the season with a 3.67 ERA in 19 starts, then got the call-up to Detroit to make a spot start and held his own, giving up three runs in five innings. Unfortunately, a back injury cropped up that was later determined to be a stress fracture, which prematurely ended his 2014 campaign.

VerHagen pitched exactly like many would expect, working a low-90’s fastball to generate lots of weak contact, but not necessarily many strikeouts, as he averaged just 5.2 K’s per nine innings. Depending on the health of his back, he could emerge as a low-risk option to compete for a rotation spot in Detroit in 2015.

However, he might have fallen in the pecking order behind the final prospect that was a member of the Toledo rotation for much of the year; Kyle Lobstein. The lefty led the club in strikeouts by a wide margin with 127, and posted a 4.07 ERA over 26 games before finally getting his shot in Detroit, which he’s taken advantage of with Anibal Sanchez on the disabled list.

Lobstein doesn’t have any dominating pitches, with a fastball that barely reaches 90, but mixes in a curve, a slider, a changeup, and occasionally a two-seam fastball to keep hitters off-balance, in the way many crafty left-handers do. Lobstein doesn’t have an especially high ceiling, but refined the finer points of the game in Toledo enough that he could be effective against big leaguers, which has been invaluable to Detroit down the stretch, giving the club a number of solid starts in a crucial stretch of a playoff race.

The bullpen use was extensive, with a number of noteworthy arms getting a shot in Detroit, and likely being shuttled back and forth in some cases. A guy like Blaine Hardy, who burst on the scene last summer and has emerged as a reliable lefty in the Tigers bullpen showed well in Toledo in the spring, with a 2.68 ERA over 20 appearances. Corey Knebel was another impressive prospect that spent some time in Toledo, before ultimately being traded to Texas in the deal for Joakim Soria.

All in all, it was a good year for baseball at Fifth Third Field. Some prospects made strides, some prospects made changes, and some got used to the drive up and down I-75. Such is often the life in Triple-A, when you’re always just an injury or trade away from your shot in The Show.

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