Last year, the Toledo Mud Hens Opening Day roster included the following players: Ezequiel Carrera, J.D. Martinez, Hernan Perez, James McCann, Danny Worth, Blaine Hardy, Kyle Lobstein, Melvin Mercedes, Justin Miller, Robbie Ray, and Drew VerHagen. 11 players from a 25 man roster made it up to the big leagues, nearly half, and a few of them are on the big league club to start the season this year.
So, just because a player starts the year in Toledo, there’s close to a 50/50 chance that they will still get a shot in Detroit at some point. And that has already come true for a couple of pitchers, as Hardy and Lobstein were called up to Detroit, due to the injuries to Justin Verlander and Joe Nathan.
Tigers fans are already familiar with Hardy and Lobstein, so the most notable impact is that the promotion of Lobstein opens up a spot in the rotation.
The rest of the rotation is made up of lefties Kyle Ryan and Mike Belfiore, and right-handers Buck Farmer and Tim Melville. Belfiore, Ryan and Farmer all pitched last season in Toledo, while Melville was a minor league signing this off-season. He has extensive minor league experience, but is only 25, and is now two years removed from Tommy John surgery, which wiped out most of his 2013 season. Ryan worked exclusively as a reliever in big league camp this spring, but will return to the rotation to stretch out his arm and get in more work to refine his stuff.
The notable missing player from the team’s rotation is Drew VerHagen, who is back on the disabled list with back problems. With a spot in the rotation open from Lobstein’s promotion, expect right-hander Thad Weber, who returns to the organization after a stint playing professionally in Korea.
In the bullpen, there are a number of high velocity arms, a mix of prospects and off-season acquisitions that should compose a strong unit for relief.
Jose Valdez and Mercedes are both members ranked in the top 30 by TigsTown, and bring mid-90’s fastballs to the table. Valdez spent a good chunk of the 2015 season working as the SeaWolves’ closer, and could get an opportunity to close again.
Josh Zeid and Alex Wilson were added to the 40-man roster this off-season – Zeid via a waiver claim from the Astros, and Wilson as part of the trade for Yoenis Cespedes. Zeid had his fastball average 95 MPH last year with Houston, while Wilson was just under 94 as a middle reliever for the Red Sox. Both have some room for growth, but could factor into middle relief in Detroit.
Finally, Rafael Dolis and Alberto Cabrera were minor league free agent signings, that again, have power fastballs (noticing a trend?) but have a checkered injury history and along with battles with their control. Dolis was singled out by Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones, saying “Dolis has thrown the ball very well this spring – he throws 95 or 96, we got him as a six year free agent.”
Moving to the lineup, where the biggest player, literally and figuratively, will unfortunately start the year on the disabled list. Steven Moya is ranked 2nd overall in the organization, but a heel injury late in spring training forced him to the bench. He was later diagnosed with plantar fasciitis.
After having a monster spring last year en route to being named the Eastern League MVP, spring was the exact opposite for Moya, who hit just .125 with two extra base hits this spring. According to one scout that watched Moya a couple times, “It’s all mental with him right now – he’s been told he needs to be more selective at the plate, but it’s making him tentative and unable to generate good swings or drive the ball. He’s going to need time in Toledo to work through it before he’s ready for big league pitching.”
On the upside for Moya, the Tigers and manager Brad Ausmus are still optimistic about Moya, with Ausmus commenting on his struggles and acknowledging the mental struggle;, “He’s a good kid, he’s as hard a worker as I’ve come across, he will get through this. But it’s tough for a guy to go through it, hard on you mentally, but he’ll be fine.”
With Moya out, the Mud Hens outfield will be comprised of Daniel Fields, Xavier Avery, Tyler Collins and Jason Krizan. Fields will man center field, while Collins will take up shop in one of the corner spots, and remains the most likely player to be called up to Detroit, after being the last position player optioned out of camp. Fields could be on the radar as well, though his route to Detroit has more hurdles, with two center fielders already on the big league roster, and Collins also capable of playing there.
Krizan has been an under-the-radar name for years now, but he’s hit very well each of the last two seasons for Lakeland and Erie. He’s able to play all three outfield spots, and the Tigers announced as spring was coming to a close that they’re going to be using Krizan in more of a utility role this year, getting him work in the infield as well as the outfield. So, if you’re looking for a future Don Kelly on the roster, it might well be Krizan. In addition, Wade Gaynor is on the roster, and will likely see playing time at both the infield and outfield corner spots.
Elsewhere in the infield, Jordan Lennerton returns as the club’s first baseman, while off-season signing Jefry Marte is likely to take most of the playing time at third base. Mike Hessman will provide support in the corners, while likely getting extensive at-bats at designated hitter, as he builds on his minor league home run record, which he set last season.
Up the middle, the club’s double play duo will be Dixon Machado, who had a breakout offensive season in 2014 for Erie, quieting concerns that his strength would limit his ability to produce at the plate, and Josh Wilson, who was signed this off-season as an experienced infielder that could be an option in Detroit, should the need for a utility infielder come up.
Machado is blocked at the big league level by Jose Iglesias, but should Iglesias run into health issues again, Machado could get a look to be the big league club’s shortstop, given his defensive prowess. Alternatively, his rise could mean he’d be a key candidate for a midseason trade, should the Tigers need to swing a deal. According to one scout,
Finally, behind the plate will be last year’s Tigers backup catcher Bryan Holaday, and off-season minor league signing Manny Pina. Holaday is an experienced backstop that’s limited offensively, but should serve as a good receiver and provide value by helping work with the team’ staff, many of whom will be targeted for a big league job soon.
All in all, the Mud Hens should be a fun team to watch once again this season, with a high-octane bullpen, a number of starters that could find their way to Detroit, and a few 80-grade tools, including Moya’s power and Machado’s defense.