The closest affiliate to the Tigers in both distance and talent level, the Mud Hens are accustomed to losing their players at a moment’s notice. And sure enough, over the course of the season, 14 players on Toledo’s opening day roster found their way to Detroit. Organizations typically plan ahead for that sort of player movement by stocking their Triple-A rosters with minor-league veterans and journeymen who can step up in an emergency. The Mud Hens had their share of replacement-level players this year, but they also had an unusually prospect-heavy roster to begin the season, boasting nine different players ranked in TigsTown’s preseason Top 30. And that’s not counting Angel Nesbitt, who was ticketed for Toledo before he won a bullpen spot with the Tigers.
Having a prospect-laden roster doesn’t necessarily guarantee success, but the Mud Hens figured to be an interesting squad at the very least. The player movement started almost immediately, however, as injuries to Justin Verlander and Joe Nathan meant Kyle Lobstein and Blaine Hardy would begin the season in the majors. Slugging outfielder Steven Moya, the highest ranked prospect on the Mud Hens, stayed in Lakeland to begin the year due to lingering plantar fasciitis, and pitcher Drew VerHagen didn’t appear in Toledo until June because of back trouble.
Despite the early adversity, the Mud Hens began the season fairly well, getting off to a 7-4 start, and finishing April with a 10-10 record. But May began with six consecutive losses, and Toledo never seriously threatened .500 again, finishing the year in last place in their division with a 61-83 record.
From an individual standpoint, few players were able to put together strong years. Moya only missed a handful of Toledo’s games, but he was never able to regain the form that saw him take home Eastern League MVP honors in 2014. He did belt a team-high 20 home runs, but he otherwise struggled, hitting .240 with 162 strikeouts and just 27 walks. Fellow outfielders Daniel Fields and Tyler Collins also struggled to make much of an impact, though Collins ended up spending more time in Detroit than in Toledo. Fields, who was drafted in the 6th round in 2009 and received the 20th highest signing bonus that year, started the year like gangbusters, ranking among the league leaders in most offensive categories at the end of May. He was called up to the Tigers on June 2nd and recorded a double two days later, but his season fell apart upon returning to the minors, and he was eventually designated for assignment by the organization, and lost to the Brewers.
Xavier Avery was the team’s most consistent outfielder, batting .305 over 73 games, but the minor-league free agent exercised a July 1 opt-out in his contract and sought a path to the majors elsewhere. His replacement, Trayvon Robinson, hit just .211 for Toledo, but he did secure a win for the team by hitting his only home run of the year in the 15th inning of the final game of the season. The rest of the outfield at-bats were split between Jeff McVaney and Jason Krizan, neither of whom could crack the .200 plateau.
Things were a little better on the infield dirt. Like Fields, shortstop Dixon Machado got off to a very hot start and recorded his first big-league hit relatively early in the season. But unlike his outfield counterpart, Machado’s performance remained fairly steady after he returned to the minors, and he eventually made it back to the Tigers. Minor-league free agent Jefry Marte spent much of the year manning the hot corner to Machado’s right, and he proved to be one of the league’s most productive offensive players, hitting .275 with 43 extra-base hits in 95 games for the Mud Hens. Both Machado and Marte made the International League All-Star team, though Marte was in the majors at the time. Fan favorite Mike Hessman spent some time at third base, though he more frequently played first, or served as the team’s designated hitter. He also provided the team’s biggest highlight of the year when, in a 10-8 loss on August 3rd, he crushed his 433rd career minor-league home run, breaking a record that was set in 1937.
Veteran first baseman Jordan Lennerton posted underwhelming offensive numbers in just over 50 games with the club in 2015. He left in the middle of the year to join the Canadian nation baseball team in the Pan-Am games, and the organization released him before he could return. Journeyman Marc Krauss and organizational slugger Dean Green didn’t offer much of an improvement in 40 combined games at first. The rest of the infield time went to Corey Jones, who hit a solid .280 but was otherwise unspectacular, and MLB veterans Alexi Casilla, Josh Wilson, and Brendan Harris. Catching duties were split between Bryan Holaday, Manny Pina, and Miguel Gonzalez, with Pina leading the team with a .305 average and .840 OPS in 77 contests.
Toledo proved to be a middle-of-the-pack team offensively, so much of the blame for the team’s poor record falls on the pitching staff, whose 4.69 team ERA was more than half-a-run higher than the next worst staff. No starter, and only three relievers, posted an ERA below four. Buck Farmer came into the season as the top pitching prospect on the squad, and he looked the part early in the season, making the All-Star team and posting a 7-2 record with a 3.47 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 80 1/3 innings before the break. He made two very ugly starts after the break, however, and spent much of the season getting roughed up by MLB hitters. Lefty Kyle Ryan also spent a fair amount of time shuttling between Detroit and Toledo, eventually posting a 4.19 ERA in 17 starts for the Mud Hens, and somehow losing his first nine decisions. Fellow southpaw Mike Belfiore returned to the Hens for a second season, but he struggled mightily in 25 starts for the club, producing an ugly 5.60 ERA before being released on August 15th.
Minor league free agents Thad Weber and Tim Melville combined to make 54 starts for the club, finishing 4th and 7th in the league in innings pitched, though neither pitcher was particularly effective. The rest of the team’s starts were split between scuffling or rehabbing Tigers players, organizational starters, emergency relievers, and trade acquisitions. Lefty Matt Boyd made a single, two-inning appearance for the Mud Hens before joining the Tigers, while Luis Cessa, acquired in the Yoenis Cespedes trade, posted a 5.97 ERA over seven starts for Toledo.
The Mud Hens bullpen also struggled mightily, costing the squad its share of games, and providing precious few options to a Tigers team that was suffering the same issues. Alberto Cabrera looked like a terrific option early, giving up just two runs in his first 15 1/3 innings, but then the wheels completely fell off and he finished the season with a 6.59 ERA. Angel Nesbitt also posted an ERA above 6 after arriving in Toledo, as did Melvin Mercedes, who was eventually sent down to Erie. Rafael Dolis and Jose Valdez both brought big arms to the club, but both also walked more than 14% of the batters they faced. Josh Zeid, acquired via waivers from the Astros, threw more than 70 innings for the club, but he put up a 4.46 ERA and was removed from the 40-man roster in early September. And familiar names Ryan Perry and Luke Putkonen combined to allow 14 earned runs in 7 1/3 innings before both were released.
There were a few bright spots in the bullpen, however. Alex Wilson quickly proved he belonged in the majors after tossing 5 1/3 scoreless innings to begin the year, Drew VerHagen began showing promising signs in July, and Ian Krol posted very solid numbers, giving up earned runs in just 4 of his 28 outings. Guido Knudson stepped into the closer’s role in June and performed very well, earning ten saves and producing a 2.34 ERA in 42 1/3 innings, while Joe Mantiply chipped in with 10 very strong innings of his own in August and September. The bright spots weren’t enough to save pitching coach Mike Maroth, however, as in early September the Tigers announced he would be reassigned within the organization.
So it was ultimately a very disappointing season for Toledo, which is unfortunate, because in early August their longtime skipper Larry Parrish announced he would be retiring at the end of the year. The team couldn’t send him out with a winning record, but they did manage to produce dramatic wins in both his final home game, and his final game overall. He led the Mud Hens to two league titles, and finishes his career and the franchise’s winningest manager.