Starting with the pitching staff, the Hens have a star studded top of the rotation, with the Tigers top prospect, right-hander Michael Fulmer, leading the way. Fulmer, ranked 59th among all prospects in MLB by Scout.com, was excellent across three teams in 2015, posting a 10-3 record with a 2.24 ERA over 22 starts, including 125 strikeouts and just 30 walks.
Along with Fulmer is power lefty Matt Boyd, who like Fulmer was acquired last season at the trade deadline, Boyd coming as part of the package for David Price, split time between the big leagues and Triple-A last season, and came up short in the competition for a spot on the big league club this spring. Boyd struggled in his big league work, but was dominant in the minors, with a 1.65 ERA over 19 starts. Boyd works off a fastball that sits in the mid-90’s, but is working on utilizing his off-speed pitches more, especially his change-up.
For now, the rest of the rotation is made up of veterans Lucas Harrell and Thad Weber, as well as knuckleball specialist Josh Turley. Turley spent all of 2015 in Erie, confusing hitters to the tune of a 3.29 ERA in hitter-friendly Jerry Uht Park, with 103 strikeouts and just 35 walks.
The possibility also remains that when Daniel Norris, who is currently on the disabled list and recovering from a back injury, could join the Hens rotation once healthy. Norris was in competition for the final rotation spot, but was believed to be trailing Shane Greene in the race, and might be ticketed for Toledo, where he’d be likely to slide into a rotation spot as well.
Turning to the bullpen, where much of the group is made up of more veterans, along with a few intriguing arms to watch, starting with Bruce Rondon. A former top ten prospect, Rondon’s trials and tribulations are well documented as a pitcher with a live arm that has struggled to stay focused, and was sent home by the Tigers early last season after questions about his focus. Rondon looked good at times this spring, but still didn’t show the consistency the Tigers are looking for before he’s entrusted with a late inning role in the Tigers bullpen. But he’s likely to once again be a key member of Hens bullpen.
In addition to Rondon, the bullpen also features top 30 prospect Jose Valdez, and former big league closer Bobby Parnell. Valdez was optioned to Toledo midway in spring training, but made his big league debut last season. His power fastball will also be a weapon for the Hens in the late innings. Parnell meanwhile appears to be mostly recovered from Tommy John surgery almost two years ago, and saw his velocity creeping back up over the course of spring. He was briefly released due to a contractual agreement that entitled him to an opt-out and a bonus if he made the Tigers roster, but was shortly after re-signed and the organization believes he’ll return to the big leagues this year. At 31, Parnell struggled last season coming off surgery, but has a career 3.78 ERA in more than 300 innings of late inning relief work.
In addition to that trio of relievers with big league aspirations, Drake Britton, Mike Crotta, Preston Guilmet, Dustin Molleken and Warwick Saupold comprise the rest of the bullpen. Many of them have extensive experience in the upper levels of the minor leagues and some big league experience, and should bring reliable relief innings to the team.
Moving to the position players, the outfield is once again headlined by Steven Moya, who is looking to right the ship after a year to forget in 2015. After trying to make a lot of changes to his swing and approach that left him tentative and confused at the plate, Moya is trying to keep those thoughts out of his head and focus on what he does best – make hard contact and drive the ball out of the park. The spring was a very good start, as he belted four home runs and a double in 30 spring training at-bats, and appears to have regained the confidence and power that made him the 2014 Eastern League MVP.
Joining him in the outfield will be fellow Top 50 member Wynton Bernard, who was also the 2014 Midwest League MVP and was a solid player for the Erie SeaWolves last season. Bernard was in late competition for a spot in Detroit behind Anthony Gose once it was known Cameron Maybin wouldn’t be ready for the start of the year, but Tyler Collins beat him out for that spot as Ausmus stated they like his potential but felt he’d be best served working every day in center field for Toledo. Bernard hit .301 in Erie with 43 stolen bases, and could become a weapon off the bench at the big league level.
Nate Schierholtz will be the final member of the outfield, a 32-year old veteran across all levels who should provide another steady presence in the lineup, with a .305 average and .865 OPS in more than 600 minor league games, along with a .707 OPS at the big league level.
Moving into the diamond, Dixon Machado is the final member of the TigsTown Top Ten on the roster, and will bring his flashy defense and improving bat to Fifth Third Field. Machado has made strides offensively as he’s filled out physically, but still needs to work to raise his .645 OPS from Toledo last year to reach his ceiling of being an everyday big leaguer, even though his defense is already more than big league ready.
The rest of the infield will be a situation of mixing and matching depending on the opposition. Jordany Valdespin and Casey McGehee are infielders capable of playing in both corner infield spots, with Valdespin also capable of spot duty in the outfield. Corey Jones and Thomas Field will split time at second base and provide support elsewhere, while Chad Huffman is another experienced minor league bat that was brought back to the States after two years in Japan.
Finally, behind the plate, the Mud Hens have one friendly and one new face. Miguel Gonzalez worked as a backup catcher in Toledo as well as Erie last year, posting a .242 average while working with his pitching staff. The new member to the team is Bobby Wilson, who is new to the organization, acquired just a couple weeks ago from Texas in the Bryan Holaday trade. Wilson served as backup catcher for Tampa Bay and Texas last season, but the Rangers felt Holaday would be an upgrade at the spot, so Wilson heads to Toledo to lead the way, and will likely be the man called upon should there be an injury in Detroit to James McCann or Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Overall, the Toledo club is made up with a good mix of promising youngsters and veteran minor leaguers that should be poised to put a very competitive team on the field. Triple-A teams are always susceptible to fluctuations based on the needs of the big league team, but the club should be well positioned to improve on its 61-83 mark from 2015.