Led by new manager Lloyd McClendon, the Mud Hens had an impressive roster on Opening Day. They featured a handful of top prospects, including the top prospect in the organization; right-hander Michael Fulmer. With Fulmer, plus other talented arms like Matt Boyd, power hitter Steven Moya and slick fielding shortstop Dixon Machado, the Hens had plenty of talent.
Unfortunately for Hens fans, the talent started funneling out of Toledo toward the big league club before the first month of the year was over. The guy that figured to be a season-long draw as he refined his skill, Fulmer, made it just three starts in Toledo before he got his big league call-up. Fulmer more than held his own (he currently leads the AL in ERA at 2.95) in Detroit, so he was clearly ready, but it was still a blow to the club hoping to have a go-to starter and bonafide prospect for much of the year.
The loss of Fulmer, while only impacting a handful of games, seemingly got the season off to a bad start that it never got out of. A late April stretch in which they lost 8 of 9 games left them 8-12 for the first month, and things never got much better. A rough month of June in which the club went 10-19 put the Mud Hens in a hole that they likely weren’t going to crawl out of.
Besides Fulmer, the other arm the Hens hoped to have to rely on was Matt Boyd, and while the lefty lasted longer in Toledo than Fulmer did, he only gave the club 11 starts before getting the permanent call up to Detroit. His 2.25 ERA was outstanding and he struck out nearly a batter per inning, again showing his capability of excelling at the Triple-A level. Injuries forced the Tigers to bring Boyd back up, and some strong early starts cemented his spot in Detroit, and again the Hens were left shorthanded.
Daniel Norris filled that gap for a little while, making 14 starts, part of which was injury rehab, and part was him getting healthy and regaining his stuff and command. So while Norris was a name attraction, he struggled at times, posting a 4.54 ERA, and while he struck out over a batter per inning, he also had a WHIP of 1.45. And as soon as he started to figure some things out, again the Tigers came calling again, with a decimated rotation requiring reinforcements.
All minor league clubs are susceptible to attrition when it comes to performance – a player succeeds and needs a new challenge, so he gets moved up to the next level to find that, but with the issues the Tigers rotation had with injury and performance issues impacting Anibal Sanchez, Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey, the Hens were caught in an even more unfortunate position than usual.
Filling in the gaps, the Hens got very good production out of Warwick Saupold, who posted a 2.30 ERA in 18 games, including 11 starts. Of course, his success ended up with a big league call-up for him as well. Other journeymen like Lucas Harrell and Thad Weber filled in admirably and helped keep the team functional as the most productive arms ended up shuttled to and from Detroit.
Finally, the club benefited from a late season call-up in right-handed reliever Joe Jimenez,
On the other side of the game, the club brought back a couple of talented hitters in Steven Moya and Dixon Machado – and each trended in opposite directions. Moya, after a rough 2015 season, got off to a torrid start, and seemed to reclaim the power swing that made him the 2014 Eastern League MVP. His walk rate dropped back to 3.5% (after a paltry improvement in 2015 to 5%, but one that likely cost him aggressiveness and power) Moya belted 20 home runs in just 97 games for the Hens, good for 5th in the IL, and all four players that finished ahead of him played in at least 130 games. Machado on the other hand continued to flash his impressive glove, but took a step back at the plate, not finding a groove offensively until late in the summer. Even with that strong finish, he closed the year with a .705 OPS and an ISO of just .09.
One welcome addition was behind the dish, where the Tigers claimed John Hicks off waivers and sent him to Toledo, where he served as the club’s most days’ catcher, an important add after the organization lost both Bryan Holaday and Bobby Wilson within the first several weeks of the year. Hicks provided good offensive productivity against both right-handers and left-handers with an OPS of .841 vs. righties and .843 against lefties, handled the staff well, and received very favorable reviews from observers to the extent that he’s put himself in good position to vie for the backup catcher role in Detroit in 2017.
Finally, like the pitching staff, the offense was held afloat by a few veterans, including Casey McGehee (.317 average, .816 OPS) who was a mainstay at third base until the injury to Nick Castellanos forced a call-up, and Dean Green, who put up an .849 OPS in his 61 games with the club.
Overall, it was a challenging year for the Mud Hens, as injuries once again plagued the big league team, resulting in much of their young talent being called upon to produce in the show. Early prospects for 2017 could be promising though, as players like Moya, JaCoby Jones and Machado could return once again, in addition to the likely return of Jimenez to hold down the back end of the bullpen.
For the Hens, 2016 wasn’t their year, but there’s always next year for the club that despite the on-field struggles, continues to operate as one of the top minor league clubs in all of baseball.