As a matter of overarching rationale, the team here at TigsTown has a history of trending toward high upside, raw ceiling players toward the back end of the Top 50. That trend was no different during the preparation of this ranking set, as the team consistently opted for young, higher upside players over low ceiling players with more likely organizational futures.
Two of the more challenging names to leave off the list were left-handed pitchers Matt Hall and Austin Sodders.
A sixth round pick out of Missouri State in 2015, Hall owns the system’s best curveball, a true swing-and-miss offering that allows him to get by with a below-average fastball in the 85-87 mph range. Most scouts view Hall as a future lefty specialist, a perspective underscored by the paltry .178/.282/.240 line opposing left-handed hitters notched against Hall across two A-ball levels in 2016. What keeps Hall from cracking the back end of this list is the underwhelming remainder of his prospect package. Hall has a big league projection, but also a very narrow margin for error between that projection and a career as a nifty upper minors starter or lefty reliever.
Sodders was the Tigers seventh round pick in 2016 out of UC Riverside and he is very much the opposite of Hall’s situation. Sodders is a lanky 6-foot-4, 190 pound left-hander that can bump 90 mph with his fastball and he adds deception thanks to a high arm slot and steep angle to the plate. All of that is augmented by impeccable command of his fastball to both sides of the plate. Unfortunately, Sodders’ secondary pitches come up short and in my observation at short-season Connecticut last summer, I see minimal projection in the rest of his arsenal. Sodders has a chance to find his way back onto this list by mid-season, but the crispness of the stuff must improve in order for his projection to advance beyond organizational arm.
Another arm that may see odd by its exclusion is right-handed reliever Paul Voelker. Having appeared toward the back of this list on numerous occasions, Voelker has many qualities that could land him a middle relief role in the big leagues, including a lively fastball that sits in the 92-94 mph range and an ability to throw strikes consistently. That said, Voelker’s slider vacillates between fringe-average and solid-average, and his relatively short stature and drop-and-drive delivery keep his fastball on one plane that makes it easier for hitters to square; particularly left-handed hitters that torched him to the tune of a .282/.393/.507 line at Double-A Erie in 2016. I wouldn’t rule out Voelker’s arrival in the big leagues at some point in 2017 or 2018, but he’s more likely to be an up-and-down reliever in the mold of Angel Nesbitt than he is a consistent piece in a Major League bullpen.
Right-handed pitcher Jeff Thompson is another potentially notable omission. The former third round pick out of Louisville, Thompson had the potential to move quickly as a physical and polished college righty with a quality fastball-slider combination. Unfortunately, injuries stunted his development as he missed a huge chunk of the 2014 season before coming back and posting modest numbers in the Midwest League as a 23-year old in 2015. Promoted one level to the High-A Florida State League for the 2016 season, Thompson posted the best all-around numbers of his career, but his once deadly sinking fastball is now more of an average pitch and his slider is not as sharp as it was around his professional debut. Thompson’s success in a very small sample as a reliever in 2016 gives hope that he could rehabilitate his prospect stock, but he’s in more of a wait and see mode at this point.
On the position player side of things, there are two outfielders that were difficult omissions from the Top 50 this time around, Jason Krizan and Cam Gibson.
Krizan rebounded from a challenging 2015 season to post solid numbers across both Double-A and Triple-A, giving many a firm belief that he would find his way onto the rankings. Unfortunately, most scouts view Krizan as an organizational soldier with a slim chance of achieving fourth outfielder status should roster moves break his way in the next couple of years. As a 27-year old with just 50 games at the Triple-A level and no standout tool aside from his arm strength, Krizan looks like a key cog in Toledo’s lineup over the next two to three seasons.
A fifth round pick out of Michigan State and the son of former Tiger great Kirk Gibson, Cam’s fall from the ranks of the Top 30 prospects in the system has happened quickly. Gibson is an extreme athlete – one of the best in the Tigers system – but his athleticism has yet to translate into consistent production on the field. A plus-plus runner with the potential to be a game changing center field defender and base stealer, Gibson lacks the instincts to put his speed to use. Also the owner of surprising pop in his bat, Gibson is an aggressive swinger with some mechanical flaws that prevent him from making anything resembling consistent contact. Gibson is likely to remain a tantalizing prospect but one with an extreme risk profile that makes him very difficult to rank with confidence.
Also just missing the list and falling down the list after peaking well into the rankings over the last two years, Joey Pankake had trouble getting on track at High-A Lakeland in 2016. A natural hitter with a solid approach at the plate and some pop in his bat, Pankake struggled in the difficult offensive environment of the Florida State League, hitting just .215, but cranking 15 home runs along the way. Pankake played almost exclusively at second base for the second season in a row, and while his glove was adequate, his bat was not as questions began to swirl about his ultimate offensive upside and whether he has the complete package to hang at the big league level with a limited defensive profile.
Another infielder receiving mixed reviews in 2016 was the newly acquired Kody Eaves. After coming over in exchange for Jefry Marte last off-season, Eaves split his time between second and third base with Double-A Erie last summer, hitting just .222 in 106 games, but ripping 24 doubles and eleven home runs. Eaves has legitimate thump in his stick despite modest size, but he lacks a true defensive home and profiles best as a passable defender at multiple positions, giving him a utility profile at best. Eaves is likely to get another crack at Double-A in 2017, where he will still be age appropriate for the level, and he could resuscitate his prospect stock to the point that he finds a spot at the back end of the Top 50 and a possible big league utility projection at this time next year.
Rounding out those players missing in action, catcher Shane Zeile’s stock continues to tumble as he missed considerable time to injury for a second season in a row, and failed to perform when he was on the field. Zeile is an intriguing player that has the raw tools to contribute on both sides of the ball, but he has not been blessed with the ability to stay healthy; a trait that prevented him from gaining desperately needed developmental time on the field. Zeile enters the 2017 season in a precarious spot as a player likely on the cut bubble despite obvious physical tools. If he makes a roster out of spring training, Zeile will have a chance to find his footing at one of the A-ball levels, but it would be a long road back to any type of ranking in the TigsTown Top 50.null