The long, treacherous climb back to respectability begins at the lowest levels of the Detroit farm system. General Manager Dave Dombrowski has committed the organization to building a winner from within. Unfortunately, desolation in the minor leagues has left little to work with in the here and now. Dombrowski's fate (and the Tigers') hinges on the success of the players who spent last year in the rookie leagues and at the Single-A level. Most of the players with appreciable upside are either riding the busses of the A leagues or drinking their "cup of coffee" in the Majors with the parent club. What players should Tiger fans keep tabs on? Let's start in the Florida State League.
At press time, weeks before the start of spring training, we are attempting to forecast where we see these players beginning the season. Many of them, hopefully, will be moving up and succeeding at higher levels, but we foresee them starting in the following slots.
The Lakeland Tigers will feature a large quantity of Detroit's greatest hope for a future pennant. The past two drafts were designed to fill the gaping holes in both the pitching and position player rosters. Continued development and health are needed, but there are numerous glimmers of future hope.
Detroit has been beating the bushes for two decades in search of a top of the rotation ace for their pitching staff. They may have found that leader in Kyle Sleeth – the Tigers 1st Rounder in last year's rookie draft. Sleeth did not pitch in the pros last year after finishing his collegiate career at Wake Forest. The Tigers were in the market for a polished pitcher who had the makeup and tools to make a quick run to Comerica Park. Sleeth could be that guy. A strong, right-handed power pitcher is always at the top of a Dombrowski draft board and Sleeth fits the mold. Learning from the past and avoiding a Kenny Baugh-ish dash to the minors, the Tigers rested Sleeth after signing him to a 3.35 million dollar signing bonus. He worked in Florida and at Toledo with the Tiger Farm Staff and will look to blow up in 2004. Dave Dombrowski has a history of taking pitchers one step at a time, but I see Sleeth starting in Lakeland.
Lakeland's infield holds a ton of promise. Ryan Raburn (.222, 14HR, 56 RBI in 325 AB at Lakeland last season) had success early last year at West Michigan (.351, 3HR in 57 AB) and moved up quickly to Lakeland. Raburn dislocated his hip two seasons ago in an ATV accident and has worked hard to bring himself back to the hard-hitting third base prospect he once was. He has worked hard and could be back on track if he can improve his average and fielding skills.
The left side of Lakeland's infield should see 2003 3rd Round Draft pick Tony Giarratano (.328, .369 OBP, 22/12 k/bb ratio in 189 AB at Oneonta) man the shortstop position. Giarratano is a grinder some saw as a reach for the Tigers that early in the draft. Giarratano proved the critics wrong last year at Oneonta batting .328 and only 8 errors in the field. Tony could see a jump to Erie, but I believe with his limited pro experience he will begin at Lakeland and possibly see a jump to Erie.
Look for the possibility of a future Tiger star outfielder to roam Lakeland's green grass. Brent Clevlen (.260, .359 OBP, 12 HR in 481 AB at West Michigan) could land here or move up to Erie. I look for another year of seasoning for Clevlen at the A level. He needs to cut down on his strikeout totals (111 last year, with 72 walks) and should be working hard to continue his improvement.
Ian Ostlund (3-0, 1.59, 19 saves, 56 K in 45.1 IP at West Michigan) should make the move to Lakeland in the bullpen. Ostlund saw 22 innings of work at Lakeland and had a rough adjustment period – with an 8.59 ERA and only 17 K. Ostlund will look to prove he could be a part of the Renaissance in Motown, but will need a strong showing this season.
It will be interesting to see how far the Tiger organization moves Joel Zumaya (7-5, 2.79, 126 K in 90 IP at West Michigan), and Jon Connolly (16-3, 1.41, 5 complete games in 166 IP at West Michigan). My pre-spring training gut instinct sees the Tiger brass moving Connolly up to Erie to begin the season. However, taking into account Dombrowski's hesitance to move pitchers quickly (Jeremy Bonderman aside), they may choose to start Connolly and Zumaya at Lakeland. Connolly did prove his skills over the entire 2003 season, which may give him the better chance of skipping off to Erie. Zumaya, the power pitcher, is only 19 and fought off an injury last season. The staff may choose to give him more seasoning in Single-A. Should be an interesting minor league camp for these two (and Tiger fans) this spring.