As with almost the entire Toledo roster this season, the first base duties were held down by minor league and major league veterans just looking for one last shot. Prior to his injury, Joe Vitiello was putting up stellar numbers in the International League, and even tossed in an All-Star Game homerun for good measure. There is one large problem though, Joe will be 35 at the start of next season, which does not bode well for his chances in Detroit. Andy Barkett, 30, also had a solid season, but really doesn't have a future at the major league level.
Unlike our last list, we don't have to stretch all the way to the lower minor league levels to find promise. Erie's Juan Tejada posted yet another outstanding campaign, as he continues his underrated climb up the ladder. The 23-year old Tejada has had four straight outstanding seasons in the Tigers system, improving his plate discipline and driving in runs at every stop. In 2004, Juan hammered out 23 homeruns, and drove in 92, while hitting .289. Tejada has been consistently knocked for his defense, but some intense off-season work resulted in improved play around the bag at first, making him a legitimate prospect. He is likely to begin next season at AAA-Toledo, where we shouldn't be surprised to see yet another productive season.
Lakeland and West Michigan also had their own prospects turning in solid seasons. Jody Roughton and Kelly Hunt both made encouraging progress during the 2004 campaign. Roughton struggled during the 2003 season at West Michigan, but showed an improved ability to make contact, as well as improved defense at first in 2004 at Lakeland. Jody still hasn't showed the power the organization would like to see out of a corner infielder, but it's tough to gauge power potential from the pitcher friendly Florida State League. Hunt on the other hand displayed great power potential playing at West Michigan in 2004, hitting 28 doubles, and 21 homeruns in a park not known for being conducive to power hitters. Despite being old for the Midwest League, Hunt's performance this season was encouraging to say the least. A promotion to Lakeland will provide a nice challenge for the Bowling Green standout. Both Roughton and Hunt have the chance to establish themselves as legitimate first base prospects in 2005, but will need impressive performances to distinguish themselves from the pack.
The lowest levels of the Tigers system provide a little less promise, but there is still one player to keep an eye on. 2004 draft choice Josh Lee out of McMurry University, was a late round (30th) draft choice that showed advanced plate discipline (18 walks in only 114 at-bats) in his first taste of professional baseball. Despite difficulties in making contact this season, scouts and GCL coaches feel he has the potential to be a solid all around hitter, and has the body to develop above average power. It will take a while for the small school star to work his way towards Comerica Park, but he has a chance to become something special.
Manning first base for the Oneonta Tigers this season, Rafael Mendez had another disappointing season, further distancing himself from any prospect status. After two miserable seasons in the Gulf Coast League, Mendez struggled again, batting only .220 with 2 homeruns and 29 RBI in 246 at-bats. Mendez will likely get a shot in full-season ball next year with West Michigan, but will need to post some incredible numbers to get back on track. Former Angel's farmhand, Maximo Soto also had a disappointing 2004 season after sitting out in 2003. Soto batted .228 with only a .304 on-base percentage, despite being very old (22) for the complex based league. It will be surprising if Soto returns to the Tigers system in 2005, particularly if the Tigers select a couple of new first base prospects in the next draft.
An initial glance at the state of the Tiger's first base situation may indicate a more pleasant picture than that which we saw while looking at the catchers. However, only one prospect in the entire system has established themselves with multiple good seasons, and the remaining players each have a significant flaw to overcome on their road to Detroit. There is some potential in Kelly Hunt and Josh Lee, but there are large hurdles left to climb before they are considered top prospects. Despite the lack of depth and impact players lower in the system, not all hope is lost. Juan Tejada provides promise, and is close to the major leagues. If Carlos Pena should falter, look for Tejada to get a chance to strut his stuff on the big stage as early as 2006.