Holding down the third base duties in Toledo, Brant Ust provided adequate defense, and moderate offense. A player the Tigers had high hopes for after taking him in the 6th round in 1999 out of Notre Dame, Ust has essentially been a bust at this point. Brant hasn't hit for average at any stop (.242 career minor league average), has yet to develop adequate power for his position (a career .376 slugging percentage), and hasn't built on solid collegiate strike zone judgment. In short, Brant hasn't developed as expected, and is basically filling space at this point. With the long awaited emergence of Jack Hannahan at Erie in 2004, Ust could be out of work come spring training.
Hannahan, a 3rd round pick by Randy Smith out of the University of Minnesota, finally began to figure out AA pitching in 2004, during his third taste of the Eastern League. Despite a late season slump, Hannahan showed significant progress in his plate discipline, and a slight up tick in power, all while maintaining his spectacular defense. Since debuting with West Michigan in 2001, Jack has displayed exceptional defensive instincts, and a willingness to continue working on his craft. Unfortunately, it has taken a little longer for his offense to catch up. With the uncertainty surrounding the third base job in Detroit next season, Hannahan could be considered a long shot for the job heading into spring training in Lakeland. While it is unlikely he will make jump from AA to Detroit, he could make enough noise to garner more attention as the season moves on.
The Class-A ranks are where the long-term third base hopes of the organization rest. 2002 top pick, Scott Moore hasn't produced the impact numbers many expected, but he has shown strides to becoming the hitter many thought he could. Although his traditional numbers are less than inspiring, Moore improved some less noticed facets of his game in 2004. While his strikeout rates remain high, Scott has improved his strike zone judgment and appears to be making the progress scouts had hoped he would with increased maturity and experience. Along with these improvements, Moore began to translate some of his long-awaited power potential to results while in Lakeland, more than doubling his previous career high of six homeruns, posting 14 with 13 doubles in 2004. While there are signs of progress on offense, his abilities on defense are not developing as quickly as some had hoped. He is still very raw at third base, and many scouts foresee a move to the outfield in his future. Early indications have Scott repeating his time in Lakeland next season, hopefully with better results the second time around.
Another Class-A third baseman that has showed some promise is West Michigan's Kody Kirkland. Since coming to the Tigers as part of the Randall Simon trade with Pittsburgh, Kirkland has been considered one of the top prospects in the system at his position. After an outstanding campaign in the New York-Penn League in 2003, Kody regressed in many facets during the 2004 season. Kirkland struggled to make contact and lost his ability to be patient at the plate in his first taste of full season baseball. The tools are definitely there for him to excel and become a top-flight player, but he'll have to regain the strike zone judgment that made him so successful with Oneonta. Kody still possesses tremendous power potential, as evidenced by his 10 homeruns, 11 triples, and 30 doubles in a very pitcher friendly environment. Much like Scott Moore, Kirkland needs a lot of work defensively, but is athletic enough that most feel he will be able to handle the position as he smoothes out his footwork and begins to control his powerful arm. Kody is another player who will return to his 2004 location, heading back to West Michigan to help the Whitecaps defend their 2004 Midwest League Championship.
The short-season Oneonta club had been anticipating the arrival of one of its most exciting players in recent memory in 2004, but were thwarted when Wilkin Ramirez went down with a shoulder injury during the offseason. The injury required Ramirez to miss the entire season with surgery, and forced the team to look in an unfamiliar direction. The "O-Tigers" looked to 24-year old Juan Llamas for help at the hot corner this year. While he provided good offense and adequate defense, don't get your hopes up that they may have uncovered a gem. I would liken Llamas' performance this season to that notorious big brother that always beats up his younger siblings. I think it's about time Llamas start picking on people his own size, or in this case, his own age. While Juan's numbers look very impressive on the surface, they lose almost all credibility when you realize that he was basically just picking on younger, more inexperienced pitchers. The 2005 season should bring the return of Wilkin Ramirez to the playing field. His recovery is going well, and he has begun playing in the fall Instructional League in Florida. Ramirez possesses the potential to be a complete player, and has drawn comparisons to Los Angeles Dodgers star Adrian Beltre. With power, speed, the ability to hit for average, and good defensive skills, Wilkin is a stud prospect worth keeping a close eye on.
Rounding out our tour are two players new to the Tigers system. Cory Middleton and Santo de Leon both showed promise this season in the Gulf Coast League, but both are a long ways from Detroit. Middleton got off to a torrid start, before cooling off significantly at the end of the season. Cory demonstrated good power potential, but needs to become more patient at the plate in order to take advantage of it, drawing only five walks in 145 at-bats. De Leon does not possess the same power as Middleton, but he has demonstrated a more advanced ability to make contact. Santo also needs to significantly improve his plate discipline as he also drew only five walks in 139 at-bats. Both players have the potential to develop into solid third baseman, but it will probably be quite some time before you see their names surfacing on prospect lists.
The Tiger system has not seen this much depth or potential at the third base position in years, and all of them seem to be making progress in some fashion. From top to bottom there are players that garner attention and provide reason for optimism. If even a couple of these prospects take a step forward in their development in 2005, third base could well become one of the more well stocked positions in the system. With top picks and loads of potential scattered from AA down to Rookie ball, watch those box scores, and keep your eyes peeled for players pushing to be the guy who finally fills the gaping void at third base in Detroit.