Leading the way for the Rafters, and the entire AFL, was Rule 5 pick Chris Shelton. Shelton shook off the rust of time spent on the Major League bench to destroy AFL pitching. Shelton topped off an outstanding fall season by winning the league's MVP award. The award was spurred on by Shelton's appearance near the top of the leader boards in nearly every offensive category, leading the league in RBI, hits, slugging percentage, and on-base percentage, along with winning the league batting title. The dominating performance places Shelton squarely in the mix for a spot on Detroit's opening day roster.
Another top prospect, Curtis Granderson, also had a stellar fall campaign, and figured slightly in the MVP voting. Granderson continued upon his success from his 2004 season at AA-Erie, where he was one of the top players in the Eastern League. Granderson finished with a .321/.404/.405 line, placing him in a situation similar to Shelton's heading into next spring. Granderson will head to Lakeland with a chance to win the starting centerfield duties in Detroit next season, although he will certainly be a long shot. On top of an outstanding statistical season, Granderson was also a finalist for the Dernell Stenson Award, given to the player who exemplifies sportsmanship during the AFL season.
With the overwhelming success of Granderson and Shelton, Ryan Raburn's struggles were largely overshadowed. Raburn followed an outstanding season alongside Granderson in the Eastern League with a .250/.342/.471 line. Raburn's power and patience still managed to come through in the form of 4 homeruns and 9 walks in only 68 at-bats. Ryan will likely get a shot to improve while a part of the Toledo infield in 2005, with another shot in Detroit likely coming in September.
Along with the three hitting stars, the Tigers sent three upper-level arms to the Arizona Fall League. Leading the way was right-hander Mark Woodyard. Woodyard had pitched well with Erie this past season, and carried that success over to the fall season. Woodyard used his mid-90s fastball to overpower hitters, gaining consistency with his control. After finishing with a 3.86 ERA and 18 strikeouts in just over 16 innings, Woodyard was rewarded with his addition to the Tiger's 40-man roster, likely giving him a legitimate shot at the Detroit bullpen in 2005.
Woodyard's teammate for much of the season in Erie, Rick Kirsten also posted a successful fall campaign. Despite working out of the bullpen with the Rafters, Kirsten is likely to spend the majority of 2005 in the Toledo rotation. Rick worked through low strikeout rates in Arizona to post a 3.86 ERA in 11 outings, carrying forward his success from 2004. Kirsten flew under the radar during the AFL, much as he has during his entire professional career. Kirsten is a long shot to have an extended Major League career, but with more performances similar to his recent seasons, he could find his way to a big league bullpen at some point.
The last member of the Tiger's system is relief pitcher Lee Rodney. After dominating Florida State League hitters to start the season, Rodney was promoted to Erie, where he continued to pitch effectively. The Tigers sent him to the AFL to improve his consistency and also for an opportunity to further evaluate him, hoping he may be able to pitch himself into a remote shot at Detroit's revamped 2005 bullpen. Rodney however, didn't follow through on his end of the bargain, posting an ERA over 7.00, giving up 28 hits in only 17 innings. Rodney will have some work to do next season to re-establish himself as a solid reliever, worthy of a shot in Detroit.
The AFL season, as a whole, was productive for the Tiger organization. Two of their top hitting prospects proved they could be ready for big league action sometime during the 2005 season, while another of their pitching prospects put himself in the position of a lifetime. The Arizona Fall League has not been kind to the Tigers in recent years, but this year, the Tigers proved that they have some top notch players, ready to compete and contribute at the Major League Level.