The outfield in Detroit appears to be pretty much set at this point with Craig Monroe in left, Magglio Ordonez in right, and some combination of Curtis Granderson and Nook Logan in center. Also seeing action in the vast expanse of Comerica Park's outfield will be Dmitri Young. If one of the aforementioned players should falter or suffer significant injury, the door will open for AAA masher Marcus Thames to see some time in Detroit.
Without a roster spot in Detroit, Thames place in the organization becomes very cloudy. Marcus is out of options, and would have to clear waivers to remain in the organization. Clearing waivers is an unlikely scenario, as he could likely fill a nice 4th outfielder/platoon role with many clubs throughout the league. The overriding likelihood is that despite two outstanding seasons destroying the ball with Toledo, Marcus is likely to be moving on before Opening Day.
With the likely departure of Marcus Thames, that opens some holes in the Toledo outfield that could be filled by any number of players. During the offseason, the Tigers brought in minor league free agents Reggie Taylor and Ryan Ludwick to help fill out the Toledo roster. Taylor is a tools freak that has yet to do much in the way of actual performance. He will likely man centerfield on a regular basis for the Mudhens. Ludwick is a former top prospect that was thought to have a bright career as a solid all-around corner outfielder. The Tigers are hoping to catch lightning in a bottle with Ludwick, and he could provide a suitable replacement should injuries occur in Detroit. Also vying for time will be returning outfielder, Alexis Gomez. Gomez is several seasons removed from his breakout campaign at AA in the Royals organization, but he could still fill an important role for a Major League team. Alexis will get plenty of at-bats in Toledo this season, and if Nook Logan continues to be ineffective, Gomez could get the call.
Joining the ‘Hens from AA-Erie will likely be right fielder David Espinosa. Espinosa has struggled in the second half of his last two seasons, but is one of the few outfield prospects in the system with a very solid, complete approach at the plate, with the potential to be a significant offensive threat. Espinosa will have to play well early to steal at-bats from the veteran players that manager Larry Parrish tends to favor. Also trying to win a spot with Toledo will be Michael Woods and Jackson Melian. Woods could make the team based on his versatility (he can play second base as well), but he has struggled at the plate throughout his career.
The Erie Seawolves outfield could be a crowded place in 2006. It's practically a given that both Brent Clevlen and Vincent Blue will be moving up from Lakeland, after two outstanding campaigns in 2005. Clevlen joins the Erie offense coming off a season in which he won Florida State League MVP honors, and he will look to build on that success, looking towards a possible September call-up this year. The Tigers also re-signed outfielder/DH Kurt Airoso this offseason. It's unlikely he will see much time on the field as a defender, but he should get plenty of at-bats pulling DH duty at Jerry Uht Park. Victor Mendez should also be returning to Erie for the 2006 season, and he could split outfield time with utility man Brian Rios, who will also see time at third base on occasion.
After making progress late in the 2005 season, Garth McKinney could see a promotion to Erie this season as well. However, with several outfielders already looking for at-bats at AA, the odds are more in favor of Garth returning to Lakeland for at least the beginning of the season. McKinney could use the additional seasoning provided by more time in High-A, but he will need to see some time at Erie this season to avoid falling off the typical developmental curve.
If McKinney returns to Lakeland, the L-Tigers outfield could prove to be extremely potent with the additions of Jeff Frazier and Clete Thomas to the mix. Thomas and Frazier both enjoyed solid seasons for West Michigan in 2005, and they will look to maintain that success in the friendlier hitting environment provided by the Florida State League and Joker Marchant Stadium. Working to gain a slot on the Lakeland roster will also be the threesome of Luis Sabino, Matt Joyce, and Jim Essian. Sabino has stagnated as a prospect, and looks more and more likely to fill a reserve roll if he is promoted this season, but could see significant at-bats if he returns to the Whitecaps. 2005 draftee, Matt Joyce, is an interesting prospect that the organization may decide to fast track, much in the mold of Curtis Granderson. Joyce posted an outstanding season at Oneonta last year, and could stand to be challenged by a direct assignment to High-A. Essian is a minor league free agent who has toiled in the Class-A ranks for several seasons and will likely fill in where needed throughout the lower rungs of the system.
In the grand scheme of the system, I think the most likely scenario for the Lakeland outfield consists of McKinney manning right field, Thomas in center, and Frazier in left; with backup provided by Luis Sabino and Jim Essian.
The makeup of the West Michigan outfield crew will largely depends on what results from the establishment of rosters at the higher rungs of the system. Two players that will certainly be seeing time in the ‘Caps outfield will be last year's top pick, Cameron Maybin, and speedster Brandon Timm. Maybin is one of the most highly touted, and highly anticipated prospects the Tigers have ever had, and his arrival in West Michigan will certainly come with lofty expectations. Timm took some large strides forward in 2005, and will need to make more contact this season to solidify himself as a solid outfield prospect.
Any number of players from the Oneonta and GCL rosters will compete for at-bats with West Michigan, including Jeremy Laster, Justin Justice, Leo Grullon, Casper Wells, and Wilkin Rodriguez. Justice is the most likely to head to low-A, as he is the most polished of the group. Laster, Grullon, and Wells are all extremely raw players who could use extended work in extended spring training, and would suffer with infrequent at-bats in full-season ball.
With a pretty balanced mix of high ceiling prospects like Clevlen, Joyce, and Maybin, and plenty of filler material throughout the system, the Tigers will have to decide if they value winning at the minor league level more than prospect development. If players like Reggie Taylor, Brian Rios, Jim Essian, and the like steal too many at-bats in 2006, many prospects that need playing time to develop could suffer. The organization is in dire need of developing impact bats, and the 2006 season could be a make-or-break year for many of our borderline youngsters.