Nearly two months into the season, it is possible to start looking for trends – good and bad – that can provide a glimpse at what might be in store for the rest of the season. The Tigers system, as a whole, was coming off a 2005 minor league campaign that was utterly dominating from top to bottom. Are the early returns of the 2006 season showing that last season's gains were real? Or are things coming back to earth in a big way?
I'm going to start the look through the system on the infield. For years, the Tigers have been waiting for a true power hitting threat to emerge from their system, and it appears they may have finely found it. After a very impressive debut season with Oneonta, Jeff Larish is making the necessary adjustments while at High-A Lakeland this season. After a first month that saw him hit .256/.360/.442, Larish has brought his line up to an even more impressive .276/.384/.492 (equating to a .295/.385/.537 month). Jeff has the potential to be an elite power hitter, and the early returns from his professional career shows that he is capable of making the adjustments necessary to advance quickly through the system. With little standing in his way at Erie, and a very impressive second month to the season in his pocket, Larish could be another solid month away from his first taste of AA.
It never fails; just as I'm about to right off Ryan Raburn, he goes absolutely berserk and makes me reconsider my position. After a horrendous start to his second season in AAA, the 25-year old Raburn has gone .337/.455/.707 in May, forcing me to wonder if he still may have a future. Toledo Manager Larry Parrish has been moving Raburn between second base and left field, looking for ways to get his bat in the lineup. With his history of having played third, and solid outfield instincts, this type of versatility may still lead Ryan to have some sort of utility career at the ML level. I certainly don't expect Raburn to post numbers matching those of May, but he may not be as much as an afterthought as I have postured in recent months.
Kody Kirkland continues to maintain his status as organizational enigma. With only 42 hits heading into Sunday's action (in 181 Abs), it wouldn't seem as though Kirkland was doing much worth noting. However, 27 of those 42 hits have gone for extra bases; resulting in a .525 slugging percentage. Its long been a fact that Kody had tons of power potential, and the tools to be a very good player, but maddening inconsistency had dropped him in the TigsTown rankings. His stock is rising because of increased power production, but at some point, he absolutely must provide other benefits. Expect the power production to continue, but I'll be astonished if his average and OBP crack the .250/.310 barrier all season long.
The catching front has had little to write home about in recent seasons, but as the weather has warmed in 2006, so have a few of the backstop's sticks. Mike Rabelo, Dusty Ryan, and Chris Robinson have all been hitting well this season, with ‘Rabs' and Robinson really taking off this month. None of the three are expected to post stellar numbers this season, but their early returns are encouraging nonetheless. With the high hopes pinned on Robinson, his .329/.413/.429 month probably stands out the most. His defensive abilities have never been in question, but his bat was deemed suspect, and it's promising to see progress on this front. The Tigers are in dire need of someone to replace Pudge at some juncture, and with leaps forward such as this, it's worth keeping a very close eye on Robinson as the season moves along.
Check out Part II of Mark's look at the early season trends tomorrow.