In recent seasons, the Tigers system has been climbing back towards respectability. Detroit has graduated Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya, Curtis Granderson, and Chris Shelton to the Majors on a full-time basis. These four players comprised much (if not nearly all) of the top level talent in the minor league system. Where has the promotion of these four young stars left the organization's minor league talent level? Are there still players that appear capable of contributing at the next level? Nearly all teams face such questions on a cyclical schedule, but should we really be facing such a question only two years after progress was first seen?
The Tigers still have two elite talents at the top of their prospect lists; Cameron Maybin and Humberto Sanchez. If 1st round pick Andrew Miller signs on the dotted line; that provides them another outstanding prospect on which to hang their proverbial hat. Double-A hurler Jair Jurrjens is approaching top flight prospect status, but he still has some doubters who question his projectability. Beyond these four players, the Tigers system appears to become very mediocre, in very short order. Without much thought, it is quite apparent that organizational depth is not one of the strong suits that the Tigers minor league system still possesses.
Aside from the overall state of the organization, let's take a look at the individual skills or positions where the Tigers are strong or weak. As many would expect from a Dave Dombrowski led organization, hard throwing right-handers are as common as guns at an NRA convention. The Tigers stable of righties with power fastballs includes Humberto Sanchez, Jordan Tata, Eulogio de la Cruz, PJ Finigan, Kevin Whelan, Jay Sborz, Josh Rainwater, Sendy Vasquez, Freddi Dolsi, Ricky Steik, and the list goes on with more guys at the short-season levels. The common belief with pitching prospects, is that you never actually have too many. With an abundance of hard throwing right-handers, I believe it is safe to say this is a strength of the organization's minor league system.
On the contrary, the Tigers system is severely lacking in pitchers able to toss with the other hand. The Tigers list of minor league lefties includes such luminaries as Corey Hamman, Daniel Zell, Lucas French, and Erik Averill. The signing of UNC ace Andrew Miller would be a huge boost, but would still leave the organization with a significant drop-off behind him. Lefties are always a hot commodity, and are often difficult to come by and develop, but the dearth of even intriguing options at the minor league level is disturbing.
As has long been tradition on the Tiger's farm, toolsy players are still quite prevalent. The Tigers have long believed in drafting raw tools over actual baseball skills, and players who haven't quite figured out the game itself, are still littered throughout the organization. It's difficult to discern whether this is a strength or a weakness; with the final determination largely hinging on the success of the prospect. If the Tigers hit the jackpot with one of these players, resulting in a perennial All-Star, the abundance of tools looks much better. If they continue to bust in much the same fashion as Jeramy Laster, Robert Tulk, Robbie Sovie, and Bo Flowers, the strategy looks much worse. The Tigers still have toolsy players such as Gil Mejia, Justin Justice, Audy Ciriaco, Wilkin Ramirez, and Kody Kirkland; none of whom have been able to positively distinguish themselves.
Another long-standing strength of the organization has been the wealth of speed from top to bottom. From players with big league experience like Alexis Gomez and Nook Logan, to lower level burners like Brandon Timm and Clete Thomas, the Tigers have plenty of speed to go around. The list also includes well above-average runners like Cameron Maybin, Vincent Blue, Gorkys Hernandez, Tony Giarratano, Wilkin Ramirez, and Juan Francia. While speed seems to becoming less and less important to the Major League game, it's a luxury that is always nice to have floating around; particularly on the defensive side of the ball where Comerica Park requires decent speed to cover its wide open expanses.
While the plethora of catching prospects may suggest a position of strength within the system, reality is a much different story. Despite roughly 20 catchers spread from AAA-Toledo to the Venezuelan Summer League, there is actually little in the way of help on the horizon. The Tigers have expended considerable effort to develop a catcher over the last couple of years, with little success. At this point, backstops like Dusty Ryan, Chris Robinson, and Adrian Casanova are considered amongst the best in the system; and to be quite honest, that fact is depressing. Even with significant attention paid to the problem, catching is still a major weakness throughout the organization.
Two areas of the system that appear to be on the comeback are power hitters and guys that can get on base. Both skills have been something that was sorely lacking throughout the minor leagues for the Tigers. However, the tide seems to be turning with a recent influx of talented players that can control the strike zone, as well as a set of powerful bats that can drive the ball around the park. This year's draft, in particular, seemed to have an on-base focus, as nearly every offensive player drafted early had demonstrated the ability to control the strike zone. The development of players who do not deem it necessary to swing at everything flying near the plate could be a huge boon for the Tigers offensive production over the long haul.
Power hitters, like left-handed pitchers, are always in demand, and the Tigers haven't been able to find many in recent years. However, the addition of players like Jeff Larish, Cameron Maybin, Ryan Strieby, Chris Carlson, and the continued maturation of Kody Kirkland and Ryan Raburn's strength has given the minor league power production a boost. If any of these players can begin knocking the ball out of Comerica Park on a routine basis, the Tigers system will have taken another step forward.
Overall, the loss of four top, young talents has greatly diminished the over-riding quality of the Tigers minor league system. There appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel, in spite of the loss of prospects, which is an encouraging sign for the future of the organization. Good systems backfill prospect graduations quickly and always seem to have more players ready to step into the voids created by promotion. The Tigers are not quite there yet, but the signs can be seen that they are slowly on their way.