I don't think it is any secret at this point that the Tigers system has been seriously depleted by a few offseason trades. The departure of top prospects Cameron Maybin, Jair Jurrjens, and Gorkys Hernandez ripped most of the impact talent from the minor leagues, but the Tigers did receive a potential Hall of Famer in all this; masher Miguel Cabrera. The Tigers' system lacked significant depth behind those stud prospects, and some of that was depleted further as pitchers Dallas Trahern, Burke Badenhop, and Eulogio de la Cruz were included in the package to Florida. There is little doubt that moves of this nature helped the Major League team, but there are ramifications to such actions.
One thing has become exceedingly clear in Dave Dombrowski's tenure in both Detroit and Florida; he and his staff love power arms. While the Tigers have graduated such hard throwers as Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya to the Major League level, there are still a fair number of these types floating throughout the system. Right-handers like Rick Porcello, Luis Marte, Alfredo Figaro, Brandon Hamilton, Freddi Dolsi, and Casey Fien, along with left-handers like Casey Crosby and Charlie Furbush all bring above-average to plus velocity to the table. Outside of Porcello, this crop of arms may not carry the same potential as Verlander and Zumaya, but there is some depth from which we can hope someone emerges. While it has been a strength in the past, I do not believe the power arms are nearly as impressive at this time, and its now just an area of solid depth for the organization.
For a system that was largely bereft of left-handed pitching the past, some hurlers like the aforementioned Crosby and Furbush, as well as Duane Below, Luke French, and Jon Kibler have the raw stuff to elevate this position from the doldrums. Only Crosby has the potential – provided he recovers from elbow reconstruction – to become a frontline starter, but even marginal lefty starters can become useful to a Major League organization.
There is a growing belief that the plethora of solid outfielders throughout the system makes this one of the organization's prospect strengths. I disagree to an extent. Guys like Matt Joyce, Deik Scram, Brent Clevlen, Wilkin Ramirez, and Clete Thomas all have nice skill sets, but in reality, none of them project as impact big leaguers. The highest ceiling of that group is Ramirez, but there are glaring holes in his game that could keep him from reaching that peak. Keep an eye on the development of Alexis Espinoza and Avisail Garcia, as both have the tools and approach to the game that could make them legitimate prospects, and turn this area of depth into one of strength.
There is little doubt that the middle of the infield is far and away the strongest component of the minor league system. Even with the collapse of Tony Giarratano, the Tigers have a litany of players that will soon be beating on the Major League door. Mike Hollimon has performed at every level, and he has demonstrated the versatility to handle both second base and shortstop with aplomb; making him a potentially valuable offensive-minded utility player.
Two of the Tigers newest prospects, shortstops Cale Iorg and Danny Worth, both have excellent tools and the baseball mind to make it big. Worth is more advanced right now, but that could change quickly as Iorg shakes off the rust from a two-year hiatus. Iorg is one of the only players outside of Rick Porcello that has true impact talent at the highest level. In addition to these three, second baseman Scott Sizemore has the offensive potential to become a quality big league player, but he must start hitting with more authority on a consistent basis. The Tigers have also infused a ton of Latin shortstops with tons of raw potential, including Audy Ciriaco, Domingo Gonzalez, Hernan Perez, and Oscar Gomez. The Tigers built their last championship club around the duo of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, and with all the talent they have up the middle, they could be looking to do that again in the near future.
Moving out from the middle of the diamond, the Tigers have another glaring weakness on the infield corners. First baseman Jeff Larish is the only evident impact player on the corners, and he is nearly ready for the show. Behind him at first base are the likes of Ryan Roberson, Chris Carlson, and Ryan Strieby, none of which projects as much more than a solid minor league slugger. At the hot corner, you have to look to a player who has yet to take the field in a competitive professional environment, Francisco Martinez, to find the organization's best option. Kody Kirkland, Santo De Leon, and Ronnie Bourquin are all organizational types that will be lucky to move past double-A. The infield corners lack Major League caliber talent, but with Miguel Cabrera now at first, and potentially Carlos Guillen and/or Brandon Inge at third, they could survive this problem.
Rounding out the tour around the diamond, the Tigers have long been criticized for their inability to develop a legitimate catching prospect; and I don't see that criticism changing any time soon. Many will point to the excellent season by James Skelton in 2007, but there are rousing red flags surrounding his prospect status. His size, durability, and ability to drive the ball are all lacking. He has demonstrated an ability to get on base via singles and walks, but that's not enough unless you are going to be a world class defender, which Skelton is not. Behind him are a litany of catching prospects that all have incredible holes in their games; including the likes of Devin Thomas, Jordan Newton, Dusty Ryan, and more. If there is a bright spot on the catching front, it is that the organization has continued to fill the Latin leagues with potential options, signing Raynolds Guzman, Luis Sanz, Wilfredo Hoyer, and Ricardo Olivo to make their debuts this summer.
If you haven't picked up on the underlying message here, the Tigers system is in rough shape. They have excellent prospects in the middle of the infield, but lack impact elsewhere on the diamond. Even the depth players that are littering the minor league rungs are long shots to project as much more than organizational filler or maybe bench guys at the big league level. I have faith that Dombrowski and crew can infuse the system with talent over the next two drafts, and look for them to focus on impact talent regardless of cost, in order to rebuild a system that's running on empty.