There was one thing clear in my time at Tigertown, and I want to make it clear to all of you right up front. These guys – the players, coaches, instructors, everyone – work extremely hard down here, and they have a lot of fun in the process. The laughs and jokes were plentiful, as were the instructions and comments of the coaches and staff. It's a great environment to witness, one of learning, one of purity of baseball, and one of love for life and baseball! Kudos to the entire Tigers' staff for not only a great job with the players, but for making me (and the others around) feel welcome at the complex.
On to the observations….
Alex Avila – There was some skepticism on draft day that this was a pick based in nepotism, and not talent. I'm here to put that to bed immediately. This kid is an absolute player. He understands the game, is growing daily behind the plate, and has a very good offensive game. Everything he hits – even his outs – are hit hard, and hit to all fields. He has a sound, quick stroke that sprays line drives everywhere. He's got home run power to the pull side of the field, but I doubt you'll ever see more than 10-15 bombs from him in a season. He should hit for average, walk, and rack up doubles from line to line. With all due respect to James Skelton and Dusty Ryan, Avila is immediately the best catching prospect in the system, and the best one the Tigers have had in years.
Jeff Kunkel – We've known for quite some time that Kunkel is unlikely to hit much as a pro and that was confirmed this week. However, his defense and leadership on the field plays a very important role for the team. He commands the pitching staff very well, calls a very good game, and knows the defensive responsibilities of his teammates. Even if he doesn't hit, he'll probably carve out a nice minor league career with that skill set. Offensively, I liked him better from the left side of the plate this week, though that was in a limited sample. He seemed like a more confident hitter with a bit more bat speed and control from that side.
Andrew Graham – As mentioned over the weekend, Graham is back on the field after Tommy John surgery. In his first at-bat in a game situation, he ripped a run scoring single through the left side in the first inning; scoring Cale Iorg from second. He's as strong as ever, as evidenced by the home run display he put on in batting practice on Thursday. On one of the back fields he was routinely crushing balls over the left-center field fence, into the palm trees separating the fields from the lake. Oh yeah, and the wind was blowing in. Graham appeared to struggle a bit with pitch recognition and the strike zone, but some of that could easily be rust after an extended time away from game action. His arm looked strong and his footwork looked as good as ever in the limited time I saw him behind the plate in workouts.
Angel Flores – I've been on this bandwagon for a couple of years now; not necessarily as an answer in Detroit, but more as a solid catcher who serves a valuable role in the minor league system. He's still a defensive whiz with a quick arm on his throws to the bases. His bat is still very suspect, with a mechanical swing, an inability to command the strike zone, and only marginal bat speed. He won't hit much more than he has the last two years, but he'll be a guy that can play defensively at any level of the system depending on need.
Devin Thomas – I only got to see him take at-bats from the left side, and while the pop was evident, his bat didn't look as polished as it did coming out of Brown. He almost appeared to be pressing at the plate, trying to do too much with every swing. His leadership ability is still top notch and he commanded the respect of his teammates without effort. If he could take a step forward at the plate, or even with his defense, he'd have a much better shot at extending his career. As it is, he's going to be in a dog fight each spring to keep his place in the organization.
Luis Grullon – Don't lay too much importance on his numbers from this past summer in the Gulf Coast League. The adjustment is tough for many hitters coming stateside, and there is sizeable offensive upside with Grullon. He's still learning the strike zone, but he showed an aptitude for squaring balls up and driving them. When he makes contact, you know it, and it usually takes off somewhere with authority. He showed as mostly a pull hitter this week, and that matches well with what I had heard going in. He struggled in batting practice to go the other way regularly, but continued to work diligently at it. Defensively, he understands all of his responsibilities and he looks a bit better than I had heard in terms of footwork around the bag. He has good hands and a strong arm, and he looks to be working hard to develop his ability to pick balls from his infielders. I don't see a huge ceiling here, but there's not much stopping him from getting some serious chances in 2009 if he makes small strides the rest of this fall and throughout the winter.
Billy Nowlin – "Just drive in more than you let in, and you'll make a bunch of money in this game." Those were the words of Andy Barkett on Thursday morning as they worked with Billy on his defense. As a former catcher – and largely designated hitter – in college, Nowlin is very new to first base, and it shows. At present, he is still trying to grasp situational positioning, when to attack balls, when to utilize the pitcher or second baseman covering, and all the nuances of proper footwork around the bag. It may come with time, but it currently looks like he's a DH through and through. That's okay in some respects, because as cliché as it is, this kid is the definition of country strong. He's not the refined, chiseled physique of many power prospects, but he is just flat out big an strong. He literally looks like he's spent his life working on the farm. His batting practice displays were very impressive, but his contact abilities in games prevent him from utilizing that power to the fullest in games. He takes a healthy cut every time, and doesn't get cheated in his at-bats. If he can tighten up his strike zone a bit, he has the potential to develop elite power.