Since before the 2008 season, the Tigers have dealt away top prospect Cameron Maybin, two top pitching prospects in Andrew Miller and Jair Jurrjens, another top outfielder in Gorkys Hernandez, and parted ways with other top prospects such as Dallas Trahern, Virgil Vasquez, Eulogio de la Cruz, Guillermo Moscoso and James Skelton. Add in the fact that players like Clete Thomas and Matt Joyce have graduated from prospect status, and the system has seen an incredible loss of talent. A rate of prospect departure such as this would cripple any system, particularly one which lacked depth like the Tigers.
In the wake of such losses, the Tigers have re-infused talent into the system by loading up on power arms the likes of which few organizations can boast, increasing the number of players signed in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, and extending their reach to Asia and Australia. The addition of prospects like Ryan Perry, Cody Satterwhite, Brett Jacobson, Francisco Marinez, Avisail Garcia, Chao-Ting Tang, and Fu-Te Ni has brought a different element to the organization; an element of diversity, and a wealth of different prospects.
In true Dave Dombrowski fashion, the strength of the Tigers minor league system is pitching, pitching, and more pitching. There seems an endless supply of arm capable of easily reaching the 90-plus miles per hour range. At the top of the heap is the Spring Training darling, Rick Porcello. One of the elite prospects in the game – 2008 strikeout rates be damned – Porcello has all the makings of a true top prospect and a true ace. Three above-average to plus pitches combined with excellent command an out of this world poise and maturity will make anyone an elite pitcher. There are few organizations in baseball where Rick Porcello wouldn't be the top prospect on their board.
Though there are no other prospects in the system that can approach Porcello's status, there are plenty of strong arms worth noting and watching; a list of arms that headline an otherwise raw minor league system. Fellow 2007 draftees Casey Crosby and Brandon Hamilton are high ceiling power arms that could take steps forward in 2009, and the 2008 draft class of Ryan Perry, Cody Satterwhite, Scott Green, and Brett Jacobson are all power arms that have intensely bright futures. The list of power arms continues well beyond that, to include relievers like Casey Fien, Zach Simons, and Lester Oliveros, along with starters like Luis Marte, Mauricio Robles, and Luke Putkonen. Anyway you slice it, the Tigers power arms are the calling card and strength of the system.
Though the power arms get the majority of attention from prospect mavens, fans, and journalists, that doesn't mean they are the only group of pitchers propping up the Tigers system. After years of a system bereft of left-handers worth noting, the Tigers have accumulated a group of south paws that won't let you overlook them; they will make you take notice. Headlined by Casey Crosby and Mauricio Robles, the Tigers also mix in mid-rotation types like Jon Kibler, Duane Below, Darwin De Leon, and Charlie Furbush from the left side. Add to that three very young and very raw lefties that have high ceilings in Matt Hoffman, Aaron Fuhrman, and Jade Todd, and the Tigers have enough quality lefties to field an entire pitching staff.
Despite all the promise emanating from the previous three paragraphs, there should be some pause for concern. With hard throwers and raw prospects often comes command and control problems; something the Tigers have in spades on the farm. Many of those drafted in the last two years have battled their ability to throw strikes and the minor league coaching staffs and instructors will have their hands full trying to refine the strike-throwing ability of these young hurlers. So while pitching is the strength and the shear power of the position in the system may suggest an organization with a strong minor league farm, there are hurdles to overcome before many of the above named can become top prospects.
Two other positions of relative strength for the organization are the middle infield and the outfield. The two positions offer strength in two vastly different ways, with many of the middle infielders possessing more polish and certainty, and many of the outfielders providing high ceilings and boom or bust potential.
The Tigers have more options than they can count at both shortstop and second base as we head into 2010, when the contracts of Placido Polanco, Adam Everett, and Ramon Santiago all expire. From high ceiling talents like Cale Iorg and Audy Ciriaco, to solid all-around players like Will Rhymes, Michael Hollimon, and Danny Worth, the Tigers have options galore going forward. Add into the mix Scott Sizemore and Justin Henry at the keystone, and Brandon Douglas at shortstop, and there are even more options on the horizon.
The depth up the middle doesn't stop there for the Tigers, as they have signed numerous Latin American prospects with the potential to stick on the middle of the infield, led by high ceiling players such as Javier Azcona, Dixon Machado, Alexander Nunez, and Luis Cortez. With the depth already in the states, the Tigers will have the luxury of being patient with these raw youngsters, and if things break nicely, they could see middle infielders become a sustained strength of the organization.
In the outfield, despite the losses of Matt Joyce (traded) and Clete Thomas (lost rookie eligibility), there are still many high ceiling prospects that make the outfield a position to watch at minor league games this summer. Led by Wilkin Ramirez and Casper Wells, the Tigers have two potential five-tool players that just ooze raw talent and potential. There are few outfielders within the system that approach anything resembling certainty, as the boom or bust mentality of raw talents has taken over in the outfield, with a list that includes pure athletes like Londell Taylor and D'Andrea Vaughn, big time power hitters like Alexis Espinoza and Steven Mercedes, and well rounded but raw players like Deik Scram, Kody Kaiser, and Brent Wyatt.
Two positions that remain problematic for the Tigers, and force the system's rating downward are the corner infielders and catchers. Jeff Larish is the top corner infield prospect in the organization, and it's not even really close. You have to stretch back a ways to find the next guy in either Francisco Martinez (extremely raw) or Ryan Strieby (must prove he's more than a mistake hitter). Beyond those three players, the crop thins out quickly and dramatically, falling into the realm of D-level prospects and players that are difficult to project at even the upper levels of the minor leagues, not to mention the Major Leagues.
Behind the dish, the loss of James Skelton certainly doesn't help, but it's not the glaring mistake by the front office that many fans seem to claim. Alex Avila was and is the top catcher in the system and his combination of a progressing glove and polished bat give him a chance to save this position from complete despair. Dusty Ryan has enormous power and a strong arm, but there are enough other questions surrounding him, to project him as merely a quality Major League backup. Beyond Avila and Ryan, the Tigers look to a lengthy crop of foreign prospects that have raw potential but gobs of development remaining before they can even enter the discussion as viable catching prospects. Catcher has been a position of need for the Tigers for years, and there is little in the system outside of Avila to suggest that will change anytime soon.
Overall, the Tigers are system built on raw potential and projection, without significant depth or prospects with any level of certainty about their future. That recipe can yield some superstars along the way, but as of now, it shows as a system lacking true baseball talent. Players like Iorg, Ramirez, and Wells are multi-tooled players with glaring holes they must overcome to become top level players, and pitchers like Ryan Perry, Brett Jacobson, and Cody Satterwhite all appear destined for the bullpen; a fate that severely hurts their prospect worth. In the end, Rick Porcello is an absolutely elite talent, and quite possibly the only thing from saving the Tigers' organization from being one of the two or three worst in baseball.
As it stands now, the Tigers are among the bottom seven or eight systems in the league, but a top ten pick in this June's draft, and the positive development of a few high ceiling talents like Iorg, Crosby, Ramirez, and they could be a system on the rise despite the probable loss of prospect eligibility by Porcello sometime this year.