It should come as no surprise that the Tigers farm system isn’t among the top system isn’t brimming with talent, as it’s been well documented over the years. TigsTown’s Director of Scouting Mark Anderson examined just that last week in his article, How the Detroit Tigers Farm System Stacks Up.
So, what can be done about it? Well, it’s important to break the discussion down into two separate categories – the ability to acquire the proper talent that has Major League potential (scouting), and then the ability to take that potential and help translate those players into big leaguers (player development). Let’s take a look at each of the two sections separately.
Talent Acquisition / Scouting
For much of the first decade of the new century, the Tigers talent acquisition plan centered around trading for young, emerging talent, and identifying well-above slot draft picks worth spending large bonuses on. If you look at much of the core of the team today, many of the key players were brought in via one of those two methods. Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello and Nick Castellanos were all highly-touted draft picks that the Tigers paid a premium to get into the farm system. Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera (and prior to the David Price trade, Austin Jackson) were all acquired when they were in the growing 25 and under stage of their career.
However, teams have gotten smarter over the last decade, and a Cabrera-type player being on the market just doesn’t happen frequently. And in that extreme case, at this point in time, the Marlins don’t seem inclined to make the same mistake twice, as there’s little indication they are willing to trade current star outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, despite him reaching the same age and proximity to free agency as when they traded Cabrera.
Further, with the strict slot bonus system that was implemented a couple of years ago in the draft, along with bonus pool with severe punishments for exceeding it, the opportunity to get a player like Porcello at the end of the first round, or Castellanos in the compensatory round, just doesn’t happen. And the only way the Tigers can get to the point where they can draft second overall (where they got Verlander), would be to be among the worst teams in baseball, which would obviously come with it an entirely different set of problems.
The Tigers however are not sitting idly by. For starters, they’ve stepped up their focus on international talent acquisition. That includes doubling-down in Venezuela (when many clubs have fled), and also dabbling in the minimally-explored Australian talent base.
In Venezuela, a decade ago, it was a popular rookie level stop, with a dozen clubs represented and examining the talent base. But political unrest and safety concerns among other issues have resulted in many organizations retreating. In 2014, only five clubs were represented (Marlins, Rays, Phillies and Cubs), which is actually an increase from 2012, when the league was down to four teams.
There’s an obvious link for the Tigers to the nation, as Cabrera, Anibal Sanchez and Victor Martinez are all natives from there, and the talent they’ve been able to identify there includes recent highly-regarded prospects Bruce Rondon and Avisail Garcia. Outside of the Tigers, the nation has also produced All-Star talents like Jose Altuve, Elvis Andrus, Pablo Sandoval, Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Gonzalez.
The Tigers are betting that sort of talent will continue to grow in the baseball-obsessed nation, and that their scouting focus and star presence will make them a natural draw for the nation’s talent.
In addition, the Tigers have started investing in Australia. They have Warwick Saupold, who has been working as a starter for the Erie SeaWolves this season. Meanwhile, they brought Aaron Sayers stateside from Australia last year, and have Zac Shepherd currently playing Down Under as a highly-projectable athlete. The nation has thus far produced only a handful of productive big leaguers, but interest in the sport is growing and talent is likely to follow.
In each instance, the Tigers are focusing their resources where they could potentially gain a competitive advantage and insider access to talent. This effort is in addition to acquiring players via the traditional means of mostly slot draft picks and quality but not bank-breaking bonuses to kids in the Dominican, where every MLB team has a presence. This approach doesn’t mean first rounder Derek Hill isn’t talented (he is), it simply means that the Tigers aren’t going to rely heavily on a system that doesn’t allow them to have much of an advantage against the competition.
Player Development / Coaching
Outside of finding players, once they enter the organization, it becomes the responsibility of the coaches and the player development staff to turn that raw talent into baseball production at the Major League level. Obviously easier said than done, and unlike their talent acquisition strategy, the Tigers have not made any recent changes in their player development staff.
Manny Crespo remains in charge of the Latin American operation, a role he’s held dating back to 2005. Dave Owen is the overall organization director of player development, based in Lakeland, and has been in the role since 2011, less than a year after they parted ways with Glenn Ezell.
While the leaders of the operation are largely the same, they are changing some of the ways they’re developing talent.
One of the biggest changes is that they’re eliminating their formalized Fall Instructional League. Fall Ball, as it’s usually known, was a roughly month long camp that took place over September and October, usually filled with a roster of roughly 40 players and pitchers, all looking to get additional work in, or work on specific parts of their game.
However, a handful of the top prospects already head to Arizona for the annual Arizona Fall League, and many players from Venezuela and the Dominican return home after the stateside season ends, and participate in camps there, as well as the organized winter leagues.
Rather than forcing players to continue playing for an extra month, when many of the players are usually mentally drained and ready for a break and the off-season, the Tigers are letting those players return home and work out on their own.
According to the Tigers director of minor league operations, Dan Lunetta, this represents a “Shift in developmental philosophy. We will place more of an emphasis on early spring training mini-camp."
It obviously remains to be seen what other changes the Tigers will make to improve their ability to translate, but a rather large change in the layout of the course of the season is certainly a strong indication they’re looking to make some changes to improve it.
The Tigers farm system is not a point of strength right now, and after trading three of their top ten prospects at the trade deadline, in addition to needing to recall another due to Anibal Sanchez’s injury, things look even bleaker. However, the Tigers aren’t simply going accept that they can no longer get top prospects via paying more than others in the draft. They’re looking for new ways to get talent, and develop that talent.
How it works remains to be seen, but from the outside, even without knowing it, the Tigers clearly have a plan.