Over the past two seasons the Detroit Tigers have been a relatively healthy team in terms of games missed, especially considering the advanced age of some of their players. This good fortune has allowed the front office to hide the organization’s lack of overall depth.
A farm system that is said to rank 28th out of 30 won’t offer the Tigers much if a few key players start to hit the disabled list. Let’s take a look at what might be available should the often times inevitable rash of injuries finally occur.
Hello? Is anyone there? This is, by far, the Tigers’ biggest depth-related concern. Jose Alvarez was the only player other than the regular starting five to log a start for the Tigers last year. He started just six games with extremely mixed results and ended the season with a 5.82 ERA and 1.50 WHIP. He was impressive at times but likely cannot be relied upon for a long stretch of starts.
Kyle Lobstein, a rule 5 pickup last offseason, and a lefty like Alvarez, could also be knocking on the door with a good spring and a strong start in Toledo after a very productive 2013 split between Erie and Toledo. Lobstein hasn’t received much fanfare since coming into the Detroit system but fanned 148 hitters in 167.2 innings in 2013.
Robbie Ray, the key guy that Dave Dombrowski targeted in the Doug Fister trade, is also considered to be a contender for spot start duty in 2014 if he gets off to a good start at Toledo. I wish Ray the best as the Fister Fan Club, fair or not, will be watching with a scowl whenever he does debut in Detroit.
Drew VerHagen, the 6-foot-6 4th round pick in 2012, is experiencing a steady climb through the minors that ended with a strong 12-start stint for AA Erie. He is still a year away though, which belies the problem. Most of the Tigers’ truly strong minor league starting pitching depth is buried deep in the minors. Any potential help this year will be hard to come by.
Much like a season ago, the Tigers will be hoping that their sturdy starting five can take the ball every 5th day without fail. Subtracting Doug Fister from this equation and pulling in Drew Smyly casts some doubt on this plan of attack as nobody has seen Smyly go through a full season of big league starting as of yet.
Should the Tigers be so unfortunate as to see one or even two of their big three miss a significant number of starts then Kansas City and Cleveland will be ready to pounce.
Despite the clouded nature of the expected Opening Day bullpen the Tigers do have some intriguing depth in the minors and you can be sure that they’ll be called upon early and often.
Aside from the seven we expect to see come late March (Joe Nathan, Bruce Rondon, Joba Chamberlain, Ian Krol, Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke, and Luke Putkonen) the Tigers have Casey Crosby, Jose Ortega, Melvin Mercedes, Justin Miller, and Evan Reed all currently residing on the 40-man roster. Luis Marte is also still lingering as a minor league invite to camp and will be looking to work his way back onto the 40-man roster.
2013 draftee Corey Knebel is a name to watch. He went to low-A West Michigan right after the draft and was flat out dominant with 15 saves, a 0.87 ERA, 0.77 WHIP and 41 K’s to just 10 walks in 31 innings of work. He’s on the fast track and at worst will work at AA this year, and at best, will see some time with the Tigers.
Melvin Mercedes is the other intriguing name here. He was the organization’s version of what Bruce Rondon did in 2012. Oddly enough, sharing a bulging frame just like Rondon’s, Mercedes piled up 23 saves between high-A and AA ball last year with a 1.19 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. He struck out just 36 in 53 innings but showed good command with only 14 walks.
The upper crust of players that could breach the major league roster this year include catcher Ramon Cabrera (should Alex Avila or Bryan Holaday go down), middle infielder Hernan Perez, and first baseman Jordan Lennerton (who played in the Futures Game last year). I wouldn’t be surprised if all three of these guys spend time in Detroit this summer.
Cabrera is a defensive-minded catcher who lacks pop in his bat. Perez is a blossoming talent who hung around late last season with the big club. Rather than rotting away on the bench though, he’ll get regular at-bats in Toledo and await the always real possibility that Ian Kinsler goes down with injury.
Lennerton is an intriguing name. He’s already 28-years old but hasn’t spent a day in the major leagues, instead carving out a slow and steady rise through the minor league ranks. Since 2009 though, Lennerton has quite simply hit with great productivity from the left side of the plate. In 2013, at AAA Toledo, he hit .278 with 17 homers and 25 doubles. His left-handed bat is intriguing as well since the departure of Prince Fielder leaves the Tigers infield a lopsided group in the batter’s box.
If either Victor Martinez or Miguel Cabrera or perhaps even Nick Castellanos go down with injury, Lennerton is likely next in line.
Guys like James McCann (catcher), Steven Moya (OF), Tyler Collins (OF), Daniel Fields (OF), Devon Travis (2B) and Eugenio Suarez (SS) are all on the move, but likely at least a year of minor league seasoning away from threatening the big league roster.
Non-roster invitee Danny Worth is also in camp. Has anyone ever been talked about more, for longer, and played less big league games (115 in four years) than Worth? Maybe it’s just not meant to be.
Stay healthy fellas. The underbelly is just that, for a reason.
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