Thursday, January 16, 2014

Looking ahead to the 2014 Mud Hens

With under a month left till the start of spring training, I’m going stir crazy for some baseball. The lack of Tigers news has led me to ponder the potential roster of my hometown Toledo Mud Hens. While most would think that pondering the makeup of the AAA roster is pointless, there are some interesting choices of which players might start or debut in Toledo this year. With so many non roster invites to consider, there are position and pitching battles that could be decided in the spring as to who goes where in the minors. It goes without saying that an injury or a really productive spring by guys on the fringe of the ML roster could make some of these predictions moot. 

First, I’ll look at the position players. I’ll assume they go with 12 position players on a 24 man roster. Players I think will be on the roster will have a * infront of their name on this list
The locks will comprise most of the position roster:

*1B - Jordan Lennerton - He had a good year last year and is having a heck of a winter in the Dominican League. There is even talk of him being a dark horse candidate for a bench spot in Detroit, but with Miggy and Vmart healthy, this seems extremely unlikely.

*2B – Hernan Perez – Again, He’ll compete for a job in ST but I think the Tigers want to get him regular at bats so unless he puts up a spring of amazing stats, expect him to play 2B everyday in Toledo.

*SS – Dixon Machado – If it weren’t for Jose Iglesias, he might be the best infield glove in the Tigers system. Problem is, his bat skills make Jose Iglesias look like Miguel Cabrera. He’s done well to make it up this far but I think he’s topped out. Mud Hens fans should enjoy watching him track down groundballs in the hole. 

*3B – Danny Worth – Recently DFA’ed and back again, he’ll compete in ST for the reserve IF role but I’m 99% sure he’ll be a Mud Hen for 2014.  

*1B/3B/DH – Mike Hessman – The legendary “Magic Mike” returns to the Glass City. Unfortunately, at 35 years old, the magic might be in short supply. The good, he still put up a .800+ OPS the last 2 years and on a Mud Hens team that was starved for offense of any kind last year, he will be well received. The bad, he still strikes out at 28% rate. In short, he swings at everything. When he connects, the ball typically doesn’t come back. 

*OF – Ezequiel Carrera – Signed a minor league deal and will compete for a reserve OF bench spot with incumbent Don Kelly. He might actually beat out Kelly as he has slightly better ML stats than Kelly and is 7 years younger, but I don’t believe he can pitch in the 9th inning of a blowout loss. So, advantage Kelly for the moment. Carrera can play all 3 OF positions.

*OF – Trevor Crowe – See Carrera, Ezequiel but with less impressive ML stats.

*OF – Ben Guez – I feel like he’s been on the Mud Hens forever, and he’s likely to be back again this year. I don’t think he’ll ever make it up to the Tigers though, but he’s a nice all position OF to have.

*C – Ronny Paulino – Tigers picked him up off waivers last year to provide some catching depth in their upper level minors. I believe he’ll go to AAA as he does have a fair amount of MLB experience in his career but he’s purely a backup catcher at this point. Even in Toledo, given the development of two far better catchers in the organization as I’ll show below, I expect him to be a backup. That said he’ll still get a fair amount of catching time behind the primary catcher in Toledo as I could see him trading off Catching and DH duties to keep their bats fresh, while giving Hessman some days off of DH or when Hessman is in the field. He'll get at bats but he won’t be the go to catcher should when Avila goes to the DL.

Now for the guys who could be at Toledo or Erie or someplace else.

*C – James McCann – With Bryan Holaday slated to be the backup in Detroit to Avila, McCann should be slated for Toledo after a good year in Erie. A top 10 Tigers prospect in most lists, He has been seen as a possible Avila replacement. I think he’s the leading candidate for the starting job in Toledo but the next guy also had a good year and will need full time at bats somewhere and has a case for Toledo as well.

C – Ramon Cabrera - Cabrera came to the Tigers in exchange for once uber prospect Andrew Oliver. Still just 23 years old, he put up an impressive season between Erie and Toledo. I believe the Tigers will want to find full time at bats for both him and Mcann, which leads me to believe one will be in Erie and one will be in Toledo, rather than both on the same team. I think a case could be made for either of them to be in Toledo but I don’t think it will really matter as far as development of the player. I’ll say McCann for now in Toledo and Cabrera in Erie but it really could go either way and be fine.

*OF  - Daniel Fields – The next prospect OF in our system. He put together a nice year at Erie and seems ready to take the next step. He’ll have to cut down on the strikeouts and keep the OPS up but I think he can do it. The reason I don’t think he’s a lock though is because the next guy could easily take his spot instead, and with Guez, Crowe, and Carrera in the fold, I think  the Tigers will try to ensure full time at bats for both of them. He plays mostly centerfield and I don’t see that changing in Toledo.

OF – Tyler Collins – This is the only other guy I could see starting in the OF at Toledo but he would bump Fields to Erie. He’s another OF prospect who turned on the power last year in AA, but his average suffered. He also profiles more as a corner outfielder than a centerfielder. Right now he and Fields profile as 4th OFs in Detroit (Andy Dirks types) but they could still surprise. Regardless, I think it is one or the other will the start of the season in Toledo. 

That leaves 1 spot left. There are several part time players who could get this role, or it could even go to another pitcher if they carry 13 of them on only 11 position players. I won’t go into detail on them all because I really don’t know that much about them but names like John Murrain (catcher), Brandon Douglas (infield), *Kevin Russo (IF/OF), Corey Jones (infield), or someone else could be that last guy. If I had to pick one, I’d go with Russo since he can ply both infield and outfield. Bottom line, whoever they are, there is next to no chance they see time in Detroit, unless something goes catastrophically wrong. 

So your position roster at Toledo I feel would look like this:
C – McCann
1B – Lennerton
2B – Perez
SS – Machado
3B – Worth
LF –  Carrera
CF – Fields
RF – Crowe
DH – Hessman

C – Paulino
OF – Guez
IF – Jones
IF/OF – Russo

Overall this lineup should provide an improved offensive punch over last year. If I had to guess at a lineup I would think it would look something like this:
1) Carrera – LF
2) Perez – 2B
3) Hessman – DH
4) Lennerton – 1B
5) Fields – CF
6) Crowe – RF
7) MaCann – C
8) Worth – 3B
9) Machado – SS

Now I’ll take a look at the pitching in Toledo. There are some notable names to consider in the rotation and the bullpen and its all but guaranteed well see several of these names up with Detroit at some point this year. First I’ll look at those I feel are a lock to make the AAA roster. Again, I’ll designate those I feel make the team with an *.

*SP – Jose Alvarez – The unofficial #6 starter for the Tigers last year seems destined to continue that role again pitching in the rotation for Toledo. He put up a 2.80 ERA in AAA last year and was the first call up when a starter hit the DL. He’ll probably be the #1 starter to call up when needed unless someone else develops or has a breakthrough year.

*SP – Duane Below – The product of Britton, MI returns to the Tigers after being claimed by the Marlins when he was DFA’ed to make room for Jose Valverde. Unfortunately for Below, he did very poorly in his stint with the Marlins which led to his being released after the season. The Tigers will look to him to provide depth and possibly compete for a spot in the bullpen as a lefty reliever but I think he’s best served as a starter, a role he filled well for the Tigers in 2011 and 2012. He hits the strike zone and gets outs and is a workhorse. He’s an excellent starting pitcher to have for depth.

*SP – Kyle Lobstein – Another lefty, Lobstine was claimed in the rule 5 draft last year and after 
not breaking camp with the Tigers , Detroit sent catching prospect Curt Casali to the Rays for him. The 23 yr old Lobstine rewarded the Tigers with a 3.27 ERA between Erie and Toledo. He strikes out just under a batter an inning and walks just about 3 per 9. He held his own moving from AA to AAA and I think the Tigers will give him a full season at AAA to prove himself and make a case for a spot start, or more.

*SP – Blaine Hardy – A product of the Royals organization, the Tigers signed the 26 yr old lefty after the Royals let him go last year. Hardy responded with a 1.66 ERA as a reliever and starter between Erie and Toledo. Interestingly enough, his ERA was exactly 1.66 as both a starter and a reliever. He actually retuned to starting in Toledo for the first time since 2010. I think the Tigers will keep him starting in AAA but see if he can earns a spot in the pen in ST. This is a guy to keep an eye on for sure.

*RP - Casey Crosby – Long time lefty starting pitcher who is still just 25 years old is being moved to the bullpen for 2014. After a couple arm surgeries since being drafted, and continued battles with control, despite being a strikeout an inning pitcher, the Tigers have decided to move him to the bullpen to see if they can get some value out of his electric arm. Scouts still rave that his stuff is good, but his control is his downfall. He’s a lock to make the Mud Hens team and he’ll compete for a spot as a lefty in the Tigers pen, but I think he’ll end up in Toledo to learn about being a relief pitcher.

*RP – Luis Marte – He’s made the Tigers bullpen before out of ST but an injury at the end of the 2012 spring derailed his year. He also saw action in the majors in 2011 and he pitched well, but his health has not held up over the last few years. When his arm is right he’s a major league caliber reliever. The issues will always be his body. Can it stay healthy? He figures to receive a good look in Spring Training this year and has a good chance to win a bullpen spot with the Tigers. If he doesn’t he’ll be a lock for Toledo and as long as he’s healthy, he will be on the short list of reliever call ups.

*RP – Evan Reed – Claimed by the Tigers last year from the Marlins, Reed made his ML debut with the Tigers and did a respectable job out of the bullpen when called upon. Another guy who will get a look in ST to win a spot but who will ultimately end up in Toledo and be on the short list of bullpen callups.

*RP – Jose Ortega – A long developed product of the Tigers system after signing as an international FA at 18, Ortega has made appearances each of the last 2 years in Detroit and held his own. He also put up a sparkling year at Toledo in 2013 with a 1.86 ERA in 48 innings. Like the above 2, he’ll be in competition for a bullpen spot but should end up in Toledo on the tail end of the short list of callups.

*RP – Jhan Marinez – Signed as a minor league free agent, Jhan Marinez fills the required role of a player with a “Jh” in their first name. Oh yeah, he also has bounced around the Marlins and White Sox systems, earning a couple games in the bigs in 2010 and 2012. Stop me if you have head this story before but he has a live arm and strikes out over a batter an inning but he walks about 5 and a half per 9. He got an invite to big league camp but I don’t think he has much of a chance to make the Tigers roster, as such he’ll wind up in Toledo.

That leaves 3 spots, 1 in the rotation and 2 in the bullpen open. There’s 3 guys who could be in the mix for the last starter spot, barring a last minute minor league signing, that I could see starting at Toledo, or they might go to Erie.

SP – Robbie Ray – The centerpiece to the Doug Fister deal, DD raved about Ray in many a press conference. The numbers certainly say he’s a solid prospect, and left handed to boot. The Tigers seem confident he could be in the rotation in 2015. Unfortunately he only pitched a total of 11 games in AA last year. He may reach AAA this year but I think he’ll start in AA Erie. He did get an invitation to big league camp.

SP – Drew VerHagen – The fourth round pick of the Tigers in 2012, righty VerHagen put up a solid season between Lakeland and Erie last year. Like Ray he’s high on many Tigers prospect lists but with only a few AA games under his belt he likely starts in Erie. He also got an invitation to big league camp.

*SP – Ramon Garcia – True organization filler at this point, he’s been in the Tigers minor leagues since 2005 and has split time between Erie and Toledo each of the last 3 years. He does okay in Erie but has typically struggled up in Toledo but he’s logged 28 starts and 156 Innings up there. Toledo leaned on him quite a bit as a starter last year, taking the ball 15 times. I could see him being 5th starter this year (which would give them an all left-handed rotation) simply because I’m not sold at all on VerHagen or Ray starting the year in AAA, and Garcia would be a warm body to plug in to fill the gap till one of those two comes up.

The last 2 spots in the bullpen I think could be decided among 5 guys who either finished the season with the Tigers or were signed this year and put on the 40 man or made non-roster invites.  Typically if you are signed as a minor league FA and given a non roster invite and you don’t make the team, you go to AAA to be easily called up.

*RP – Kenny Faulk – Drafted by the Tigers in the 16th round of the 2009 draft Faulk has patiently worked his way up the system, earning spot in AAA last year. A strikeout lefthander, he has posted a K/9 rate above 10 at each level he has played. However, like so many Tigers arms in the minors, he has issues with control, walking about 6.5 per 9 each of the last 2 years. He’ll have to find some control if he wants to have a shot in Detroit, but I don’t see a reason why he wouldn’t be assigned to Toledo again this year.

*RP – Eduardo Sanchez – A former product of the Cardinals system, Sanchez has appeared in the majors each of the last 3 years for a handful of games. His most successful was 2011 in St Louis where he posted a 1.80 ERA in 30 innings. However the righty was never able to recapture that level of performance and his walks rose and strikeouts dropped. Over the last 2 years he’s battled command and seen his strikeouts tail off. He was picked up by the Cubs last year but after being let go in November, the Tigers picked him up and gave him an invite to camp.  He’s certainly an interesting guy to watch because he has had good command and control in the past and at only 24, the potential is still there. I don’t think he’ll beat out other candidates in spring camp but he should go to Toledo and could even see the big leagues again if he gets his walks down.

RP – Justin Miller – Former Texas prospect, Miller signed a minor league deal with the Tigers and was later added to the 40 man roster before the rule 5 draft. He is trying to comeback after arm surgery that forced him to miss all of the 2012 season. In 2011, he threw 70 innings at AA with a 1.81 ERA and a healthy 3.21 K/BB ratio. But then he went under the knife and his comeback bid did not impress in Texas last year, walking just over 5 per 9 and touting a 7.67 ERA in 27 innings. The Tigers clearly like his arm enough to give him a chance. Despite his struggles last year he still struck out an impressive 11 per 9, which is close to his career mark before his arm issues. It’s kind of a toss-up as to whether he’ll start at Toledo or Erie, or even make a team if he has a disastrous spring. My gut says no to AAA but I would not be shocked at all to see him assigned there.
The last two names on the list have actually been assigned to Toledo according to the team’s transaction page but I find that odd, given the higher potential, ML ready, talent with a case for AAA. I think they could be bumped back to Erie but they may end up in Toledo anyway. If either one could start I could see them actually bumping Garcia to Erie but they are both relievers.

RP – Will Startup – A 28 year old lefty was a part of the Braves org all the way back till 2007, when was traded with Wil Ledezma to the Padres,  but he missed 2008 with TJ surgery and has been on the comeback trail ever since. He signed with Erie last year and put up a respectable season, going 85 innings with a 3.41 ERA, low walks, but not many strikeouts. He is certainly in a position to go to Toledo and he could be assigned there and it wouldn’t surprise me, but with such a left heavy rotation, plus Crosby and Faulk already in the fold, I find it difficult to place him there as he would be one of many lefties and he might be left fighting for innings. Being assigned to Toledo is odd here cause I don’t see it but he could bump a guy like Sanchez or even Faulk back to Erie to at least start the year.

RP – Pat McCoy – Cast off from the National organization after flaming out from being picked in the 10th round of the 07 draft, Startup was picked up by the Tigers and assigned to Toledo. This really shocks me because he has a total of 7 career games at AAA and it wasn’t pretty. His AA stats aren’t pretty either. He has a healthy K to BB ratio but his biggest problem is avoiding bats, given his career 10.9 H/9 mark and 4.67 ERA. He makes less sense than anyone to be assigned to AAA given his lack of experience at that level and underwhelming AA numbers. I figure he was signed as part of a glut of lefty relievers to see if they could find a hidden gem to replace Coke in the bullpen and the uncertainty of Ian Krol. My expectations for McCoy are very very low. We’ll see if he still makes the Toledo roster but I don’t see a good case for it.

 So, in recap here is my projected Toledo pitching staff:
SP – Alvarez LHP
SP – Below LHP
SP – Lobstine LHP
SP – Hardy LHP
SP – Garcia LHP

RP – Marte – RHP
RP – Reed – RHP
RP – Crosby – LHP
RP – Ortega – RHP
RP – Faulk – LHP
RP - Marinez - RHP
 RP – Sanchez – RHP

Its missing prospect appeal outside of Lobstine, Marte, and Crosby, but the 2013 staff wasn’t overly impressive and they more than held their own. If the 2014 group can find success the increased offense should get them some more wins in low scoring games. Overall, I think they are looking good for a .500 season with an outside shot of making a playoff bid, especially if VerHagen and Ray come up from Erie. 

This should be an overall good year for the Hens.

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