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Nick Castellanos
Nick Castellanos
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit Tigers Top 20 Prospects for 2014

The list and grades are a blending of present performance and long-term potential. Comments are welcome, but in the end all analysis and responsibility is mine. Full reports on all of players can be found in the 2014 Baseball Prospect Book. The book has been delayed by my head injury, but it will come out eventually. Thank you for your patience and we still need pre-orders!

All of these grades are preliminary and subject to change.


Grade A prospects are the elite. They have a reasonable chance of becoming stars or superstars. In theory, most Grade A prospects develop into major league regulars, if injuries or unanticipated problems don't intervene. Note that is a major "if" in some cases.

Grade B prospects have a good chance to enjoy successful careers. Some will develop into stars, some will not. Most end up spending several years in the majors, at the very least in a marginal role.

Grade C prospects are the most common type. These are guys who have something positive going for them, but who may have a question mark or three, or who are just too far away from the majors to get an accurate feel for. A few Grade C guys, especially at the lower levels, do develop into stars. Some end up as role players or bench guys. Many don't make it at all.

Also note that there is diversity within each category. I'm a tough grader; Grade C+ is actually good praise, and some C+ prospects (especially at lower levels) turn out very well indeed.

Finally, keep in mind that all grades are shorthand. You have to read the full comment in the book for my full opinion about a player, the letter grade only tells you so much. A Grade C prospect in rookie ball could end up being very impressive, while a Grade C prospect in Triple-A is likely just a future role player.

1) Nick Castellanos, 3B, Grade B+: Borderline A-. Given his youth he projects as a strong regular and could very well develop into a genuine star, although I remain uncertain about exactly what type of hitter Castellanos will become in the long run. I can see him producing less batting average/OBP than expected, while eventually producing more isolated power and home runs.

2) Jake Thompson, RHP, Grade B-: 2012 second round pick had solid campaign in the Midwest League, 3.13 ERA with 91/32 K/BB in 83 innings, kept on short leash workload. Texas prep arm can hit 95 with chance for three solid secondary pitches.

3) Jonathon Crawford, RHP, Grade B-:
2013 first-rounder from Florida features plus fastball and slider, dominates when his mechanics are right, which they aren’t always. May wind up as a reliever in the long run but upside is quite high.

4) Devon Travis, 2B, Grade B-:
Hit .350 with 16 homers in A-ball, excellent plate discipline, stole 22 bases, played good defense. Rorschach test player. How did he last until the 13th round in the ’12 draft? Is he an underrated athlete who was unfairly skipped over in the draft due to his 5-8 size? Or is he just a polished poor tools college guy beating up low-level pitching?

What you think of Travis says more about you than it does about Travis. Personally I like him: I had him rated as a Sleeper Alert guy entering last season, not just because of his numbers but because I thought the tools were underrated, too. He certainly lived up to that. Let’s see how he does in Double-A.

5) Corey Knebel, RHP, Grade B-: University of Texas reliever should zip through the minors rapidly with mid-90s heat and wicked curveball. His changeup isn’t bad either and he could probably start arsenal-wise though unconventional high-effort mechanics make the bullpen a better fit in my view.

6) Robbie Ray, LHP, Grade B-:
Erratic lefty acquired from Nationals in Doug Fister trade. Horrible in ’12 but solid in ’13, shows low-90s heat and a good changeup but breaking ball comes and goes. Might wind up in the pen if that doesn’t get more consistent.

7) Bruce Rondon, RHP, Grade B-:
Hard-throwing closer candidate will miss ’14 with Tommy John surgery.

8) Eugenio Suarez, INF, Grade B-:
Very effective in A-ball, had some contact issues in Double-A but I still like the total package here including solid defense and a chance to hit for average with more pop than many middle infielders.

9) Tyler Collins, OF, Grade C+:
Hurrah! On the opening day roster. Added power at the expense of contact/average/OBP last year in Double-A. It will be interesting to see which approach wins out in Detroit and how patient they will be if he struggles.

10) Daniel Fields, OF, Grade C+:
Better tools than Collins and also had a solid year at Erie. Oddly, everyone seems to be forgetting about him right when he finally figures out what he’s doing. He’s always had the tools and it wasn’t his fault that the Tigers jumped him to High-A too soon a few years ago. He should be a workable fourth outfielder in time.

11) James McCann, C, Grade C+:
Excellent defensive catcher with a lukewarm bat. I can’t prove it without a time machine, but I think he could have some surprisingly good offensive years in his late 20s. Even if he doesn’t his glovework should result in a big league career of respectable length.

12) Hernan Perez, INF, Grade C+:
Suddenly hit for average last year in the high minors though not in Detroit. For me he profiles as a utilityman with a solid glove and occasional periods of respectable hitting, though some people like him a lot better than that.

13) Drew VerHagen, RHP, Grade C+:
Vanderbilt sinkerball specialist was solid in High-A (2.81 ERA, 35/27 K/BB in 67 IP) and Double-A (3.00, 40/17 K/BB in 60 IP). Eats innings, keeps the ball down and suppresses home runs. Low K/IP ratio is a caution flag for higher levels, but he could make it work as a fourth starter or a reliever.

14) Jeff Thompson, RHP, Grade C+:
2013 third round pick, University of Louisville right-hander is big (6-6), very athletic, has reasonable velocity and a chance for three solid big league pitches, which sounds like a bunch of other Tigers prospects. He tends to get lost in the shuffle but he shouldn’t.

15) Kyle Lobstein, LHP, Grade C+:
Doesn’t throw hard, but has a good curveball and changeup, pitched well in Triple-A last year (3.48 ERA, 65/25 K/BB in 72 innings). Has a chance to be a fifth starter under the right circumstances.

16) Joe Jimenez, RHP, Grade C+
: Undrafted high school free agent from Puerto Rico was a steal for just $100,000: he could have been a fifth round pick but scared everyone off with bonus demands. Fanned 24 in 18 innings in rookie ball and has the velocity to back that up at higher levels. Credit to the Tigers for staying with this one; he could leap up the lists this year.

17) Javier Betancourt, SS, Grade C+:
Hit .333/.379/.441 in rookie ball and is making the jump to full-season West Michigan this year at age 18. Contact hitter with a lively bat, signed for $200,000 out of Venezuela, nephew of Edgardo Alfonzo. May wind up at second base but bat looks highly interesting.

18) Endrys Briceno, RHP, Grade C
: 22-year-old from Venezuela generates really nice scouting reports despite unimpressive track record. Hits mid-90s and reportedly shows potential with slider and changeup. His 4.47 ERA and 65/51 K/BB in 117 innings in the friendly Midwest League were his best marks since reaching North America and the first time his ERA was below 5.00. Poor K/IP and H/IP ratios do not match reports of plus stuff. Certainly a high-ceiling arm, but either the numbers will improve to match the reports, or the reports will eventually weaken to match the numbers. Some sources are making a full-court press predicting a massive leap forward, others are less enthusiastic. It will be interesting to see who is right.

19) Buck Farmer, RHP, Grade C:
Georgia Tech ace pitched well in NY-P League (3.09 ERA, 33/7 K/BB in 32 innings) which was not unexpected given feel for his craft. Doesn’t have exceptional stuff but knows how to pitch and will probably move through A-ball quickly.

20) Domingo Leyba, INF, Grade C:
Led Dominican Summer League in OPS. DSL performance is usually not particularly predictive, but the scouting reports are good and he could take a large leap forward on subsequent lists. I am by nature cautious about DSL and VSL players until we see them in North America, thus his ranking here.

OTHERS: Ramon Cabrera, C; Harold Castro, 2B; Casey Crosby, LHP; Calvin Drummond, RHP; Steven Fuentes, INF; Bryan Holaday, C; Jordan John, LHP; Jordan Lennerton, 1B; Melvin Mercedes, RHP; Steve Moya, OF; Jose Ortega, RHP; Wilsen Palacios, RHP; Zac Reininger, RHP; Raph Rhymes, OF; Jose Valdez, RHP; Kevin Ziomek, LHP.

The Tigers have a reputation for having an uninspiring farm system but I don’t think that is particularly fair. Certainly the system is rather thin on impact talent, a reflection of the fact that the front office has been In "win now" mode for several years, resulting in prospect trades, late draft choices, and smaller amateur signing budgets.

This may sound like a distinction without a difference, but while the system is thin in some senses, I don’t think it is weak. The Tigers have a strategy, they execute it well, and they’ve shown they can produce players who can fill holes, either through trade or direct insertion into the lineup when necessary.

Looking at the hitting, the development of Nick Castellanos made it easier to make the roster work for the Prince Fielder/Ian Kinsler trade. There is a noted lack of impact bats after him, although there are some potentially solid role players present. There is considerable depth up the middle, most of it mined from Latin America. They’ve also shown the ability to nab sleeper types like Devon Travis or Andy Dirks who don’t wow scouts with great tools but who know how to play baseball.

The strategy in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic is interesting: the Tigers usually avoid massive bidding wars on high-priced players who look great in showcases but who have problems in real games. Instead they spread the money out, preferring to sign several guys each year in the 100-300K range rather than dumping all the money into one or two names. This money-efficiency approach does not result in a lack of tools: indeed, the best tools in the organization are from Latin America, but it shows that the Tigers can find and identify undervalued talent. It will be interesting to see if they change this strategy given the fact that other clubs seem increasingly willing to blow past the bonus limits.

Pitching from all sources, international, high school, and college is the strength of the system. There is a mixture of hard-throwers and polished pitchability guys. They have starters and relievers. If you are looking to make a trade and need a live arm, talk to the Tigers, they’ll have something for you.

A truly weak system couldn’t say that.