The Tigers have not had a good farm system for a while now.
There are legitimate reasons why this this the reality Detroit faces. One big reason is their lack of high draft picks. Due to being a very competitive team, the Tigers have been pushed to the bottom of the draft year after year. Not only do they have to find a way to make back-end selections work, there was also the issue of their leadership.
For years, Dave Dombrowski was at the helm of Detroit’s front office, taking a perennial cellar-dweller who struggled to lose less than 100 games per season and turned it into a yearly contender. However, the devil always gets his due, and the cost of a successful major league team was steep.
Dombrowski’s signature style works, but it hinges on trading nearly every minor leaguer with a pulse and signing big fish free agents with draft penalties attached because of the qualifying offer rules. This rewards were easily seen - two world series appearances and a long string of postseason teams. It also meant that his MiLB teams were barren and there was not often relief on the way.
Now, almost two years since the termination of his employment with the Tigers’ front office, his former club is in a tight spot. They’ve had a pair of good drafts, managing to snag some decent players, but the ranks are still thin enough that the crown jewels of the farm are often forgotten when discussing promising minor leaguers. Matt Manning is incredibly raw, Beau Burrows has always been thought of as an overdraft, Kyle Funkhouser doesn’t have a fraction of the clout he used to possess, and Christin Stewart’s defense is bad enough to keep him off of most lists.
However, if someone has lots of patience and is slightly masochistic, there are some decent sleeper prospects to be found deep within the belly of the beast. I’ve done the work for you, though, and found three player that could be called sleepers in the lower half of the Detroit Tigers farm system.
Hector Martinez, 2B, Short-Season Connecticut Tigers
There is very little to be found on Martinez anywhere on the internet. His emergence form anonymity came in the form of a mention on a Eric Logenhagen’s Top 19 Detroit Tigers Prospects list, published on FanGraphs last December. The writeup on him was rather complimentary, and it concluded by saying this: “Purely on upside he’s one of the more interesting prospects in the system.”
A lot of Martinez’ value rest with his bat. The FanGraphs evaluation said this regarding it:
Above-average bat speed, feel for the barrel, good extension through contact: that combination gives him the potential to become an average regular with solid across-the-board tools.
However, Bless You Boys, the SBN site dedicated to the Tigers, noted a major flaw that will need to be worked out if he is to fulfill his potential. In their scouting report, they wrote this:
Martinez hits a lot of ground balls. In fact, his 60.91 percent ground ball rate is nearly triple his fly ball rate of 21.82 percent. While it is true that ground balls result in a higher batting average than fly balls, hitting too many ground balls can minimize a player’s power. Due to the low rate at which fly balls leave the park — just 12.8 percent of fly balls were home runs at the MLB level in 2016 — a slugger has to hit a lot of fly balls in order to rack up home runs. Also, hitting lots of ground balls almost ensures that a player will be a singles hitter. Only a major lapse in defense or the absolute hardest-hit grounders will result in a double.
Martinez has a lot of time to iron things out, though. He’s an eternity away from the major leagues and has done well in his first two games of the season in Connecticut, hitting a home run and three singles. There’s a lot of development ahead of him, but the payout could be well worth the wait.
Jason Foley, RHP, High-A Lakeland Flying Tigers
In an industry that absolutely loves a good story, Foley’s is one that feels like it could be stolen from a Disney movie or sports novel. He went undrafted in 2016 after a miserable season with Sacred Heart that saw him post a 5.68 ERA through 58.2 innings as a starter. His venture in baseball looked like it had come to an end. However, Jim Bretz, a Tigers scout who had just finished a long tenure with the San Diego Padres, saw something in him that he liked.
At Bretz’ insistence, the Tigers took a flier on the righty and immediately moved him to the bullpen. Their risk was rewarded, and have been provided hearty dividends so far. His fastball, which was nothing special as a starter, sits in the high 90s and has reached 101 mph on occasion. He pairs it with a slider and a fosh - the hybrid pitch that combines a splitter and a changeup. He has received praises for each, but they both need consistency.
His mechanics are good for a guy who throws as hard as he does, which is very important. It indicates that he will maintain his velocity well as he ages, instead of falling off and causing his production to go away. It will also stave off Tommy John surgery, if not help prevent it altogether. In today’s game, TJS has become almost commonplace, but it is still better for players if it can be avoided.
Foley isn’t just a good idea, he’s put up excellent numbers to match.
Spending the first part of the season with the Low-A West Michigan Whitecaps, he posted a matching ERA and FIP mark of 1.55 and struck out 11.17 per nine innings, which is a rate of 31.1%. He also limited walks better than a lot of flamethrowers, to the tune of a respectable 1.55 BB/9. The proverbial cherry on top? He didn’t allow a single home run. An deeper dive reveals a whopping 58.6% groundball rate 19.0% popup rate. That’s paired with a decent 11.4% line drive rate to create a very good batted ball profile.
However, with his promotion to the High-A Lakeland Flying Tigers, fans should expect more than the usual amount of regression. He was able to achieve such successes in a span 29.0 IP, a very small sample size. He also did it with a .270 BABIP, indicating that he got at least a little lucky. However, even with tempered expectations, Foley is probably Detroit’s most exciting sleeper prospect, and will continue to thrill those who know about him at the High-A level.
Ulrich Bojarski, OF, Extended Spring Training
While the Tigers have never been one to dip their toe into the pool of big-name IFAs like Yoan Moncada, Adrian Morejon, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Lazaro Armenteros, they have been good at finding under-the-radar talent in places like Venezuela and Australia. Bojarski was a find from down under during the 2016 signing period. The less heralded of Detroit’s two major Australian signees during that period - lefty Jack O’Loughlin being the other - Bojarski is an interesting player.
Emily Waldon of 2080 baseball shared some info on Bojarski with me, saying this:
“A catcher turned outfielder with a year of Australian League experience, Ulrich Bojarski has shown some intriguing projection. Standing a solid 6'3, he's got long arms that show average range in my looks. At just 18-years-old, he looks to still be learning the use of his body, tying in his long legs, which allow him to cover a good deal of ground in the outfield. Shows decent pop in a tight, compact, one-piece swing, utilizing mostly his upper body that produced nine extra-base hits over 38 games with the Perth Heat in his debut ABL season.
Bojarski also posted a 28% K-rate, flashing a need for polish in pitch recognition, which should come in time as he settles in with the Tigers lower levels. He fell into the outfield role by default during his time in the ABL and has learned to embrace it. If the Tigers like him there, we should see him fine tune things as he gets more established through playing in the states.”
It’ll probably be another season until Bojarski is on most people’s radar, he’s an unknown in an ignored system, but he will come into national view with the Tigers’ higher affiliates. When he does, though, it will be as one of their best outfield prospects.