For the Detroit Tigers, pitching is the name of the game. They used the first-overall selection in the 2018 MLB Draft to select Auburn right-hander Casey Mize, making it four consecutive drafts in which the club used it’s first pick on a pitcher. In fact, since the year 2000, Detroit has only selected four position players with their initial pick.
Their farm system is littered with talented pitchers — 12 inside the MLB Pipeline Top 30 — and they’re the only organization in baseball with a pitcher representing each of its top five prospects. Right-handers Mize (No. 1), Matt Manning (No. 3), and left-hander Gregory Soto (No. 14) are currently pitching for the Lakeland Flying Tigers of the Florida State League. Given that level of talent, it’s no surprise to see the High-A squad at the top of the 12-team FSL in several pitching categories — 5th in ERA (3.72), 3rd in strikeouts (882), and 4th in WHIP (1.28).
In a recent interview with MLB Pipeline, Minnesota’s No. 1 prospect Royce Lewis labeled Lakeland as the toughest group of pitchers he’s faced in his young career. The 2017 first-overall selection has faced the Flying Tigers eight times since being called up to Fort Myers on July 14. He couldn’t name any one specific pitcher that he has been impressed with so far — he named the TIgers’ High-A squad as a whole.
“They got a few pitchers that are up there,” he told MLB’s Jim Callis. “They throw hard and they get outs. They know how to pitch.”
Here’s a look at how those Tigers prospects have fared this season.
Casey Mize (RHP)
After pitching 114.2 innings for the collegiate Tigers, Mize made his professional debut for the Gulf Coast League Tigers on July 26. He threw two hitless innings, walking one while striking out four.
He joined High-A Lakeland on July 31 and was equally impressive in his full-season debut, hurling three innings while allowing just one hit while striking out four.
In his second start for Lakeland, against the Twins’ High-A affiliate, Mize pitched three innings, allowed five hits and three earned runs. He threw 30 of his 44 pitches for strikes, however, back-to-back home runs in the third inning — started by Lewis — left him in position to pick up his first loss in the Florida State League.
Matt Manning (RHP)
After an oblique strain halted him during Spring Training, the 20-year-old right-hander struggled in his first three starts this season, for the Low-A West Michigan Whitecaps of the Midwest League. Managing just 9.2 innings over that period, Manning allowed nine runs on nine hits while walking 12 and posting an 8.38 ERA. The lone bright-spot was his 18 strikeouts.
Control was the issue early this season, and concerns about his command have been the biggest area of improvement according to scouts. In his preseason ranks, John Sickels referenced exactly that.
90-96 heater, curve and change need some work but both could be plus eventually; command inconsistent but when he’s on he throws three quality pitches for strikes.
Manning figured things out over his next eight starts before earning his promotion to Lakeland. He had much better command of his pitches over his final 46 innings with West Michigan — walking 16, striking out 58, and posting a 2.35 ERA.
Hitting his spots, first-pich breaking balls, and increased VELO as game progresses. Manning looks good in his 4th start at High-A Lakeland. Nice CV here at 78mph #Tigers #ProspectVideos pic.twitter.com/2MNQ1lWs44— Kris Dunn (@KRSDunn) August 1, 2018
Despite a seven-strikeout performance on August 1, Manning recorded his first loss at High-A after allowing a three-run home run in the sixth inning of a scoreless game against Dunedin (Blue Jays affiliate). His most recent start was his best since joining the Flying Tigers — 6.2 innings, five hits, one run, six strikeouts.
If the biggest knock on Manning is his control, he’s doing everything to dispel those concerns. In his last 12 innings (two starts), he has not walked a batter. Even if he keeps up his 2.86 ERA, the California native will likely finish the season in Florida. A trip to Double-A Erie for the start of next season is not out of the question.
Gregory Soto (LHP)
It’s very easy for Soto’s name to be forgotten — he’s the seventh-ranked pitching prospect in the organization — given the talented stable of arms in front of him. However, if you remove his appearance on July 18, you could make the case that Soto has been the best pitcher in Lakeland over the past two months. Over his last eight starts he’s posted a 2.28 ERA in 39.1 innings, dating back to June 12.
His troubles, as was mentioned with Manning, come via the free-pass. Despite the minuscule ERA over his last eight starts, Soto has walked 24 batters over that span. On the season, he’s given up 64 base-on-balls in 89 total innings.
As you can see from the above video — when he’s on his game, Soto can make even the game’s best prospects look foolish. His fastball is his best pitch, however, the Yankees’ No. 2 overall prospect Estevan Florial had trouble with the secondary offerings when they met on August 4.
During his most recent start, against the Tampa Tarpons (Yankees affiliate), Soto highlighted his ground-ball tendency (46.5% GB-rate). After allowing a base hit in each of the first two innings, the Dominican native got out of trouble by inducing a ground-ball double-play from the next batter he faced.
He’s been stretched out this season — having exceeded 90 pitches in five of his 19 starts. However, given his tendencies (ground-ball pitcher with high walk totals), Soto’s contributions may come out of the bullpen. That said, if he can lower his walk totals, the 23-year-old could work himself into a starter at the big-league level.
He’s scheduled to make his 20th start of the season on Thursday night.