Feature Photo: Christin Stewart, LF, Tigers
Entering another spring training campaign, nothing has stolen the spotlight quite like Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, the Detroit Tigers’ renovated spring training home, as well as the regular season home to the High A Lakeland Flying Tigers.
Among the eye-catching additions to the second-oldest spring training ballpark still in use, the estimated $48 million overhaul includes new state-of-the-art training facilities, new clubhouses, an air conditioned, 9,000-square-foot batting cage and a dazzling center field scoreboard.
Not to be ignored, the Tigers’ backfields also received some upgrades of their own, including additional fencing, a feature that Tigers’ executives hope will boost player security at the facility. The watchtower sitting directly in the center of the complex has been spruced up, fresh gravel has been placed throughout the property, and additional seating has been added.
Right-hander Drew VerHagen, returning from surgery last August for thoracic outlet syndrome in his throwing shoulder, is back throwing again, sharing that he’s being held to a maximum of two-to-three innings and hasn’t suffered from any discomfort. Over his 20 relief appearances in 2016, Verhagen posted a 1.84 WHIP with 15 runs allowed over 19 2/3 innings between Detroit and Triple-A Toledo. VerHagen joined left-hander Chad Bell and righty Buck Farmer in being reassigned to Toledo on March 18.
Signing a minor league deal with Detroit in January, 29-year-old infielder Sean Halton spent 2016 in the Mexican League, after electing free agency following the 2015 season. At 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, Halton showed decent power in his batting practice sessions. With an ability to utilize his build at the plate, Halton has an opportunity to fill a void left by the departure of 2016 International League All-Star first baseman Chad Huffman. Two additional late signings for the Tigers, infielder Gabriel Quintana and veteran outfielder Matt Murton each launched a home run in exhibition play. The added power at the plate could work to Toledo’s advantage as they piece together their Triple-A roster for the 2017 season.
Out east, expect the return of 24-year-old outfielder Michael Gerber and 23-year-old left-fielder Christin Stewart to Double-A Erie. Gerber looked physically more mature in camp, working through fluid batting practice sessions and showing a good eye at the plate in games. For Stewart, the power at the plate hasn’t gone anywhere, with one onlooker joking that Stewart may have taken out his windshield on a long foul ball sent screaming over the right-field fence. Pitch recognition and dropping his strikeout percentage will be a must for Stewart to build his value and increase his chances of advancing up the system as the season moves forward.
High A Spotlights
One of several high-octane relievers in the Tigers’ system, right-hander Gerson Moreno was among those to appear in exhibition action looking noticeably matured. With his fastball sitting 94-to-96 mph, topping out at 98 mph and with improved command, the 21-year-old has appeared to have settled down, looked more focused, and displaying a better sense of situational awareness. Following his promotion to the Flying Tigers in June of 2016, look for Moreno to return to Lakeland for further development this season before being considered for the Double-A staff.
Following in the thoracic outlet syndrome surgical repair footsteps as happened with Drew VerHagen, Tigers’ 2013 second-round pick Kevin Ziomek made an exhibition appearance last week, working to return to form from surgery last summer. Working three innings, the left-hander suffered a bit with his command, topping out at just 88 mph with his fastball.
As another piece to a pitching staff working back from 2016 injury, right-hander Spencer Turnbull threw a promising bullpen session, displaying a healthy delivery and no sign of nagging discomfort. As I mentioned last summer, Turnbull has dropped several miles per hour off his velocity, but it’s a change he has used to his advantage, with major improvement to the command of the offering being a nice outcome.
Class A Spotlights
Twenty-year-old outfielder Jose Azocar doesn’t appear to have added on to his reported 165 -pound frame since last season, but still managed to flash some pop during batting practice sessions, as well as in exhibition play against the visiting Atlanta Braves Class A /High A combined club. With his 5-foot-11 wirey build, Azocar isn’t expected to hit for power, but should very easily become a pest to any pitcher he faces as he continues to mature in 2017. Azocar finished the 2016 season with Class A West Michigan slashing .281/.315/.355 with 51 RBIs and 14 stolen bases spanning 129 games.
On the mound, the Tigers boast some of their most promising arms taken in the 2016 draft probably seeing a return to West Michigan in 2017. Right-handers Ryan Castellanos, Mark Ecker, Zac Houston and Bryan Garcia are all expected to find a home with the Class A club, although with some success seen in spring training, final assignments could offer some surprises with the possibility of a quick move to Lakeland for more than one of that group.
Short-Season A/Gulf Coast League Spotlights
During exhibition play against State University of New York – Plattsburgh on March 15, 23-year-old righty Kyle Funkhouser and 2016 first-round pick Matt Manning began the afternoon. Manning, who started the day was given a restriction of 40 pitches and ended a fluid two-inning outing at 30 pitches. Manning has served as the primary topic of conversation among both scouts and team executives alike. “Manning is light years ahead of where most guys his age (19 years old) would normally be,” one scout shared. Within the front office, Tigers’ executives are thrilled with the progress of the 6-foot-6, lanky right-hander. Talk around camp seemed to point Manning towards beginning the year at Class A West Michigan for 2017. Appearing in 10 games last season, Manning posted a 1.16 WHIP, striking out 46 over 29 1/3 innings in the Gulf Coast League.
Following Manning that afternoon was Funkhouser, who was assigned a 45-pitch limit, and finished with just 28 pitches on the day. While concern was expressed in Funkhouser’s decision to return for his senior season at Louisville in 2015, the Tigers’ fourth-round selection from 2016 looks to be every bit the steal that he was reported to be in last year’s fourth round. Based on his performance, it wouldn’t be a surprise for the 6-foot-2 right-hander to land in High A Lakeland to start the year.
The Tigers’ 2016 eighth-round pick, Jacob Robson, showed a notably aggressive approach at the plate last week, even in drills. Robson possesses little-if-any power, but he does take a simple, quick path to the ball, and while he showed no fear in hacking at the first pitch he saw if he liked it last week, over the course of his 2016 season he also showed the patience to work deep into counts and take his share of walks. His 100-plus point delta between his average (.294) and OBP (.399) across 209 plate appearances in Short-Season and Rookie ball, and his speed on the basepaths, make him an enticing player to watch in early 2017. Expect him to start in Class A this year.
Another member of the Tigers 2016 draft class that should make the move to Class A in 2017 is 21-year-old catcher Austin Athmann. The 14th-round selection showed the power behind his 210-pound frame during morning batting practice with an easy swing. In his debut season with Short-Season A Connecticut last year, Athmann slashed .276/.338/.393, with 12 extra-base hits over his 40-game stint.
Others To Watch:
One member of the Tigers’ coaching staff shared that this season could have one of the team’s more exciting contingents of young Latin talent on display in the Gulf Coast League and above. Right-handers Wladimir Pinto, Xavier Javier and Anthony Castro were named-dropped as young players that could come across prospect lists sooner than some may think.
Minor League Staff Spotlights
Tigers icon Don Kelly arrived at the minor league complex last week to begin his role as a pro scout and assistant to player development. Once the regular season begins, Kelly shared that he will make a rotation of stops at Toledo, Erie and West Michigan to work with players. Outside of his roving responsibilities, Kelly will also assist in scouting as assigned by the Tigers. While the majority of the minor league coordination staff has returned, the Tigers have added a few faces to their staff in hopes of boosting their player development program in 2017.
On the managerial front, former Tigers Class A manager Andrew Graham is set to take over the helm for High A Lakeland, bringing in former Short-Season A Connecticut Tigers manager Mike Rabelo to fill Graham’s shoes in Class A West Michigan. Out east, former Tigers catcher Gerald Laird was named as the manager for the Short-Season A Tigers. Lastly, Mike Hessman will also make the move to West Michigan as hitting coach for the Whitecaps.
Derek Hill Rehabilitation Update
2014 first-round pick and outfielder Derek Hill is continuing his rehab following surgery last August to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Once his rehabilitation has concluded, Hill is expected to make his return in June, with July being the latest, based on his progress. Garnering praise for both his elite speed and double-plus defensive skills, Hill’s biggest obstacle continues to be maintaining his health and completing a full season of play, a task he has yet to accomplish.