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Tigers Prospect Primer: Knebel plays stopper03/29/2014 11:00 AM ET
By Ashley Marshall / MiLB.com
Some players are on the verge of stardom, others are entering a crucial phase of their development and still others are getting their first tastes of full-season ball. With the 2014 season approaching, MiLB.com takes a look at the most intriguing prospects from each MLB organization.
Breakout prospect: Corey Knebel, RHP
Selected in the first round (39th overall) of last year's Draft, University of Texas product Knebel made a solid first impression. The right-hander went 2-1 with an 0.87 ERA in 31 relief appearances for Class A West Michigan, recording 15 saves and striking out 41 batters over 31 innings.
The Tigers were so impressed with the then-21-year-old that they sent him to the Arizona Fall League for some extra reps with the Mesa Solar Sox.
A closer at the collegiate level, Knebel utilizes a mid-90s fastball and plus hook that could see him advance through the ranks quickly. The Tigers say he also has "a good feel" for his changeup.
"He has a really, really special arm," Tigers director of player development Dave Owen said. "We will leave him in the bullpen for the time being. As it stands today, we would like Corey to experience late-game situations. We like him at the back end of games.
"I think he has proven himself and we would not send him back to the Midwest League. He has mastered that league and we want to challenge him this year. He needs to continue getting experience and get his innings and get the consistency of his pitches."
At the Crossroads: Dixon Machado, SS
Despite turning 22 last month, Machado faces a big season in his development as he looks to rebound from a hamstring injury and fulfill his potential as a legitimate shortstop prospect.
The slender infielder profiles as a top-of-the-order table-setter, but consecutive subpar seasons have cast doubt on whether he can find success at the upper echelons of the Minor Leagues.
Machado grew into his frame and added more power to his stroke in 2012, resulting in a career-high 19 extra-base hits and 37 RBIs. But while he maintained his speed, cut down on his strikeouts and improved his walk rate, his batting average dropped for the third year in a row to .195.
The Venezuela native appeared in only 44 games last season, posting an underwhelming .232/.277/.311 slash line.
"I think it is a very important season for him," Owen said. "He has been bitten by the injury bug the past few years and our goal is for Dixon to have a healthy season. He came into Spring Training last year having added some nice muscle and strength, good baseball strength, but  is a key year for him to bounce back and be injury-free.
"I see him sticking at shortstop. He is a very good defensive player. He has good instincts and plenty of arm, but he needs to continue working on being a complete player. It's not just a one-dimensional game. We're looking at [starting him at] Lakeland, but we'll let Spring Training dictate that. The main thing is for him to be healthy; we're not overly concerned with where he starts out."
Full-season debutant: Jonathon Crawford, RHP
Detroit's top pick last year proved that going to college was the best decision for him in terms of his financial well-being and baseball development.
Originally selected by the Marlins in the 42nd round of the 2010 Draft, Crawford chose instead to attend the University of Florida. The junior entered 2013 on the Golden Spikes Award watch list and scouts considered his fastball and breaking ball the best in the Southeastern Conference.
Three years after first being drafted, Crawford was taken 20th overall by the Tigers, who gave him a million signing bonus. The 6-foot-2 right-hander went 0-2 with a 1.89 ERA in eight New York-Penn League starts, striking out 21 batters over 19 innings and holding opponents to a .205 average.
"He is very aggressive on the mound and he is confident in what he does," Owen said. "We're excited to get him in a full-season league. He is a good looking young man and we are really excited he is a Detroit Tiger.
"West Michigan could be a good spot for him. We didn't give him a lot of innings in Connecticut [in 2013] because he threw a lot of innings in college. We have not decided on an innings limit yet -- we've not sat down as a group to discuss it yet -- but we will not overwork him. We see him being a big part of the Detroit Tigers in the future on our big league staff."
More to keep an eye on: Right-handed pitching prospect Endrys Briceno has every chance to move up to Lakeland if he proves able to repeat his delivery this spring, while outfielder Steven Moya is expected to start the season in Erie after surprising people with his raw power and athleticism in the Florida State League. The Tigers say James McCann has the bat to be more than just a defensive-minded catcher after working with SeaWolves hitting coach Gerald Perry and roving hitting instructor Bruce Fields to hit to the opposite field. Javier Betancourt could graduate from the Gulf Coast League to a full-season team to get more reps at second and third base, but Tyler Collins -- who slugged 21 homers while batting .240 last year -- may be asked to repeat the Eastern League unless he can prove he is more than just a pull hitter.