Gerber, Stewart shine for improving Tigers

Top levels struggled, but West Michigan outfield spells hope for future

Following his breakout campaign, Mike Gerber is among the Tigers playing in the Arizona Fall League. (Paul R. Gierhart/MiLB.com)

By Alex Kraft / MiLB.com | October 23, 2015 10:00 AM

This offseason, MiLB.com will be honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organizations. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League baseball.

Reinforcements are on the way.

With the big league club struggling, the Detroit Tigers began rebuilding its farm system in earnest this season. A flurry of trades at the non-waiver deadline helped inject some exciting young talent into the organization's highest levels, highlighted by new top prospect Michael Fulmer and left-hander Daniel Norris.

The influx of upper-level talent didn't necessarily translate into wins for the Tigers' top three squads. Class A Advanced Lakeland, Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo produced a combined .428 winning percentage, with the latter two finishing in last place in their respective divisions.

There is excitement -- and rightfully so -- surrounding the Class A West Michigan team, which won 75 games during the regular season and stormed to the Midwest League championship. That roster was stocked with players from the 2014 and 2015 Draft classes, including Detroit's Minor League Player of the Year Mike Gerber and 2015 first-round pick Christin Stewart.

"It's good to see all those young men get the chance to feel a different atmosphere, what it feels like to be in a playoff game," said Tigers Director of Player Development Dave Owen. "Even though it's in [Class A], it's still their playoff and they're playing for something. We're really happy for those kids that were on that [team]. ... Down the road somewhere, they'll draw off experiences from accomplishing that."

Tigers Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Manny Pina, Toledo (77 games): Some players take longer to reach their offensive peak. In his 10th Minor League season, Pina produced the best numbers of his career with a .305 average, seven home runs and 39 RBIs while leading Detroit Minor League catchers in nearly every offensive category.

"He's a very good catcher -- he's a catch and throw guy -- so the bat coming along at the end of the season, it was nice to see," said Owen. "You just never know when things might click. He got with Leon Durham, the hitting coach there in Toledo, and maybe they figured something out. It worked, so hopefully it continues for Manny."

The Venezuela native was no slouch behind the plate either. He threw out 31 of 68 basestealers (46 percent) and committed only two errors.

First baseman -- Dominic Ficociello, Lakeland (85 games), Erie (43 games): Already outstanding defensively, Ficociello broke out with the bat in 2015 by setting career highs in average (.293), home runs (eight), RBIs (60) and OPS (.764). The 2013 12th-round selection continued to impress with the glove as well, committing only four errors in 102 games in the field en route to Minor League Gold Glove honors.

"With [Dominic], he's a switch hitter who can really swing the bat," said Owen. ""He's out in the Arizona Fall League playing there, so that'll be a nice step for him coming into Spring Training. He's a big kid that has room to add some nice weight as far as strength, and he's a good defensive player. He's got some pieces to work with and we're looking forward to watching him develop."

Second baseman -- Hector Martinez, DSL Tigers (55 games): The 18-year-old free agent signee from the Dominican Republic settled in at second base after doubling as a shortstop in 2014. He led all Tigers Minor Leaguers in batting average (.336) in his second professional season and flashed some power by collecting 22 extra-base hits and producing a .884 OPS.

Third baseman -- Jefry Marte, Toledo (95 games), Detroit (33 games): Detroit signed Marte away from the Oakland A's in November 2014, and he rewarded the Tigers by emerging as a consistent power threat in the middle of the Mud Hens' lineup in his Triple-A debut. The 24-year-old set career highs in home runs (15) and RBIs (65), numbers that placed fourth and third respectively in the organization.

Marte's efforts led to him being named to the International League All-Star team and allowed him to make his Major League debut in a cup of coffee in July and later returning to the big leagues as a September call-up.

Shortstop -- Dixon Machado, Toledo (127 games), Detroit (24 games): Like Marte, the 23-year-old Machado made his Triple-A and Major League debuts this season. The slick-fielding infielder continued to make strides at the plate as he hit .261/.313/.332 out of the two-hole for the Mud Hens and swiped 15 bases. The Tigers' No. 14 prospect was named an International League All-Star both at midseason and the postseason, and Owen said he is proud of Machado's continued growth with the bat.

"You're seeing a young man that's maturing," Owen said. "You always kind of project things and you think that once he starts adding weight, he's got a good swing that maybe the bat will play a little bit more. To Dixon's credit, he's a wonderful defensive player, and he's really worked hard on getting his body stronger where he can move the ball more at the plate."

Outfielders

Wynton Bernard, Erie (135 games): Bernard had a breakout campaign last season when Detroit took a chance on him after he flamed out with the Padres. The California native proved it wasn't a fluke by hitting .301/.352/.408 with the SeaWolves this season and stealing 43 bases to lead the Eastern League by 12 and the organization by 15.

"This guy is one of the hardest-working guys you'll see," said Owen. "He really works on his craft, tries to get himself better every day. He's done it so far the last couple of years. We're very pleased with where he is. He's playing winter ball this year, so that will be exciting to see him come in to Spring Training and see what we've got."

Mike Gerber, West Michigan (135 games): Perhaps the most complete offensive performer for the Tigers in 2015, Gerber was a crucial anchor in the third spot of West Michigan's lineup. The 23-year-old batted .292 with 54 extra-base hits, 16 steals and 76 RBIs, second in the organization. Detroit's Minor League Player of the Year came up big in the playoffs, and his go-ahead single helped West Michigan force a decisive Game 5 in the Midwest League Finals.

"He's a solid player. He runs good, he swings the bat, he has some pop," Owen said. "He can show you he has the tools to be a complete player offensively and defensively.

"We like Michael -- we like what he's done. He's continued to work and grow as a player. You keep challenging him and giving him his experience and just watching him grow."

Christin Stewart, GCL Tigers (6 games), Connecticut (14 games), West Michigan (51 games): The Tigers drafted Stewart No. 34 overall in this year's Draft, and it looks like a smart investment. The University of Tennessee product transitioned smoothly to West Michigan and was key in the playoff run. The 21-year-old hit .368 in 10 postseason games and belted a go-ahead single in Game 5 of the Midwest League semifinals to help send his team to the championship series.

"This is a guy that played on Team USA," said Owen. "He came right in, a lot of things were thrown at him, and he handled everything extremely well. He was just very, very professional, and he's going to be a good player."

Utility -- Curt Powell, Lakeland (80 games), Erie (26 games): Powell made the rounds of the infield in 2015, making starts at first, second, third and shortstop over the course of the season. The 2013 21st-round pick posted a career-high .303 average between Class A Advanced and Double-A and committed only 19 errors across the four positions.

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Spencer Turnbull, West Michigan (22 games): Turnbull pitched his first full season after being taken by Detroit in the second round of the 2014 Draft. The University of Alabama product finished 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA over 116 2/3 innings for the Whitecaps and saved his best stuff for his last start. Turnbull's mid-90s sinker aided held him hold all 503 batters he faced homerless during the regular season.

"Big, strong, durable body -- he's got power stuff," said Owen. "That's one of his strengths. He has the power sinker, he's just a power pitcher. It's definitely a weapon that you're glad you've got."

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Kevin Ziomek, Lakeland (27 games): Ziomek was named the Tigers' Minor League Pitcher of the Year. The 23-year-old was well-deserving after leading the Florida State League and the organization in strikeouts with 143, turning in two complete games and once coming within an out of a no-hitter.

The 2013 second-round pick has improved each year since being taken out of Vanderbilt, and a strong finish -- 4-1 record and 1.35 ERA in August -- could foreshadow more good things for next season.

"Obviously we do like [Kevin] a lot," said Owen. "Left-hander, can command his stuff and really just has a good feel for pitching. Knows when to add, when to subtract. We're really just trying to continue giving him his experience -- get him his innings and just watch him develop. He's got a very nice arm and we're excited looking down the road with him."

More Organization All-Stars

Relief pitcher -- Joe Jimenez, West Michigan (40 games): The 20-year-old Jimenez established himself as a premier late-inning reliever over the second half of West Michigan's season. The native of Puerto Rico converted his last 14 save attempts while compiling a 61-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 43 innings. During the Whitecaps postseason run, Jimenez closed out four games while allowing no runs and one hit in six appearances.

"[Joe's] a big, durable kid that's got the power stuff and had a very nice year for us," Owen said. "He really grew as a reliever and got in some good situations at the back end of games that we felt will really help his development in the future. ... I'm sure he'll look back on this year as an important year in his development and growth."

Alex Kraft is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @Alex_Kraft21. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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