Young arms, Stewart's bat shine for Detroit

Tigers system rich with pitchers at lower levels, outfielders on the rise

By Josh Jackson / | October 21, 2016 10:30 AM

This offseason, 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.

In a year when a rookie played an instrumental role in bringing the Tigers within a nose of the playoffs, it's natural for Detroit fans to look down the ranks for prospects who might join Michael Fulmer in making a significant Major League impact over the next few seasons. While this organization isn't one of the deepest, there is plenty of cause for excitement.

The Tigers are rich with pitching and outfielders. In other systems, Locke St. John and Matt Hall might have been shoo-ins as left-handed starter honorees, while Matt Manning -- the ninth overall pick from this year's Draft -- likely would've also garnered honors after striking out 46 batters in his first 29 1/3 innings. In addition to the outfielders listed below, Steven Moya played well enough to get his first prolonged taste of the Majors, Wynton Bernard was impressive between Double-A and Triple-A and JaCoby Jones rebounded from a drug-of-abuse suspension and is in the Arizona Fall League.

Although Class A West Michigan (71-65) -- which reached the Midwest League semifinals -- and Class A Short Season Connecticut (41-35) were the only affiliates to finish above .500, the performances highlighted here show a system in better shape than win-loss records might suggest.

Tigers Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- John Hicks, Rochester (nine games), Erie (14 games), Toledo (70 games), Detroit (one game): Nabbed off waivers from the Twins in April, Hicks was assigned to Double-A Erie but didn't stay there long. The 27-year-old threw out 24 of 61 would-be thieves with Triple-A Toledo while putting up a .992 fielding percentage. He also turned in the best offensive year of his career, batting .310/.358/.480 with 10 homers.

"I found some things I really needed to work on," he said during a stint with the Mariners last year. "Kyle Seager -- I played against him in college -- helped me a ton, just working on how to approach at-bats, getting into my legs and through my core and getting the bat [to snap] like a rubber band at contact, putting that whip into my swing."

Honorable mention: Grayson Greiner was a consistent hitter, and he's showing power in the AFL.

First baseman -- Will Maddox, West Michigan (127 games): Maddox didn't hit with a prototypical first baseman's power, but he did lead the system with a .339 batting average. The 24-year-old amassed a Midwest League-leading 173 hits, which set the single-season record for the Whitecaps. Maddox, a University of Tennessee product, was also second in the organization with 28 stolen bases.

Will Maddox had a .380 OBP. (Paul R. Gierhart/

"Will's been one of the leaders on this team," West Michigan manager Andrew Graham said when Maddox was named an end-of-season All-Star. "He's a good teammate."

Second baseman -- Joey Pankake, Lakeland (96 games): In addition to swatting 15 homers and 10 doubles over 96 games in the heavy air of the Florida State League, Pankake had a .979 fielding percentage and was part of 53 double plays over 85 games at second base.

The 2014 seventh-rounder's game could improve by leaps and bounds if he can make contact more often -- he struck out 95 times in 96 games, which kept his batting average at .215 and on-base percentage at .283; however, only 30 of Pankake's strikeouts came in the second half.

Third baseman -- Casey McGehee, Toledo (116 games), Detroit (30 games): With Nick Castellanos at third base and Miguel Cabrera on first for the Tigers, the veteran was patient and productive while being relegated to the Triple-A Mud Hens for the bulk of the season. Among Tigers Minor Leaguers, only Maddox hit better than his .317 average, and McGehee was second in the International League with 37 doubles (Norfolk's Dariel Alvarez had 38).

Shortstop -- Dixon Machado, Toledo (131 games), Detroit (eight games): One of two Tigers prospects nominated for a Top Play MiLBY, Machado is a head-turner at short, and he notched 34 extra-base hits and stole 17 bags while posting a .349 OPB.

"He's got the skill set to play Major League shortstop," Tigers vice president of player development Dave Littlefield told the Detroit News this summer. "He has been streaky. And that's probably more due to inexperience and youth, but I think he's going to be a solid player. He's got the athleticism to do a lot of different things."

Outfielders -- Christin Stewart, Lakeland (104 games), Erie (24 games): Detroit's Minor League Player of the Year hit 24 homers in the FSL to lead that league, and his 30 total dingers led the system. His .403 OBP with Lakeland also topped that circuit, and he slugged six homers over a 24-game stint with Erie.

"We all thought it was a good move for the Tigers to move him forward and get him acclimated to Double-A pitching, to start to get him adjusted," said SeaWolves hitting coach Phil Clark, who's working with Stewart now with Salt River in the AFL. "His upside definitely is his power, and with everything else it's just a matter of getting accustom to hitting the offspeed pitches.

"[In the AFL] he's facing a lot of left-handed pitching. It's a test for him, and guys are not throwing him fastballs in his wheelhouse, so he's having to work."

Derek Hill, West Michigan (93 games): Hill garnered a reputation (and a MiLBY nomination) with a couple spectacular, Willie Mays-like catches for the Whitecaps. The 2014 first-rounder has long emphasized the defensive side of his game.

"I love going out there every day," he said, "doing I what love and being able to perform on that level and help my team any way I can -- it doesn't matter what category -- but getting the recognition for my glove, I'm happy about that, because that's something I've worked on since I was six years old."

Although back in the beginning of August he tore a UCL on his elbow and will not play again until at least well into next season, Hill still finished second in the Midwest League and first in the Detroit organization with 35 stolen bases.

"I'm extremely proud of that," he said. "Throughout all of Spring Training, me and the outfield coordinator, Gene Roof, worked on baserunning. We worked on baserunning pretty much every day after games, any time we could get onto a field, so it's great to see that work pay off."

Mike Gerber, Lakeland (91 games), Erie (41 games): Gerber was one of three outfielders in all of the Minor Leagues to win a Rawlings Gold Glove Award, and he's no slouch in the box, either. He batted .276/.345/.466 with 18 homers and 80 RBIs between Class A Advanced and Double-A.

"Gerber's going to be a good hitter one day. I like his approach. It's the same as with the Stewart -- both of their comments to me were about how Double-A pitchers locate even when they're behind in the count," Clark said. "The improvement for them is going to be in learning how to hit with a pitcher who can throw one, two, maybe a third pitch over part of the plate when he's behind in the count."

Designated hitter -- Dean Green, Erie (69 games), Toledo (61 games): Green was third in the organization in batting average (.296), second in home runs (23) and first in RBIs (108 -- the next closest, Stewart had 87).

"Just talking with him, this was his third season in Double-A, and his confidence level really got to a place where he truly felt like he could hit at a Triple-A or big league level," Clark said. "We all felt that he hit the ball well, and I really think he just matured from a hitting standpoint."

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Beau Burrows, West Michigan (21 games): The No. 22 overall pick in last year's Draft, Burrows was kept to 97 innings over the course of this season -- during which he was 19 years old. Posting a 3.15 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 20 starts, Burrows didn't pile up a ton of strikeouts (67), but he throws into the mid-90s and whiffs are likely to come for him as his level of experience matches up with the competition.

"Arm strength is always a bonus," Whitecaps pitching coach Mark Johnson told in August. "What we also see is a young kid who is willing to learn, willing to listen, ask questions and be a student of the game. There is a value to his character that is great. He wants to get better."

More Organization All-Stars

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Tyler Alexander, Lakeland (19 games), Erie (six games): The Texas Christian prospect led Tigers prospects who worked more than 90 innings with a 2.44 ERA, leaning on groundballs (with a 1.46 groundout/flyout ratio) and still punching out 105 while permitting just 20 walks.

"[He] uses both sides of the plate very well," Flying Tigers manager Dave Huppert told the Detroit Free Press about three weeks before Alexander was promoted. "Pitches in to right-handers, keeps them off. Excellent change-up. Slider has been off and on for him."

Relief pitcher -- Joe Jimenez, Lakeland (17 games), Erie (21 games), Toledo (17 games): Detroit's Minor League Pitcher of the Year for the second straight season, Jimenez held opponents to a .144 batting average, posted a 0.80 WHIP and 1.51 ERA, struck out 78 over 53 2/3 innings and notched 30 saves in 31 opportunities across three levels. Not bad for his age 21 season.

"He's got a special fastball. He can throw that fastball when he's behind in the count, when guys are looking for it, when they know he's going to be throwing the fastball, and they still can't hit it because it has so much life," Hicks said. "It just explodes out of his hand."

Josh Jackson is a contributor to Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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