Starting in October and running through the end of the year, MiLB.com's new State of the System series evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of each Major League organization, highlights prospects who've made the biggest strides in 2020 and offers a peek at 2021.
The Tigers missed the playoffs for the fifth straight season. But it was a very important year for the organization.
This was the year the rebuild reached the Majors.
Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal made their big league debuts, signifying the first wave of the club's highly touted farm system of pitchers actually contributing in The Show. Detroit got stronger with No. 1 overall First-Year Player Draft pick Spencer Torkelson. And as a whole, the organization put a focus on analytics, using a staff-created platform called Caesar while adjusting to social distancing.
“We communicate very well with our players that were out there working to get in whatever they could as far as strength and conditioning and skill work,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers’ vice president of player development. “It was definitely challenging. But you know, I think in some ways that the practice of trying to figure that out for our staff helps them develop to become more resourceful and hones in on their communication skills.”
System strengths: Over the past few seasons, the Tigers built up one of the most impressive crop of pitching prospects in baseball. In the 2016, ’17 and ’18 Drafts, they added their top four pitching prospects in Matt Manning, Alex Faedo, Mize and Skubal. At the 2019 Trade Deadline, Detroit made a deal with the Braves -- other pitching prospect powerhouse -- acquiring Joey Wentz (as well as outfielder Travis Demeritte) in exchange for Shane Greene. And on top of that, the system has Franklin Perez, once their top prospect, but now No. 14, in part because of the surplus of prized players in the organization.
This summer, the dream rotation of the future started working its way into Comerica Park. Mize and Skubal joined Spencer Turnbull, Kyle Funkhouser and Beau Burrows as part of the club’s youth movement.
“We've got some high-end prospects that the last couple years have gotten some opportunity in Detroit, and we've seen some very positive things,” Littlefield said. “It gives us a great deal of hope and confidence that things are gonna get much better in future.”
As for Mize’s early results -- 6.99 ERA over 28 1/3 innings spanning seven starts -- the Tigers are not worried. Littlefield is confident baseball’s No. 5 overall prospect is working on the necessary adjustments to make his plus arsenal translate to the bigs.
Areas for growth: While a lot of excitement in Detroit's system has revolved around the pitching, there’s a noticeable drop-off when it comes to position players. This spring, the farm system ranked No. 22 in terms of non-pitchers. But things are starting to look up as the Tigers finally were able to spend early Draft picks on top position-player talent, first with Riley Greene in 2019.
This June, Detroit only selected position players in the truncated Draft, highlighted by the one at the very top of the board, Torkelson.
“We really have added the last couple years, a real strong group of position players that we think are gonna, some of them be advanced and move fast, but really strengthen the system to kind of round things off,” Littlefield said.
While Torkelson and Greene remain the club’s only Top-100 position players, the organization still fielded some Major League bats this summer in seventh-ranked Daz Cameron, Willi Castro, Derek Hill and No. 6 Isaac Paredes.
What's changed in 2020: As mentioned in the previous section, the Tigers went all in on position players at the Draft this year. In Torkelson, Detroit scored a new No. 1 prospect, a Pac-12 bat and a versatile option at both first and third base. Baseball’s No. 4 overall prospect can hit to all fields and has plus-plus power that he showcased at Arizona State. Having turned 21 in August, Torkelson shouldn’t need much seasoning after getting regular-game action.
The Tigers also added catcher Dillon Dingler out of Ohio State, outfielder Daniel Cabrera out of LSU, shortstop Trei Cruz out of Rice and Torkelson’s Sun Devil teammate Gage Workman, as well as high-school third baseman Colt Keith.
“I'm really excited about all of them. I've seen them now, for the last 10 days or so in instructional league, plus Torkelson and Dingler at the alternative site and in Detroit in the Summer Camps. So I feel very good from what I've seen out of all of them there,” Littlefield said. “They've got talent, they look like ballplayers, they've got tools. I think it's a very strong group. And I think, you know, there's gonna be a very bright future and a huge addition with some of these position players moving fast to Detroit.”
Aside from Draft picks, the farm system remained mostly intact this summer with no major graduations other than Castro. The Tigers did pick up infielder Zack Short from the Cubs in exchange for Cameron Maybin at the deadline.
Alternate site standouts: Several guys caught Littlefield's eye, who noted the players called up midseason as well as the emergence of some less experienced prospects. Adding that Torkelson “came as advertised,” the VP of player development liked what he saw from Dingler, the hopeful batterymate for all those top arms.
“Very athletic, big, strong body, power,” he said. “Looks like he's got all the tools that you'd want to have as a catcher to be an above-average Major League player.”
While the Draft picks did not get to have a full college season, Littlefield believes recent picks picked up some important experience by facing guys fighting for big league jobs at both Summer Camp and the alternate training site. And the top pair did not disappoint, showcasing the competitive drive and athletic talents.
“And you know, it's hard to overlook Riley Greene because he's such a talented guy as well,” Littlefield said. “I mean, those three are some guys that clearly, I don't want to say [were] surprising, but it's good to see them doing that.”
Impact rookies: While Mize and Skubal were projected to steal the show, the rookie spotlight in the Motor City instead was commanded by Castro. After notching a .624 OPS in 30 big league games in 2019, the 23-year-old switch-hitter returned this year refreshed.
Following an Aug. 11 callup, Castro batted .349/.381/.550 with six homers and 24 RBIs in 36 games. The Puerto Rico native split time with Niko Goodrum at short while also playing eight games at third and one game at second. Castro's season was cut a few days short after he felt right shoulder soreness on Sept. 27, but it doesn’t seem to be much cause for concern in the future.
“Willi's a good athlete that got a big strong body and plays in a premium position and looks like he's going to have some impact with the bat,” Littlefield said. “So it was really a good sign to have him go up there this year and perform the way he did offensively. You know, there's a real high hope for him being someone that could potentially be a middle-of-the-lineup bat.”
And while Skubal’s 5.63 ERA might seem disheartening, the southpaw notched 37 strikeouts while posting only 11 walks in 32 innings, giving fans plenty to dream on for next season.
Next big thing: The Braves took Wentz with the 40th overall pick in the 2016 Draft, the same year they took Ian Anderson. The 6-foot-5 left-hander had a strong first couple seasons, but ran into trouble in his first taste of Double-A in 2019 as his command seemed to become boom or bust. In a loaded system on both sides of the ball, Wentz hovered around the club's Top 10 rankings before being shipped to the Tigers at the deadline.
The Kansas native instantly clicked in the new system, going 2-0 with a 2.10 ERA, 37 punchouts and walks in 25 2/3 innings for Double-A Erie. The momentum was halted this March, though, when Wentz underwent Tommy John surgery. But with the Minor League season canceled, the 23-year-old wound up not missing much time. After rehabbing this summer in Kansas City, Wentz joined Detroit's instructs camp so the team could be more hands-on with his progress.
“He did a real good job when he came over with us in Erie ... very impressive,” Littlefield said. “Full repertoire of pitches, mature, advanced approach, smart, very smart guy. I think it's a nice package that we have in Joey and you know, really anxious for him to get back healthy and show what he could do.”
Kelsie Heneghan is a writer for MiLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kelsie_Heneghan.