This offseason, MiLB.com will be honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League baseball. Select a team from the dropdown below.
Looking at results alone, the Tigers' affiliates struggled across all classifications this season. Triple-A Toledo finished 10 games below .500 in the International League West and Double-A Erie posted the second-worst record in the Eastern League's Western Division.
Class A Advanced Lakeland went 64-74 in the Florida State League and Class A West Michigan failed to earn a playoff spot in the Midwest League's Eastern Division despite finishing a game above .500.
Short-season Connecticut came the closest to the postseason, compiling a 39-35 record in the New York-Penn League's Stedler Division, only to miss out on the playoffs on the final day of the regular season following a 16-inning defeat to Lowell.
Even though Detroit's Minor League teams did not challenge for championships, there were several bright spots throughout the organization, including a group of starting pitchers coming up through the ranks and the growth of several young prospects from the 2009 and '10 Drafts.
Tigers Organization All-Stars
Catcher -- Rob Brantly, West Michigan (75 games), Lakeland (39 games): Brantly showed impressive growth in his first full season of pro ball. A third-round Draft pick in 2010, Brantly hit .274 with a combined 10 homers and 62 RBIs between two levels this season. He batted .303 with seven long balls in 75 games with the Whitecaps before earning a promotion to Lakeland.
Brantly was named a Mid- and Postseason Midwest League All-Star for his solid three months in West Michigan, and he was chosen to play for the Salt River Rafters in the prospect-laden Arizona Fall League.
"Rob is a nice looking hitting catcher," Whitecaps manager Ernie Young said. "Defensively, he came alive as well, throwing the ball to the bases and blocking. He's definitely made himself into a prospect. He did well enough handling the staff that they thought he was ready for the Arizona Fall League, so that in itself is a pretty good accomplishment right there.
"He swung the bat very well and he maintained that while he was there. Defensively, he was one of the better catchers in the league throwing runners out. When you put those [skills], together you have the potential for a good big league catcher."
First base -- Ryan Strieby, Toledo (130 games): Strieby led all Tigers Minor Leaguers with 19 homers this season, and he ranked second in the organization with 76 RBIs. The 26-year-old Washington native played in 76 Triple-A games in 2010 in his first spell with the Mud Hens before injuries cut his season short. He looked comfortable with the demands of a full-season workload this year. His 171 strikeouts were the most in the International League, but that's not something that concerned Toledo skipper Phil Nevin.
"He's got big-time power," Nevin said. "This year, the best part was that he stayed healthy. He's had wrist problems and injuries, and the fact that we had him healthy was big for us and big for him. A couple months into the season, he was finally able to trust his wrist. He had a stretch there [for] about a month-and-a-half where he was one of the best hitters in the league. He carried us in July. That was our best month and he was a big part of that. I think we won 22 or 23 ballgames and as he went, we went.
"I think there's a lot more in there and he'll hit for more power. He's capable of hitting a heck of a lot more than 19 home runs. For a big guy he has great hand speed and hand-eye coordination. He's just got to learn to trust himself as far as how good of a hitter he can be."
Second base -- Brandon Douglas, Erie (124 games):
Douglas went about his business quietly in 2011, but his contributions to the Erie offense should not be overlooked. He hit .281 with a career-high 46 RBIs in 124 games, and he swiped 22 bases -- also a personal best -- in 26 attempts. In his first full season at Double-A, Douglas hit 30 doubles and scored 72 runs. While he only went deep three times, he consistently proved to be a tough out.
The University of Northern Iowa product struck out just 57 times in 499 at-bats, and he compiled a 13-game hitting streak between Aug. 12-24 to end the season on a high note.
Will Rhymes also deserves a mention. An International League Midseason All-Star, the 28-year-old hit .306 in 104 games with Toledo and .235 in 29 Major League games, his second stint in the bigs.
"I like them both," director of player development Dave Owen said. "Obviously Rhymes has big-league time, which puts him a little ahead of Brandon, maybe, but Brandon's a head-up kid who knows how to play the game the right way. He's a gap-to-gap guy. They're both contact guys, they both play second base very well and they're both nice players. They will both show you power on occasion."
"Will Rhymes is a solid defender and, offensively, he led off most of the year," Nevin added. "He puts the ball in play and gives you a tough at-bat each time. He really set the tone for us."
Third base -- Nick Castellanos, West Michigan (135 games): The 6-foot-4-inch corner infielder was one of the most effective hitters throughout the Detroit system this year. His .312 average was the fourth-best in the organization, and only Lakeland's Tony Plagman plated more runs (97) than the Tigers' No. 3 prospect, who finished the year with 76. The 19-year-old led the Midwest League with 158 hits and he finished second with 36 doubles, despite a slow start that saw him collect 14 hits and nine RBIs in his first 23 games.
With the slump behind him in his first full pro season, Castellanos -- selected in the first round of the 2010 Draft -- remained hot the rest of the year. He hit .375 in June, .318 in July and .324 in August en route to being named a Midwest League Postseason All-Star.
"He really came on. He struggled at the beginning of the season, but that was more from the added pressure he put on himself than anything else," Young said. "He was pressing for sure. He was putting unnecessary pressure on himself to live up to the first-player-taken-in-the-Draft tag. Once he was able to relax and have fun and play the game the way he knew how to, he improved and improved greatly.
"He's 19 years old and able to hit the ball to all fields. The power will come when he gets stronger and matures more. But he can hit the ball the other way and that's a plus for him."
Shortstop -- Audy Ciriaco, Erie (101 games), Toledo (14 games): A native of the Dominican Republic, Ciriaco, 24, hit .255 with 58 runs scored and 57 RBIs across two levels in 2011. The majority of his season was spent with Erie in the Eastern League, although he was received a promotion to the Mud Hens late in the year. It marked the third season in a row that Ciriaco has had a brief stint in the International League.
Signed by the Tigers as a non-drafted free agent in 2005, the infielder sacrificed power for average this year, but he did set career highs with 23 doubles and eight triples. In 2010, Ciriaco batted .241 with nine homers in 61 EL games; this season he batted .277 -- also a personal best -- with five homers in 101 Double-A contests.
"He's really a good defensive player," Owen said. "He has real good hands and a plus arm. He really came on offensively at the end of the season too. I like Audy a lot.
"I know [hitting coordinator] Toby Harrah has been working with him a lot in Erie to get him staying gap-to-gap, but he's a big strong kid and that power will be there on occasion. He made some nice strides, so hopefully that will continue into Spring Training and on through next year."
Justin Henry, Erie (113 games), Toledo (six games): Henry isn't the kind of power hitter that launches shots over the outfield fences, but what he lacks in raw strength he makes up for in his ability to make contact at the plate and speed around the bases. The University of Mississippi product hit .309 with 52 runs scored, 24 doubles, six triples and 21 stolen bases in 113 Eastern League games with the SeaWolves, and he collected eight hits in six Triple-A games at the end of the year.
His combined .314 average across the two levels ranked third in the organization, while his 23 total steals fell short only to Dixon Machado's 25. A ninth-round Draft pick in 2007, the 26-year-old native of Texas drove in a career-high 47 runs and was named to the EL Midseason All-Star team.
"It's real nice to have a player who can hit for average and steal bases. He plays the game the right way and he's a heads-up smart kid," Owen said. "You can play him all over the field, which is another nice thing about him. He can play just about any position you want. Having a kid like that is very valuable."
Jamie Johnson, Erie (137 games): In his third year of pro ball, Johnson showed steady growth across the board in 2011. The former seventh-round draftee spent the entire season at Erie, setting personal highs in RBIs (51), doubles (33) and stolen bases (14). His 93 runs scored -- also a career best -- led the EL, and he also ranked first with 84 walks.
Johnson projects as a prototypical leadoff hitter, and it's likely that the 24-year-old will see time in Toledo at some point in 2012. If he can cut down on the strikeouts (92 in 2011) and improve on his career stolen base success rate (58 percent), Johnson will likely find success at the next level.
"I was not really surprised by Johnson," Owen said. "He's a competitor and he's going to get after you. He's a scrapper who puts the ball in play. He knows who he is as a player and that's important. It will be nice to see Jamie next year in Spring Training."
Timo Perez, Toledo (122 games): Still going strong at 36 years old, Perez demonstrated he has the ability to hit and run with the best of them. The former World Series champion hit .304 -- the ninth-best mark in the International League -- and stole 16 bases in 18 attempts. He also slugged six homers and 32 doubles, plating 50 runs and scoring 43 times.
In addition, Perez struck out just 41 times in 473 at-bats. He was particularly locked in during July, when he hit .357, recorded six consecutive multi-hit games and swiped seven bags without being thrown out. Finishing the season strong, Perez hit safely in 10 of his final 12 games.
"He's a special guy, and he's great to have in the clubhouse," Nevin said. "He's just a good hitter. He could probably wake up on Christmas morning without picking up a bat for two months and get a base hit. Would you call him a base stealer if you needed a stolen base in a key spot? He's not that kind of guy. He's going to pick his spots when they're not paying attention or times when they're not keeping such a close eye on him. He's a smart base runner and he was able to get a few like that.
"He's done a lot at the Major League level, but as long as he's playing, he doesn't care where that is. He loves the game and that's first and foremost, and that rubs off on everyone else. That's pretty neat to have. Guys talk with him every day about different pitchers and situations and things like that. It's like having an extra hitting coach on hand. He's got a great personality, and he wants to play every day."
Utility -- Tony Plagman, Lakeland (137 games): Plagman flashed a power bat in 2011, driving in an organization-best 97 runs and slugging 18 homers, the second-most in the system. The 6-foot-2-inch slugger batted .257 with 32 doubles and 62 runs scored. The production was a nice surprise for the Tigers, considering Plagman blasted just five homers in his first pro season in 2010 at West Michigan.
This season, Plagman played 64 games at first base and 63 games as Lakeland's designated hitter, platooning at first with Jordan Lennerton. Plagman, who turned 24 in August, also saw 10 games in left field. Among his season highlights was a four-hit, five-RBI performance against Fort Myers on July 29 and a 4-for-5, four-RBI effort against Daytona on April 16.
"We're not really concerned by his age. We're just trying to get him some at-bats," Owen said. "Tony put a nice year together in Lakeland, and he'll get a chance to play in Erie next year. This kid really did a great job hitting with guys in scoring position. He's a good player. He's probably going to get some time in the outfield as well as first base next year, but he swings the bat well. He put up some very nice numbers, RBIs as well as runs and walks. He did a nice job."
Right-handed starting pitcher -- Brennan Smith, Connecticut (14 games), West Michigan (nine games): Smith put together a tidy year between the Midwest League and the New York-Penn League. He made nine appearances with the Whitecaps before being sent down to Connecticut, where he began his career last year.
This time, though, he fared much better. After suffering seven losses a season ago, Smith went 4-3 with a league-leading 1.53 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in 14 starts. He compiled a 34 2/3-inning scoreless streak between Aug. 11 and Sept. 4, including his first career shutout in a 5-0 victory over Hudson Valley on Aug. 30. Across the two levels, Smith finished with a 5-6 record and 2.56 ERA, the second-lowest mark in the organization.
Jacob Turner posted a 4-5 record, a 3.44 ERA and 110 strikeouts over 131 innings between Erie and Toledo before finishing the season with Detroit. Kevin Eichhorn also deserves recognition. He went 11-5 and fashioned a 3.61 ERA in 25 starts for West Michigan.
"Brennan is a competitor. He has a good curveball and good arm speed on his change-up," Owen said. "He attacks the strike zone, and he did well in the instructional league. Jacob Turner's a pretty good guy to pick too, and [Eichhorn] might not show you the velocity as far as the gun reading goes, but he knows how to pitch. He's a very intelligent guy, he reads hitters and knows their swings. I like 'Eich' a lot."
Left-handed starting pitcher -- Drew Smyly, Lakeland (14 games), Erie (eight games): The Tigers have a number of up-and-coming lefties in their midst, but none impressed more in 2011 than Smyly, whose 2.07 ERA was the lowest of any starting pitcher in the organization. The Tigers' No. 6 prospect was one of just five Detroit farmhands to win 10 or more games, and he ranked third in the system with 130 strikeouts in 126 innings.
Smyly, selected in the second round of the 2010 Draft, started the year in the Florida State League, where he went 7-3 in 14 starts prompting a promotion to Erie. The callup did nothing to faze the 22-year-old, as he went on to post a 1.18 ERA and 53 strikeouts in eight outings -- including seven starts.
Jay Voss won 12 games and struck out 131 batters in 27 games between Lakeland and Erie, and Jared Wesson won an organizational-high 15 games with the Flying Tigers.
"Drew Smyly has moxy. He knows how to pitch," Owen said. "He adds and subtracts [speed] very well for being a 22-year-old kid. He obviously has the potential to be a very nice Major League starter."
Relief pitcher -- Chance Ruffin, Erie (31 games), Toledo (13 games), Detroit (two games), Seattle (13 games): Ruffin made the journey from Double-A to the Majors this year and was ultimately traded to Seattle. The 23-year-old right-hander saved 10 games in 14 attempts with Erie, posting a 2.12 ERA and a 3-3 record. This prompted a promotion to Toldeo, where he was even better, saving nine games in 10 tries and compiling a 1.84 ERA.
With the exception of the one save he blew, Ruffin allowed just one earned run in 14 2/3 innings. Selected in the first round of the 2010 Draft out of the University of Texas, Ruffin capped his first pro season by making his Major League debut on July 25.
On Aug. 17, the Tigers tabbed Ruffin as the player to be named later in a deal that sent Casper Wells, Charlie Furbush and Francisco Martinez to the West Coast in exchange for the Mariners' Doug Fister and David Pauley.
"I didn't have Chance for very long, but obviously he did well," Nevin said. "I played with one of the best closers in baseball [in San Diego's Trevor Hoffman], and it takes a special guy with a special makeup to get those last three outs of the game. He blew a game early, but we had a chance to get him out there the next night in a save spot, and I could tell the night before was over with and he went on to save the next 14 in a row.
"He has the right mentality, and he's a good guy in the clubhouse. He's not afraid of anybody, and he pitches to the glove. He has a good fastball that he can dial up a little bit and that he's able to locate, and he has a little bit of movement. He's quick to the plate, and he throws from several different angles. He has a high leg kick, and he gives hitters a lot of different looks. He'll pitch in the big leagues for a long time."
Owen added, "He has a very nice arm, but so does Bruce Rondon and Kenny Faulk. Another kid, Tyler Storr, has a power arm too. Rondon, [the Tigers' No. 9 prospect], has a chance to be a very special kid, so we expect him to continue the nice pace he's on."