Tigers system still a strength despite deals

Organization eyeing big seasons from Below, Gerbe, Larish and others

Jeff Gerbe opened the '07 season at Class A and finished in the Arizona Fall League. (Melissa Wintemute/MLB.com)

By Kevin T. Czerwinski / MLB.com | March 17, 2008 6:00 AM ET

The future success of every Major League team lies in its Minor League system. With that in mind, each preseason, MLB.com takes a top-to-bottom look at all 30 organizations, from top prospects to recent draft picks.

Detroit's farm system is not void of depth. Let's get that out of the way right at the top. Sure, the Tigers dealt away enough prospects over the last year and a half to field a Minor League All-Star team, but that's more a testament to their deep prospect pool than anything else.

Now in the first post-Cameron Maybin/Andrew Miller season, the Tigers still have some quality on the farm, just not as much. There are some pitchers who can contribute and more than enough bats to fill in when needed, leaving Detroit in a much better situation than, say, the Mets, who emptied what little was left in their vault to acquire Johan Santana.

While Rick Porcello gets all the publicity in terms of being the best Detroit has to offer, let's put the brakes on that talk for now. He hasn't pitched in a professional game yet, so labeling him the be-all and end-all at this point isn't prudent. Rather, let's focus on the Freddy Dolsis and Duane Belows of the organization, who've already proven their worth.

10 Spot
Ten prospects to watch out for in 2008:

Rick Porcello, RHP
The hard-throwing former prep star is considered by most to be Detroit's top prospect, and there's no denying the kid is good, but the fact that he's yet to throw a professional pitch should put some of the hype on hold. Perhaps he's got the makeup to deal with such labels or pressure, but it's not fair to dump that on a kid who's less than a year removed from high school.

Porcello, who signed the largest contract ever for a high schooler after the Tigers took him with their top pick in June, has a mid- to high-90s fastball and his breaking stuff looks just as dominating. He had a good time of it in the Instructional League last fall and figures to start '08 with a full-season club, barring any springtime complications. With Miller having been dealt to the Marlins, Porcello probably is the club's top pitching prospect, and while it would be wonderful to envision him in Detroit's rotation someday soon, let's not get ahead of ourselves. After all, he still hasn't thrown a pitch that's counted.

Here are some players on the brink of breaking into the Major Leagues:

Virgil Vasquez, RHP -- The former UC Santa Barbara standout got a taste of the Motor City last year, appearing in five games (three starts) while posting an 8.64 ERA. He was 12-5 with a 3.48 ERA in 25 starts for Triple-A Toledo, striking out 127 and walking only 33.

Yorman Bazardo, RHP -- The Venezuelan native also had a strong season, helping the Mud Hens reach the playoffs by going 10-6 with a 3.75 ERA in 23 games (21 starts). He put together a pair of complete games and fared a bit better than Vasquez when called upon by the parent club. He was 2-1 with a 2.28 ERA in 11 games (two starts) for the Tigers. Look for him to be in the Tigers' bullpen this season.

Jordan Tata, RHP -- The 6-foot-6 Sam Houston State product had a brief stint in the Majors for a second straight season in '07 and didn't fare much better than he did in his first go-round, posting a 1-1 mark with a 7.71 ERA in three starts. Tata, who had a 6.14 ERA in eight relief appearances in '06, missed the first part of last season with shoulder inflammation. He returned midseason and made 14 starts for Toledo, going 4-5 with a 3.05 ERA. He has 14 wins over two Triple-A seasons and could help the parent club either as a spot starter or out of the 'pen this year.

"Porcello grabs your eye," director of player development Glenn Ezell said. "You just watch and enjoy what you're seeing. We have to see if he gets used to the five-day rotation and the toughness and grind of a full season while being prepared to go every fifth day and making sure he learns that correctly. That's what [pitching coordinator] Jon Matlack and I are looking toward.

"He is exciting and he's going to be exciting for a long time. But he's going to be in a learning process and we're going to attempt to give him every direction and make it work for him."

Jeff Larish, 1B
The former Arizona State star led the Eastern League in homers (28) and RBIs (101) and was fourth in slugging (.515). The Tigers tabbed him as their Minor League Player of the Year, as did MiLB.com. He's a bit older than some of the prospects in the system (he'll turn 26 in October), but he's ready to tackle Toledo and may see some time with the parent club off the bench this season, if needed.

A left-handed hitter, Larish can spray the ball to all fields and has power to both alleys. Though he strikes out a bunch (once every 4.4 at-bats over the past two seasons), he also draws his share of walks. He picked up 168 free passes between '06 and '07 and sported a nifty .390 OBP last year. The Tigers don't have room for him on the everyday Major League roster and may not anytime soon, but if he keeps hitting the way he did in Erie, he'll force their hand.
Audio: Larish belts go-ahead grand slam
Audio: Larish laces RBI double

Matt Joyce, OF
This kid is a scrapper who simply gets the job done wherever he goes. There's no smoke and mirrors, no knock-you-over-the-head talent; he's just an old-fashioned hard worker who grinds it out. The Tigers grabbed Joyce in the 12th round in 2005, and he seems to be on a mission to prove he should've been selected higher.

The quick -- but not speedy -- outfielder hit .257 last season with Erie, having made the jump from the Midwest League in 2006. While that may not seem all that impressive, consider he was hitting .197 on June 15 before going .303 over the second half. Joyce had 17 homers and 70 RBIs, which was a nice follow-up to his 86 RBIs the previous season in West Michigan. His strikeout total jumped from 70 to 127 and will need to be addressed this season in Toledo.
Audio: Joyce drills three-run homer

Scott Sizemore, 2B/SS
Sizemore followed much the same path at West Michigan that Joyce did in Erie. He began the year slowly and then started to get hot, finishing the season with a .265 average, which was certainly impressive considering he was hitting .198 in early May. He continued his strong second half in the Arizona Fall League and could see considerable time in Erie this season.

Sizemore continues to have a good eye at the plate -- he walked 73 times and struck out only 60 times -- putting up a solid .376 OBP. He has some speed (he stole 16 bases), and his 33 doubles were third-most in the league. He played exclusively at shortstop in the AFL after spending the entire season at second base in West Michigan. Sizemore figures to split time between the two positions this year.
Audio: Sizemore's homer puts Whitecaps ahead
Audio: Sizemore rips a two-run double

Michael Hollimon, IF
The former 16th-round selection (2005) is developing into quite a find for the Tigers. He spent the bulk of the '07 season at Double-A Erie and continued to display strong power numbers and the ability to drive in runs. Hollimon had a career-high 76 RBIs at Erie, then added two more in a five-game stint with Toledo. He hit .312 with runners in scoring position and stole 17 bases.

Like Sizemore and Joyce, a hot June and July made up for a sluggish start, lifting him to a .282 average in the Eastern League. He also saw action in the Arizona Fall League and for Team USA, and those experiences should benefit him greatly in Toledo this season.
Audio: Hollimon's homer puts Erie on the board
Audio: Hollimon delivers game-winning hit

Brennan Boesch, OF
In some ways, Boesch took a step backward at West Michigan after a fine debut at short-season Oneonta in '06. His on-base percentage dropped from .344 to a sub-par .297, and his walk total increased from 21 to only 23 despite 221 more at-bats. Boesch connected for only 33 extra-base hits after collecting 26 the previous season in the New York-Penn League. His batting average also dipped from .291 to .267.

On the plus side, he did finish fifth in the Midwest League with 86 RBIs and hit .292 with runners in scoring position. Boesch also stole 15 bases, five times the amount he swiped at Oneonta. His three errors would indicate he was among the better outfielders in the Midwest, though his four assists put him in the middle of the pack.

Where all this leaves him is difficult to say. Boesch is certainly at a crossroads this year and should expect to face much stronger pitching in the Florida State League. He needs to demonstrate more presence at the plate and become a more well-rounded player.
Audio: Boesch belts solo homer
Audio: Boesch's bases-loaded single

Freddy Dolsi, RHP
The undrafted free agent has racked up 128 professional appearances since 2003 (including time in the Dominican Summer League) and only 20 of them were starts, the last of which came in 2004. He spent virtually the entire '07 season at Lakeland, going 5-3 with 23 saves and a 3.48 ERA in 48 appearances. He then got a one-game cameo in Erie.

"Fred has a wonderful arm, and after last year he's put himself in a position where people will take notice," Ezell said. "He applied the information he was given at Lakeland and went to Erie and got himself in position to be invited to Major League camp this year. He has a nice upside because of his arm."
Audio: Dolsi saves another game for Lakeland

Duane Below, LHP
The former 19th-round selection from Lake Michigan College led the Midwest League in victories (13) and strikeouts (160) and was fourth with a 2.97 ERA. Below went 5-0 with a 0.72 ERA over his last six starts and did not allow a run in the final 21 2/3 innings of the regular season.

Overall he tossed 145 2/3 innings, fanning 160 while walking 58. Below also held the opposition to a .236 batting average and followed up his regular-season effort by going 2-0 with 17 strikeouts in 13 2/3 playoff innings. He's not overpowering, but right-handed hitters seem to have trouble picking up his fastball. (They hit .220 off him while striking out 122 times in 410 at-bats.)

"He did a very fine job," Ezell said. "Now we're going to see if he can back that up. He's got good stuff and good deception, so hopefully he'll pick up right where he left off last year. We want to see if he'll take that step and make himself into someone that people will be paying attention to."
Audio: Below fans 10 in postseason game

James Skelton, C
Ivan Rodriguez will be 37 this year, while Vance Wilson turns 35. That both of Detroit's catchers are getting a bit long in the tooth can only help Skelton, who is the best of a thin crop of catching prospects. Skelton was a 14th-round selection in 2004 and has snaked his way through the Tigers' system, hitting .309 last year with seven homers and 52 RBIs at West Michigan. He hit .306 over the past two seasons (he spent 2006 in the New York-Penn League).

His seven errors put him in the middle of the pack among Midwest League catchers, but Skelton did throw out 43 percent of those attempting to steal, the third-highest percentage on the circuit. He worked well with the young pitchers the Whitecaps had last season and should continue to grow with them this year at Lakeland.
Audio: Skelton comes through in the 12th

Jeff Gerbe, RHP
The former 16th-rounder from Michigan State was yet another reason why the Whitecaps won the Midwest League championship last season. Gerbe, who had a nondescript debut at Oneonta in '06, was 2-2 with a 2.34 ERA and two saves in 19 games (nine starts) for West Michigan. He had a 1.01 ERA in 26 2/3 relief innings, holding the opposition to a .157 batting average without allowing a home run.

Those numbers would suggest his future is in the bullpen, where he can use his sinking fastball to greater advantage. However, he was used almost exclusively as a starter after May and missed more than a month with an inflamed shoulder. He made a pair of cameos at Double-A Erie, starting both games and posting a 4.50 ERA in the process. Gerbe will have the chance to show the folks at Erie some more this season, but if he pitches as well he did at West Michigan, he may find himself in Toledo before long.
Audio: Gerbe gets another strikeout

Under the Radar

Brent Clevlen, OF
The former Florida State League phenom continued to flounder in '07, hitting .220 in 322 at-bats for Toledo while showing little in a 13-game run with the Tigers. That he was one of the more celebrated players in the Minor Leagues in 2005 is a distant memory as he struggles to find his place in the organization. For now, his defensive skills far outweigh his ability with the bat, so with Detroit's expected offensive prowess this season, he may have a spot on the bench as a late-inning replacement. Otherwise, he'll continue to look for playing time at Toledo in hopes of rediscovering some success at the plate.
Video: Clevlen lines a two-run double

Ryan Strieby, 1B
A long, lanky hitter, Strieby quietly put together a solid season at West Michigan last year. He had 16 homers with 76 RBIs while hitting .253. He walked 63 times and fanned on only 78 occasions, a good ratio for a slugger. It led to an acceptable OBP of .347 and a spot in Lakeland this season.
Audio: Strieby slugs another homer

Audy Ciriaco, SS
The young Dominican Republic native hit .224 with West Michigan, collecting four homers and 39 RBIs in the process. He's still raw, but team officials suggest he's a player to keep an eye on.
Audio: Ciriaco crushes three-run homer
Audio: Ciriaco smacks walk-off single

2007 Draft Recap

RHP Brandon Hamilton was born on Christmas, and the Tigers are hoping every day will be a holiday when he's on the mound. The supplemental first-round pick got off to a nice start in the Gulf Coast League, going 1-1 with a 3.10 ERA in 20 1/3 innings. He walked 12 but struck out 23 and held opponents to a .171 batting average. ... SS Danny Worth (second round, Pepperdine) went straight to Class A Advanced Lakeland before a five-game stint in the Double-A Eastern League. Overall, he hit .265 with two homers and 25 RBIs before heading to Hawaii Winter Baseball. ... RHP Luke Putkonen (third round, University of North Carolina) was 0-1 with a 4.15 ERA in 8 2/3 GCL innings. ... LHP Casey Crosby (fifth round, Kaneland High School, Ill.) signed at the deadline and didn't pitch during the regular season. ... SS Cale Iorg (sixth round, University of Alabama) hit .241 in 29 at-bats between the Gulf Coast and Florida State Leagues. ... LHP Manny Miguelez (eighth round, University of Miami) was 2-5 with a 4.30 ERA in 12 games (11 starts) between the Gulf Coast and New York-Penn Leagues. ... 2B Justin Henry (ninth round, Univerisity of Mississippi) hit an organization-best .340 with 31 RBIs in 250 New York-Penn at-bats. ... OF Londell Taylor (13th round, Vian High School, Okla.) batted .156 in 45 GCL at-bats.
Audio: Worth raps three-run triple
Audio: Miguelez records fifth K for Oneonta
Audio: Henry delivers RBI double


Organizational Player of the Year -- Michael Hollimon
Hollimon is as productive as they come. We think he'll have a big year at Triple-A and lead the Mud Hens to yet another postseason berth.

Cy on the Farm -- Duane Below
The idea that Below will have another big season isn't that far-fetched. He's the man to beat.

Comeback Kid -- Wilkin Ramirez
Lots of people have been talking up Ramirez for years, but injuries have kept the outfielder/third baseman from realizing his full potential. The thought here is that he'll have a full and healthy season and drive in at least 80 runs while splitting time between Erie and Toledo.
Audio: Ramirez clubs first homer for SeaWolves

Playoff-Bound -- Toledo Mud Hens
Having Larry Parrish back on the bench in Toledo is some of the best news we've heard in quite a while. He's a media favorite with a frank and honest approach, and he's proven to be a heck of a skipper in the International League. He'll have the Hens back in the postseason again this year.


"He had a chance to go to [the] Arizona [Fall League] last year and did a nice job -- a low-A guy going to Arizona. Watch him this spring because I think that may have really helped. He is poised and knows he has things to do. That's the nice part about [Arizona]. That opportunity may have sped up the maturation process." --Ezell on the development of Jeff Gerbe

Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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