DETROIT – As the MLB offseason starts heating up, major trades, like the Cardinals sending Shelby Miller to the Braves for Jason Heyward, and signings, like Russell Martin heading to Toronto, have put baseball back under the microscope. We're taking a look at what to expect from the Tigers as Dave Dombrowski goes to work once again.
Monday, we examined a few outside sources that Dombrowski might consider bringing to Detroit, but now it's time to think about how the farm system could impact the 2015 season.
The Tigers are widely known for having a shallow pool of prospects, but the performances of a few players has generated hope in some of the young stars.
Here are five Tigers prospects that could make a major difference for the team next season.
Steven Moya: Outfielder
2014: 3/8 (.375), 2 runs, 2 strikeouts with Tigers
If there's a diamond in the rough that represents the Tigers' farm system, it's Moya. The 23-year-old outfielder can seriously mash, and he's shown it at pretty much every level.
Moya dominated the Eastern League (Double-A level) this season, crushing 35 home runs and 33 doubles in 515 at-bats while posting a .276 batting average. Moya drove in 105 runs, scored 81 times and even stole 16 bases. To cap off the excellent season, Moya was named league MVP.
Admittedly, gaudy numbers often fizzle out in The Show, but Moya's performance in the Arizona Fall League suggest he could have staying power at the highest level. In 23 games, he hit six doubles, one triple and five home runs, picking up 19 RBI en route to a .289 average.
How he fits in: Other than the obvious need for a guy with excellent power and speed on every Major League roster, the Tigers could really use the extra left-handed bat in their everyday lineup. With the addition of Anthony Gose last Wednesday, Dombrowski may have set up a platoon in center field with Rajai Davis, who would play against lefties while Gose gets the nod against righties. If so, Moya could play in the opposite corner outfield spot as fellow slugger J.D. Martinez to give Detroit an extra power presence.
What's the catch?: There's no such thing as the perfect prospect, so what's the gap in Moya's seemingly well-rounded game? As with many left-handed sluggers, Moya can fall into a slump that leaves him swinging at bat pitches and struggling to make contact. Even during his MVP campaign, he struck out 161 times and posted an on-base percentage of just .306. If Moya makes the Tigers' team, there will be stretches in which MLB pitchers exploit the holes in his young swing and his strikeouts will add up. But the reward could be a powerful bat in the bottom of the order and a threat to tear up the base paths.
James McCann: Catcher
2014: 3/12 (.250), 1 2B, 2 R, 2 SO, 1 SB
Fans in Detroit have been calling for McCann to get his chance since he was selected in the second round of the 2011 amateur draft out of the University of Arkansas. Frustration with Alex Avila's offensive production has made McCann a bit of a fan favorite, and the young catcher finally got his first whiff of MLB action last September.
But fans had nothing to do with the catcher's call-up last year. McCann earned his chance with the big league club, hitting .295 in 109 games with the Toledo Mud Hens (Triple-A). The right-hander showed plus power, hitting 34 doubles and seven home runs en route to 54 RBI. He also offers Detroit solid base running skills from a catcher, stealing nine bases last year in Toledo, and decent plate discipline, striking out just 90 times and posting a .343 OBP.
How he fits in: Do the Tigers really think Bryan Holaday is the answer at backup catcher? Probably not, but that doesn't mean McCann will be handed the job in spring training. McCann offers the Tigers a more well-rounded backstop, as he not only demonstrates power and discipline at the plate, but also threw out 42 percent of would-be base stealers in Toledo last year. If he's given the opportunity, McCann could be a plus catcher both at the plate and behind it in the coming years.
What's the catch?: McCann is only 24 years old, so will his game immediately translate to the big league level? In his limited action last season, he was unsuccessful in throwing out all four base stealers from behind the plate. But his small sample size of offensive production suggested that he could hit more consistently than Avila if he holds up on defense. Taking over a veteran pitching staff that's accustomed to the excellence of Avila behind the plate would be a tall order for McCann, but that's why the Tigers invested a second-round pick in him.
Robbie Ray: Starting pitcher
2014: 1-4, 8.16 ERA, 19 strikeouts, 1.88 WHIP
Ray has unfortunately gotten off on the wrong foot with fans in Detroit, and most of that isn't even his fault. When Dombrowski traded fan favorite Doug Fister away for what seemed to be a very weak return last offseason, there was immediate pressure on Ray to live up to the hype. But at just 22 years old, he was clearly in way over his head on a Major League mound, picking up just one quality start in six chances.
To make matters worse, Ray went back to Toledo and struggled, finishing the year with a 7-6 record and 4.22 ERA. But with an open spot in the Tigers' rotation and the great potential of Ray, he could be in the mix for a roster spot in 2015.
Ray turned things around in the Arizona Fall League, where he made four starts. He finished with a 1-1 record and 2.45 ERA in 11 innings, striking out an impressive 13 batters. He still struggled with command, walking six, but looked more like the power pitcher Dombrowski traded for.
How he fits in: With Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello already anchored in the rotation, the Tigers could really use another southpaw to mix in with David Price. Ray is the perfect candidate to take that job, if he can continue to improve his control. Dombrowski would love nothing more than to show that the Fister trade wasn't a bust and have Ray contribute in the upcoming year.
What's the catch?: Unfortunately, this one is obvious. Ray gave the Tigers two great starts to begin his MLB career, but then completely fell apart. He allowed 21 earned runs in just 14.2 innings in his final four starts and walked eight batters. Ray has the talent to turn it around, but he'll have to prove to Brad Ausmus that he's bounced back from those struggles to earn starts in Detroit.
Hernan Perez: Infielder
2014: 1/5 (.200), 1 BB, 1 SO
Perez has struggled offensively in his few at-bats in the MLB, the majority of which came in 2013. The 23-year-old hits .205 with five RBI and 16 strikeouts in 73 at-bats with the Tigers, but is regarded as one of the top position prospects in the system.
The second baseman hit .287 with 32 doubles, seven triples and six home runs in Toledo this season after hitting over .300 between Toledo and Erie (Double-A) in 2013. He gives the Tigers a potential No. 9 hitter that can put the ball in play (only 65 SO in 2014) and move around the base paths.
Perez has never gotten an extended opportunity in the big leagues, but it could be coming soon. He was a favorite backup for both Jim Leyland and Ausmus over the past few years during September call-ups because of his reputation as an excellent defensive infielder.
How he fits in: Perez avoided a huge hurdle this offseason when the Tigers decided to designate longtime utility man Don Kelly for assignment. Now the 23-year-old will have to battle with Andrew Romine and Eugenio Suarez for one of the backup infielder positions behind Ian Kinsler and Jose Iglesias. Though the other two saw extended time at shortstop in 2014, Perez might have the most overall upside.
What's the catch?: The Tigers have multiple options equivalent to Perez that are already in the majors. Iglesias and Romine have demonstrated great defensive ability at shortstop, and Suarez has been the best offensive option of the group. Kinsler is a road block at second base and that creates a log jam at shortstop; one that Perez is right in the thick of.
Tyler Collins: Outfielder
2014: 6/24 (.250), 1 HR, 4 RBI, 1 BB, 4 SO
Collins was considered the top minor league power option in the outfield for the Tigers until Moya burst onto the scene, and he played the biggest role of the two in September. Collins hit a three-run homer against the Indians on Sept. 1 and, perhaps just as importantly, played all three outfield positions. With the uncertainty of who will play where this season in the spacious outfield of Comerica Park, Collins' defensive versatility could be a valuable component of Ausmus' arsenal in 2015.
Detroit will have to give Collins a shot in The Show soon, because the 24-year-old has proven that he can dominate the minor leagues. He picked up 123 hits and 18 home runs while batting .263 for Toledo last year, even adding 12 stolen bases and 63 runs scored. His strikeouts are on the high side, at 116, but not as potentially alarming as Moya's. Collins posted an OBP of .335 last year.
The power surge in 2014 was no fluke for Collins, as he hit 21 home runs in Erie the year before. In 2012, he smashed 35 doubles for the Single-A Lakeland Flying Tigers and stole 20 bases.
How he fits in: If Collins makes the Tigers' team, it would give the team more room to play with outfield positioning and defensive replacements late in games. Collins looked comfortable in his pinch-hitting role in 2014, which could be the deciding factor between he and other prospects battling for a backup outfielder spot. Hitting from the left side of the plate doesn't hurt his chances, either.
What's the catch?: The Tigers know that Moya has more long-term potential than Collins, so the 24-year-old would likely have to play his way onto the team in spring training. Unfortunately, Collins put on a show in February last season, but was still sent to the minor leagues. The departure of Kelly from the major league roster could open the door in 2015.