In the midst of a full rebuild, the Detroit Tigers’ full attention is turned to their young talent at all levels of the organization.
In Triple-A, that means the Toledo Mud Hens are playing an important part in the Tigers’ quest to return to the top of their division.
Detroit won the American League Central Division four straight times from 2011 to 2014 and continued to chase the AL pennant for three more seasons until finally initiating a looming rebuild in 2017.
With the Tigers’ realistic championship window closed, the club began looking to the future by trading J.D. Martinez, Justin Verlander, Alex Avila, Justin Wilson, and Justin Upton during a six-week stretch that season.
The flurry of deals helped restock the team’s minor-league system, which was among the leaner offerings in baseball after Detroit had been a trade deadline buyer and free agent spender for the better part of a decade.
Now, however, some of those prospects already are in the big leagues — and others are knocking on the door.
As the Tigers aim to build a playoff-contending roster once again, the Mud Hens have a key role in the club’s rebuild.
“We’re already seeing that take effect,” said Dave Littlefield, the Tigers’ vice president of player development.
“We’ve had guys from Toledo like Joey Jimenez, Spencer Turnbull, Buck Farmer, Blaine Hardy, Daniel Norris, Grayson Greiner, Jeimer Candelario, Christin Stewart, Jacoby Jones. There’s a lot of guys going through Toledo who are making a significant impact on the major-league roster.”
Several players whom the Tigers acquired during the summer of 2017 will begin this season with Toledo, one step away from Major League Baseball.
Detroit dealt Verlander to Houston and received outfield prospect Daz Cameron as part of the return. The 22-year-old likely will be an everyday player in Toledo this season.
Dawel Lugo — acquired in the deal that sent Martinez to the Arizona Diamondbacks — will start the 2019 season as a Mud Hen.
Further, the Mud Hens will approach Opening Day with four of the club’s top 11 prospects by MLB.com’s rankings.
Toledo made the International League playoffs in 2018, and Toledo manager Doug Mientkiewicz said development and winning can go hand-in-hand.
“Both sides are important,” Mientkiewicz said. “You can develop and still win, and you can win and still develop.”
As the Mud Hens prepare what Detroit hopes will be the next wave of Tigers, Mientkiewicz said winning in minor-league baseball arrives in many different fashions.
“I like to break down the word winning in a lot of ways,” Mientkiewicz said. “Winning doesn’t necessarily mean winning games. If we’re winning a skill, we’re trying to teach them or we make a tinker here or a tinker there and a player trusts us, and it starts to work in a game, then we’ll win that, and if we do that enough, we’ll win games in the end.
“When you create a winning environment, the will to get better increases. I think it’s a huge part of development.”
According to Baseball America’s rankings, the Tigers minor-league system ranks No. 15, squarely in the middle of MLB teams.
However, the Tigers have many prospects about whom they are excited, many of whom will play at Fifth Third Field this season.
“There are a lot of very positive things happening,” Littlefield said. “And I think it’s going to translate to Toledo and to Detroit in the years to come.”
Just getting started
If you see Mud Hens manager Doug Mientkiewicz around town this spring, do: say hello and ask how the walleye are biting.
Do not: congratulate him on a job well done last season.
“After the year, I spent the last month in Detroit with the Tigers and all people did was praise us for what a great year we had,” Mientkiewicz said. “On one hand, you want to shake their hand. On the other, you want to push them over and smack them in the back of their head and say, ‘We didn’t finish the job.’”
Hey, don’t say we didn’t warn you.
For Mientkiewicz — the 44-year-old Toledo native who played a dozen years in the big leagues — his homecoming last year mostly satisfied.
He reconnected with old friends. He took his 12-year-old son fishing in Lake Erie and fried their catch for the team. He led the Hens to the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons.
There was just one thing missing: a championship ending.
Now, that might seem a strangely high bar.
Existing as much to fill beer and sods cups as it is to chase Governors’ Cups, the minor leagues are about entertainment — Star Wars nights, fireworks, mascot races — and player development more than winning, no?
But Mientkiewicz is a little different, and so are the times.
Gone are the days the Tigers — who through a decade of win-now trades that sheared the farm system to the studs (understandable) and general inattention (less understandable) — made Homer Simpson look like Parent of the Year.
As the big club continues its transition from big-spending ring chasers into a leaner, homegrown outfit, the end of an era in Motown has ushered in a winning new one in Mudville.
The Tigers spent the past two years bottoming out and replenishing their system, which means a conga line of big-time young talent is on the way to Toledo. We got a taste last year and could get the full course this season. Detroit’s top five prospects — led by reigning No. 1 overall pick, Casey Mize, an electric right-hander who projects as a future ace — could all pass through finishing school here by the end of summer.
When Tigers general manager Al Avila tells reporters, “I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” after consecutive 98-loss seasons, nowhere is it brighter than Toledo.
Nowhere are the expectations higher, either.
To Mientkiewicz, there is the team that raises the trophy and everyone else. It is the only bar he knows. Remember, this is still the kid from Point Place who first celebrated a championship when his beloved Toledo Goaldiggers captured the Turner Cup in 1978, and he has since won a few of his own, twice as a player — including with the curse-breaking Red Sox in 2004 — and twice as a manager in the Minnesota Twins’ system.
The Mud Hens last year won the International League West, but lost to Durham in the first round of the playoffs.
A repeat performance will not cut it.
“I don’t like losing,” Mientkiewicz said. “I don’t like getting there and just bowing out. A lot of teams get there, but not many finish it.”
So the pursuit continues, with what should be the most fun — if not the best — Mud Hens team since their back-to-back Governors’ Cup winners in 2005 and 2006.
Just think: It was only four years ago the Tigers’ farm system ranked dead last. Now it’s anywhere from eighth (FanGraphs) to 15th (Baseball America) — not coincidentally the highest perch since the mid-2000s baseball renaissance here — and many of the biggest names responsible for the rise are either in Toledo or knocking on the gates.
“There are a lot of very positive things happening,” Tigers vice president of player development Dave Littlefield told me, “and I think it’s going to translate to Toledo and to Detroit in the years to come.”
As it is this spring, the Hens’ opening day roster will count four of the Tigers’ top 11 prospects: outfielder Daz Cameron (No. 5), pitcher Beau Burrows (6), shortstop Willi Castro (7), and pitcher Kyle Funkhouser (11).
“You never want to get ahead of yourself thinking you have a really good team,” Mientkiewicz said.
It looks like he has a really good team.
And he wants to raise it right.
“Winning is a huge part of development,” he said. “I actually think it’s the main part of development. You can’t just all of the sudden pop up in the big leagues and expect to win at that level without doing it before. You have to understand what it takes.”
First, you have to do better in Toledo.
The Watch List
Part of the fun of minor-league baseball is seeing big-league talent before the players themselves actually earn the call.
In Toledo, we’re a step away from Major League Baseball. Some of the top prospects in all of baseball will pass through Fifth Third Field during the course of a season, and that should especially be true in 2019 with Detroit having stocked its farm system and the Mud Hens due to face a few marquee prospects before the season is even a week old.
A look at some names to know before Opening Day in downtown Toledo:
Casey Mize, starting pitcher
The Tigers’ highest-rated prospect, Mize was the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft out of Auburn University. Mize already has command of his fastball and three swing-and-miss pitches, including a splitter with vicious bite. It’s an understatement to say Detroit is excited about Mize, who posted an absurd 12.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio last year at Auburn.
Mize, who will turn 22 in May, projects as a frontline starter for Detroit, though he will start the year at Single-A Lakeland. With a good season, however, a long look in Toledo is a possibility.
Isaac Paredes, infielder
Paredes has been a very pleasant surprise for Detroit, which acquired him in the deal that sent Justin Wilson to the Chicago Cubs. He fits the mold of former Tiger and Mud Hen Omar Infante in that he’s a utility player who also is a reliable hitter. Paredes posted an on-base percentage of .406 in 39 games at Double-A Erie in 2018.
Paredes will start this season with the SeaWolves but is a prime promotion candidate for the Tigers.
Daz Cameron, outfielder
With one look at Cameron, it’s fair to say he could have been successful at any sport he attempted. An excellent athlete, Cameron earned a late-season call-up for the Hens’ playoff push in 2018.
Cameron posted an impressive .837 OPS in Double-A Erie last year and will be an everyday player for the Mud Hens this season. The son of longtime MLB outfielder Mike, Daz Cameron soon could be prowling center field at Comerica Park — but the 22-year-old first will have to prove he can hit Triple-A pitching consistently.
Matt Manning, starting pitcher
A first-round pick in 2016, Manning struck out 154 batters across three levels in 2018. The 6-foot-6 Manning has developed each step of the way, and Detroit certainly would like the 21-year-old Manning to take the next step this season. Manning pitched only 10 2/3 innings at Double-A Erie last season, where he will begin this season, but his mid-90s fastball and significantly improved mechanics project to a possible Toledo appearance at some point in 2019.
MUD HENS OPPONENTS
Nick Senzel, Louisville Bats
Senzel is ready for the big leagues now, but to the ire of many Cincinnati Reds fans, the club will start him in the minors to delay his service time.
Senzel, the sixth-ranked prospect in all of baseball by MLB.com’s rankings, posted an OPS of nearly .900 in 44 Triple-A games last year. Louisville starts the season with four games at Fifth Third Field, but Senzel is on the injured list for the time being.
Michael Kopech, Charlotte Knights
With Eloy Jimenez signed to a long-term contract, the big right-handed pitcher becomes the best minor-league player in a loaded Chicago White Sox system. Part of the haul that Boston traded for Chris Sale, Kopech can touch 100 miles per hour on the radar gun to go with a slider that’s downright unfair at its best. Charlotte visits Toledo starting May 31 — if Kopech is still in the minors by then.
Ke’Bryan Hayes, Indianapolis Indians
Hayes will start this season in the minors, but he already put together an excellent spring training and could well be with the Pittsburgh Pirates by the end of the year. The son of former big-leaguer Charlie Hayes, Ke’Bryan projects as the likely everyday third baseman for Pittsburgh. He’s due service time in Triple-A first, however, and how convenient: The Indians are in Toledo on April 9 and 10.
Triston McKenzie, Columbus Clippers
The top Cleveland Indians prospect, McKenzie is a 6-foot-5 starter with loads of potential. The Indians have taken things slowly with McKenzie, who suffered another injury this spring, but he already has good command of a fastball that can touch mid-90s and a curveball that’s a strikeout pitch. He should see a bigger workload and possibly some AAA ball in 2019.