When Dave Dombrowski finally threw in the towel on 2015, he shipped off three star free agents that the Tigers might not have re-signed after the season anyway and got six players who all immediately slotted into the top fifteen Detroit prospects, according to MLB.com. While that could be seen as a clear illustration of why the Tigers farm system ranks near the bottom of all MLB franchises, it also means Dombrowski got quite a haul from teams just renting David Price, Yoenis Cespedes, and Joakim Soria. Many of these half-dozen could succeed in the majors someday. What can Tigers fans realistically hope from them?
Daniel Norris. The No. 1 remaining pitching prospect in the Blue Jays’ farm system and in the top ten or fifteen in all of MLB (depending on which list of prospects you use), Norris is a savvy lefty who projects as a solid No. 3 to No. 1 starter with a full arsenal of low-90s fastball, slider, curve, and changeup. Yes, he’s only twenty-two and he’s the guy who famously lives in a van—his Volkswagen bus—despite his million-plus signing bonus. He’s a quirky dude, for sure, but his laid-back presence is left behind as soon as he takes the field—as we saw when he made a spectacular catch of a bunted pop-up in this first start for Detroit.
He started the season with Toronto and was sent down after five starts. In sixteen subsequent outings with Buffalo, he also struggled with his command. For the season, between the majors and AAA, he posted an unimpressive 1.50 WHIP, a 4.18 ERA, and had a lousy strikeout-to-walk ratio (ninety-six to fifty-three) before he joined Detroit. But in a stellar debut performance in Baltimore, Norris showed he knows how to pitch. His fastball explodes out of a deceptive delivery, and he’s certainly got the stuff to succeed; the question remains how well he can command it over a full season. But the Tigers should be able to count on him in their rotation in 2016, even if there will be a few bumps on the road.
Michael Fulmer. The key piece in the Cespedes deal was this Mets prospect, a twenty-two-year-old right-hander who has outstanding tools. He’s about a year behind Norris, having jumped from A to AA ball early in this season. Fulmer appears to be progressing rapidly, solving control problems that plagued him in the low minors and turning in a solid season so far with a WHIP barely over 1.00 in sixteen starts. A Mets late-first-round pick in 2011, he’s worked through health problems, including knee surgery, and has a mid-90s fastball and an excellent slider. He was rated the No. 1 prospect left in the Mets system after Steve Matz was called up. He might end up as a bullpen ace primarily because of durability concerns—but he also could be in the Tigers rotation by the end of 2016 if he continues to progress.
Matt Boyd. You don’t normally get too excited about a pitcher with an MLB ERA of 14.85, but Boyd is the real sleeper among all these pitchers. The Oregon State alum, a lefty with a big leg kick, has been opening eyes at AAA Buffalo after jumping from AA prematurely to the majors and retiring not a single batter in a start against Boston. Throughout the year in the minors he’s kept his WHIP below 1.00. He’s got a good changeup and other breaking pitches and throws his fastball at different speeds. He looks like he could be a prototypical control lefty who could slot into a rotation or shine in relief. Detroit could consider taking advantage of Boyd’s obvious pitching smarts and versatility and train him to be a rare bird that can pitch two or three innings out of the pen several times a week and also give the club some spot starts. Boyd is developing so fast his ceiling may be even higher.
Luis Cessa. Drafted out of Mexico as a shortstop, he’s been a pitcher for only four years, but Cessa, twenty-three, has a decent three-pitch arsenal and has been rounding out his repertoire very quickly. His background profile as a converted position player seems to point to relief, but he has developing nicely as a starter and, if all continued to go well, he could land him somewhere in the Tigers rotation as soon as 2017. He’s had a great strikeout-to-walks ratio throughout his climb to AA.
Jafrio Labourt. A raw twenty-one-year-old Dominican, Labourt has some real heat, but at this point has to work on everything else. If he can get his stuff under control and cut down on his atrocious walk totals, he could eventually blow people away as a potential workhorse starter. He’s athletic and powerful and more likely to end up in the bullpen. Labourt is still a long way off and has to develop secondary pitches to complement his sinking fastball. Strictly a throw-in, he has a future that’s very difficult to predict until he progresses higher in the minors.
JaCoby Jones. Yes, that’s an uppercase “c” stuck in the middle of his first name. Sigh. Jones is playing shortstop now but might be better in the outfield or could end up at third base or second base. His ceiling is probably a spot as a useful major-league utility man. The former second-round pick lacks plate discipline and his defense is also spotty. But he has some power and a big upside if he can hone his raw talent. He’ll be a project for Detroit’s minor league coaching staffs. A third-round pick out of Louisiana State for the Pirates in 2013, he is most frequently described as having “athleticism,” which is often a scouting euphemism for “lacks discipline.” Clearly a gamble, he could pay off someday as a roster fill-in or even a potent, versatile player—or end up being a complete bust.