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Burrows honing offspeed pitches at Erie

MLB.com @beckjason

ERIE, Pa. -- Beau Burrows has been known to find another gear with his fastball when he gets into a tight spot. On this particular July afternoon, he downshifted.

"[Burrows] could go out there and throw fastballs and have success. I do believe that," Double-A manager Andrew Graham said. "And he did it when I had him last year in Lakeland. But he's got to develop his offspeed pitches."

ERIE, Pa. -- Beau Burrows has been known to find another gear with his fastball when he gets into a tight spot. On this particular July afternoon, he downshifted.

"[Burrows] could go out there and throw fastballs and have success. I do believe that," Double-A manager Andrew Graham said. "And he did it when I had him last year in Lakeland. But he's got to develop his offspeed pitches."

Burrows went to the breaking ball in a hitters' count, a 2-1 pitch after back-to-back one-out walks. He hadn't allowed a hit at that point, but his fastball was sailing out of the strike zone, and hitters weren't chasing. A breaking ball in a fastball situation induced Pirates prospect Will Craig into a ground ball to shortstop and an inning-ending double play.

This is when Burrows looks like the most advanced of the top starting pitching prospects the Tigers have acquired. In this case, the result was seven innings and nine strikeouts. His lone run came on a sixth-inning fastball sent to the roof of the hockey arena beyond left field at UPMC Park, and he struck out the side from there, fanning three Top 30 Pirates prospects. Two fanned on fastballs, with a curveball at the knees for a called third strike in between.

Burrows struggled in his next two starts despite notching 11 strikeouts over eight innings. That has been the story of his first full season of Double-A ball. But when he has all of his pitches working, he can be dominant.

"It's close. It's coming," Burrows said. "It's going to be exciting whenever it all comes together."

The Tigers have accumulated so much pitching talent that Burrows is easy to overlook. Though he's on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list, he's the fifth-ranked starting pitching prospect in the Tigers' system. The Tigers made him the 22nd overall pick in the 2015 Draft out of high school, so he didn't have the college stardom of Alex Faedo and Casey Mize, Detroit's two most recent top picks. Nor is Burrows as physically imposing as Franklin Perez, the top prospect from last summer's Justin Verlander trade, and 2016 top pick Matt Manning.

But slowly, steadily, Burrows is climbing the Tigers' farm system with a four-pitch arsenal, a competitive mean streak and a pitching acumen that belies his age.

"For a 21-year-old kid, he's very mature, he really is," said Graham, who has managed Burrows for much of the last three seasons at three different levels. "And very coachable. He's not afraid to listen to the coaches and to work on stuff, and that's a big thing to have. You have some players out there who think they're having success. They don't want to try different things, and then they get to the big leagues and they don't stay. We're here to develop him, so when he does get the call up, then hopefully he stays and has a good career."

For that reason, Graham and pitching coach Willie Blair have hammered home the point of using his curveball and slider. Burrows has thrown both for most of his pro career, which has allowed him to avoid some of the growing pains other young pitchers have when trying to develop both at the same time.

"I love his curveball," Graham said. "At times, he uses it more for a get-me-over. I think if he can bounce that ball on the plate, he's going to have a lot of swings-and-misses. It's coming out of the same slot as his elevated fastball, so it's a weapon for him. He likes his slider, because he sees more late action on it, and I can understand that. But if he can get them both working, and command both of them to go with that fastball that's got the late life, he's going to have success."

Former Tigers pitcher Willie Blair has seen those stretches since Burrows reached Erie last summer.

"When he throws his good [breaking balls], they are very good," Blair said. "The problem is he's just been so inconsistent with it. He knows what it feels like when he throws them right."

Burrows also has confidence that he can do it. If he can command his fastball, which tops out in the mid-90s, he believes he can make them work.

"They're two completely different pitches, so when I throw them right, they're way different," Burrows said. "Maybe sometimes they mesh together a little bit, but when I really focus on throwing them and I do the right things, then they're good, different pitches."

Burrows will get every opportunity to hone that consistency. Though he has spent the equivalent of a full year at Double-A, there's no rush to promote him, especially now that Perez has been shut down to rest his arm instead of joining Erie for the stretch run.

Even so, there's a very good chance Burrows becomes the first of the Tigers' pitching prospects to reach Detroit. It might not be until late next season, but it's when rather than if.

"I don't worry about that stuff," Burrows said. "I mean, when I'm ready, I'll be able to go up there and compete, but right now I'm just getting better every day and learning. Whatever they decide, they decide."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook.

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