The Road to Detroit for Tigers prospects includes a lot of familiar stops, just in a different order. On Wednesday, the Tigers announced a quartet of invitations to their affiliates to be part of their farm system under MLB’s new Minor League plan.
If the invitations are accepted, the Tigers’ developmental chain will go as such:
• Triple-A: Toledo Mud Hens
• Double-A: Erie SeaWolves
• Class A Advanced: West Michigan Whitecaps
• Class A: Lakeland Flying Tigers
All four Minor League teams have been part of the Tigers' system for at least 20 years each. The one change is that West Michigan and Lakeland have flipped order as part of an expected larger change that pushes the Midwest League to the Class A Advanced level and moves the Florida State League in its place. The swap means the Tigers’ top three affiliates are all within driving distance of Detroit as well as each other, making in-season player promotions and roving instruction easier, while also allowing Tigers fans to follow prospects on their way through the system.
Erie, Pa., is just a few hours drive to Toledo, Ohio, which is only an hour drive to Comerica Park. West Michigan to Erie, about a six-hour drive, is an easier trek than a flight to or from Lakeland, Fla.
“To go from West Michigan to Erie to Detroit and Toledo, as you move up the ladder, just makes sense,” Tigers vice president of player development Dave Littlefield said. “Previously, we were going [from Lakeland] to West Michigan, back to Lakeland, then going to Erie. … The situation at West Michigan is such a good one that I think our players will benefit from it to a great degree.”
The Tigers benefit at the low end as well. Their youngest prospects will begin their professional careers working out and playing at the TigerTown complex in Lakeland, where much of the team’s player development department is based. Most players will now be introduced to full-season professional ball at the Class A level in Lakeland, where early-season weather is more favorable. On the flip side, summer weather in West Michigan is more favorable for midseason promotions from Lakeland, where August rainouts can be frequent.
The Tigers are expected to retain two teams in the Short-Season, Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, and two teams in the Dominican Summer League based out of their academy there.
“Player development has never been more important to our organization than it is today, and after a significant review process with each of the clubs and Major League Baseball, we’re excited to invite these affiliates to move forward as part of the Tigers' family,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said in a statement. “These clubs play a key role in our long-term plan for sustainable success, to ensure our players are in the best position for growth and development to become impactful contributors at the Major League level. I’d also like to thank the affiliate owners, executives, state and local government officials, and the overall community in each of these markets. Their passion for the game is one of our sport’s greatest assets and is something they should be very proud of.”
The news was especially welcome in Erie, which a year ago had been reported at risk of losing affiliation under a Minor League Baseball reorganization. The SeaWolves have been the Tigers’ Double-A affiliate since 2001. They had just received state assistance to fund a $16 million update to UPMC Park and team facilities, a renovation project that moved forward this year with Minor League ball shut down due to the pandemic. The improvements include the team clubhouse, workout facilities, training room, batting cages and the playing field, which was upgraded in time for last season.
“Some of us know that challenges are what make life interesting, and this is one of those,” SeaWolves owner and CEO Fernando Aguirre said in a Wednesday afternoon video conference. “I am not joking that this is the hardest thing that I've done in my 40-plus years of working, for a lot of reasons. I just cannot wait to hear 'Play ball!' for the first time at our new UPMC Park, and hopefully soon.”
Those upgrades proved crucial to continuing the relationship.
“The difference in workplace quality for our players is vital to their development, and we’re looking forward to seeing these additions come to completion,” Avila said.
Not until last Friday, Aguirre said, did he breathe a sigh of relief that the SeaWolves were safely in the affiliate fold.
Said Littlefield: “The commitment that the Erie ownership has shown certainly helped solidify a good situation for us.”