Tigers' stud Double-A staff is scary good

August 27th, 2019

ERIE, Pa. -- Casey Mize and Alex Faedo were working out in the outfield at UPMC Park a week and a half ago, ahead of the SeaWolves’ series opener against Akron, when Faedo shared a tip. Indians top prospect and Akron third baseman Nolan Jones had homered off Faedo a month earlier, a series that Mize missed while he was on the injured list.

“He was telling me he had faced him and he hit a couple changeups and a couple offspeed pitches really well,” Mize said. “So Alex was like, ‘I’d stay away from the changeup that runs away from him, because I think he’s got that bat path for it.’”

One night later, as Mize worked Jones into a two-strike count, the advice paid off.

“I threw a pitch and executed it well, and it immediately pops in my head: I’m going to throw a splitter next pitch,” Mize said. “And then I remember, ‘Oh shoot, Alex told me stay away from changeups. Stay away from that pitch with this guy.’”

So instead of the splitter, the pitch that helped Mize become the top pick in the 2018 MLB Draft, Mize went to his slurve. It’s a pitch he just developed last offseason, but he’d seen new teammate Joey Wentz fan Jones on something similar a night earlier.

“I did a good job of burying that one,” Mize later said.

It was one of four strikeouts Mize posted on Aug. 17 in what ended up being his final outing this season. The Tigers decided a couple days later to shut him down and let him prepare for fall instructional league.

Still, it’s an example of how the Tigers’ promising pitchers at Double-A have supported each other and learned almost as much from one another as from coaches and instructors.

“It’s just things like that a lot,” Mize said. “We learn from each other because of past experiences. I’ve seen Matt [Manning] and [Tarik] Skubal talking curveball grips. It’s stuff like that all the time, whether it’s grips, pitch development, things they’ve seen from hitters, just really all topics. We’ve bounced ideas off each other and learned from each other.”

It's also an example of why those prospects and others have come together to build something potentially special in Erie. While they have their individual paths to Detroit as part of the Tigers’ rebuilding plan, they’re playing for something important to them here and now as well.

“I joke that it’s a 26U team,” said SeaWolves manager and former Tigers catcher Mike Rabelo, comparing them to a travel-ball team with an older age group.

The SeaWolves have not reached the postseason since 2013, and they haven’t even had a winning season since then. They haven’t won a division title since 2007 with future big leaguers Andrew Miller and Matt Joyce on the roster. This year’s team entered Monday tied for the Eastern League Western Division’s second-half lead. Erie’s full-season 74-56 record is the second-best in the league.

To find an Erie team this stocked with prospects, one might have to go back to 2001, when former first-round picks Eric Munson and Nate Cornejo were part of a prospect wave built by former general manager Randy Smith. Of the group, only Omar Infante ended up an All-Star.

This year’s squad could be different. For starters, the Tigers assembled a rotation that includes four first-round picks. Manning and Faedo have been around since last August. Mize joined them at the end of April and threw a no-hitter in his debut. Wentz, a supplemental first-round pick of the Braves, came over in the Shane Greene trade four weeks ago.

Add in Skubal -- a ninth-round pick last year whose dominant first full pro season landed him in Erie in early July -- and half of MLB Pipeline’s top 10 Tigers prospects are there, though Mize and Faedo are currently inactive. Mize, Manning and Skubal reside on MLB Pipeline’s top 100 prospects list.

“The first thing I said when I met [Skubal] was, ‘You better be Steve Carlton,’” Rabelo joked. “The coordinators and scouts and everybody would come through and say, ‘Have you seen this Skubal guy?’ Holy cow, they were dead-on.”

Skubal has struck out 78 batters in just 39 2/3 innings since joining the SeaWolves. Manning leads the league with 148 strikeouts in 133 2/3 innings and Faedo ranks third with 130 in 112 1/3 innings. They rank first and fifth in WHIP ratio.

They’re good. They’re also good friends.

“They’re all friends,” Rabelo said, “and they all live together.”

The group of pitching prospects is complemented by a stellar outfield, too. While injuries have slowed Derek Hill’s development since he was taken with the 23rd overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, his defense is advanced. Hill made a leaping catch at the center-field fence to help Mize on Aug. 17, and it wasn’t even his best catch of the month.

Hill and Jose Azocar alternated between center and right field until a hip injury sidelined Azocar a week ago. Add in Cam Gibson in left, and the trio covers ground.

“It seems like when the ball gets hit out there, something amazing is going to happen,” Mize said. “That’s a very comforting feeling, obviously, as a pitcher, even for the whole team, just to have those guys patrolling the outfield out there.”

The result has been a juggernaut team whose success is inspiring hope in the Tigers for the years ahead. Most of this rotation will open next year at Triple-A Toledo, just an hour’s drive away from Detroit. At this rate, they might seem closer by season’s end.

That’s down the road, though. For now, they’re trying to enjoy the moment.

“As you can see, everybody’s pulling from the same side, and it’s really exciting,” Hill said. “It’s fun to play, and I’m sure it’s fun to watch just because we’re putting on a show every night.”