In each of the last two Drafts, the Tigers scouting department has gone after the highest-risk category of player with their first-round selection: high-school pitcher. In 2015, Texas high school right-hander Beau Burrows was the choice at No. 22 overall. This past June, the Tigers went to Northern California to get former two-sport standout Matt Manning with the ninth overall pick.
With Burrows spending the year with West Michigan in the full-season Midwest League and Manning getting his professional feet wet in the Gulf Coast League, the two former prepsters who are ranked as the Tigers' top two prospects hadn't had the chance to work together until both headed to Lakeland for this fall's instructional league camp, which runs through Saturday. Having the pair in one place should be beneficial for both young pitchers, but particularly for Manning, who can look to Burrows and the path he has already started forging.
"It's very good for Matt," Tigers farm director Dave Owen said. "It's been fun for us as a staff to think, 'That was Beau a year ago and look at where he is now.' You can see Matt having the same growth. I think Beau will be a good sounding board for Matt. Them being together daily in their bullpens and their drills, I think it's going to help Matt."
The Tigers didn't hesitate in pushing Burrows to full-season ball right out of Spring Training and while pitch counts and innings totals were monitored closely -- he finished with 97 total IP for the season -- it was a largely successful campaign. The fact the right-hander posted a 1.32 ERA over his final six regular-season starts was a good sign he was making some solid adjustments.
TIGERS TOP 30 PROSPECTS AT INSTRUCTS
"What we've seen is an understanding of command, command of his fastball," Owen said. "These guys, if you leave it over the plate, even in the Midwest League, they can put a pretty good swing on you. As he continues to move forward, he understands command is going to keep him going on. He's understanding the repeatability of his delivery and how consistent it needs to be. Those are pieces of the puzzle he understands now. A year ago, he knew about them, but now he's experienced how important they are."
Those are lessons he can pass along to Manning, who logged 29 1/3 Gulf Coast League innings during his debut. A former basketball star, he comes to the pro game a bit more raw than Burrows, but his athleticism, plus the notes he can take from picking Burrows' brain, should help him be ready for his first full season in 2017.
"We've already seen a lot of growth in Matt in how he's approached the game just from being drafted and in instructs right now," Owen said. You can tell he's learning about pro ball and himself. He's an intelligent kid. "He doesn't have a lot of miles in baseball. He's a very good athlete. We think that is something that helps him adapt and make adjustments in baseball. We've seen it so far at instructs, with different things in his delivery. He's definitely not a finished product. He has some things to work on, but that's the fun part of watching guys take what they're hearing and putting it into their game."
Other 2015 first-round pick prepped for AFL
After the Tigers went with a high school pitcher with Burrows at No. 22, they nabbed a powerful college bat when they took Christin Stewart out of Tennessee at No. 34 overall. After hitting 10 home runs in his summer debut, reaching full-season West Michigan in the process, the Tigers were excited to see what the outfielder would do over the course of a full season.
He didn't disappoint, leading the organization with 30 home runs and .517 slugging percentage. He hit 24 of those homers with Lakeland, in the typically pitching-friendly Florida State League, before getting to Double-A in his first full year as a pro. You don't see a lot of players at that advanced level on instructs rosters, but the Tigers wanted Stewart to get a little tune-up before he headed out to the Arizona Fall League, which began play on Tuesday. He last played in a game on Sept. 5.
"We thought it was a good idea," Owen said. "Let him go home and rest for a bit, then let him come down here, get some at-bats, get some throwing in, see some live pitching before he headed to Arizona. He liked it. Grayson Greiner did the same thing. They came down to get amped back up."
The Tigers just want Stewart to build off of the year he had during the regular season. The power is legitimate, and while Stewart does swing and miss quite a bit (131 strikeouts), he also draws a ton of walks (86). The move to Double-A led to some scuffling, not surprisingly, so the time in the AFL should allow him to see more of that level of competition to get him ready for next year.
"He went up to Erie and took a bit to get some traction, but he was figuring it out," Owen said. "We thought it was key to get him some looks at that competition, anticipating 2017. He made some adjustments and understands now that he'll have to make them more consistently now that he's facing better competition. He knows his strengths and weaknesses."
Azocar building off of strong full season
Back in Spring Training, Jose Azocar was identified as a potential breakout prospect in the Tigers' system. He largely lived up to that advanced billing, spending all year in the Midwest League despite not turning 20 until May. He finished with a .281 average and 14 steals, hitting .322 in the season's first half, hitting a wall in the second (.242) before rebounding by hitting .400 in six playoff games.
A year ago at this time, Azocar was at instructs, fresh off of a strong United States debut after two summers in the Venezuelan Summer League. In addition to the on-field advancements, he's improving by leaps and bounds off of it as well.
"You could see how he was maturing, learning to be a professional," Owen said about Azocar's 2016 season. "He's growing as far as knowing how to prepare for games, getting through a season. You can talk to players about it, but they have to experience it."
Azocar has clearly taken those experiences and used them to motivate him at instructs. Certainly not alone in hitting that wall during his first full season, it's how a prospect responds to those struggles that often separates him from others.
"One of the big things is, he wants to be good," Owen said. "All the ingredients are there to be an exciting player. He takes it all in and has a good grip on things.
"I see him being more focused here. He has so much energy and enthusiasm, sometimes he had been not as much focused on a drill or whatever he might be doing as he is now. That's where you see the maturity coming in."