The Tigers have had a tough time lately developing homegrown arms for their big league rotation. Recently recalled Spencer Turnbull is the only arm of the current starting five who was drafted and developed solely from within.
The organization has been trying to address that in recent drafts and four of the team's top five prospects were first-round picks taken in each of the last four Drafts. All four of those top arms, Beau Burrows (2015 Draft), Matt Manning (2016), Alex Faedo (2017) and, of course, 2018 No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize are in Lakeland currently participating in instructional league action.
Instructional league rosters
Mize joins an intriguing group of college arms from this year's Draft class at instructs. While the Tigers will be playing a small slate of games against other organizations in the greater Tampa area, Mize, along with sixth-rounder Hugh Smith and ninth-rounder Tarik Skubal, won't be seeing any serious mound time, if at all.
"He threw a lot and had a long year," Tigers farm director Dave Owen said about Mize. "We want to keep his arm moving, so he's playing catch, but there will be nothing off the mound or any game stuff for Casey. He's doing a lot of agility, our strength and conditioning, things like that, getting acclimated to the staff. We're keeping things going until we finish here."
The Tigers won't really see the real Mize in action until 2019 as a result after he threw 13 2/3 innings in the Minors this summer, mostly in the Class A Advanced Florida State League. That concerns no one -- it's typical for a college ace like Mize was at Auburn to not throw much in this first pro summer -- but the staff already likes what they see in terms of how he goes about his business.
• Tigers instructional league roster and schedule
"The way he carries himself, you can just tell in his routine, he's a structured, focused guy," Owen said. "You can envision what next year will hold when he pitches every fifth day and gets into the mix of the season. He's a professional and knows how to handle himself, how to handle the grind and the process of getting ready."
Smith is in a similar boat after not pitching at all this summer. His path to pro ball is an extraordinary one, adding seven inches (he's now 6-foot-10) and a lot of velocity (he now touches 97 mph after throwing in the low-80s as a freshman) while attending Whitworth University, a small Division III school. His instructs does involve some mound time, but he's mostly shaking off some rust and letting the Tigers staff lay eyes on him.
"He's a big kid, but he's a good-looking athlete," Owen said, having watched a Thursday bullpen session. "We aren't expecting a lot right now, but we're very excited about him. It's going to be fun to get him through instructional league, get his arm moving. [His bullpen] wasn't anything electric or anything like that, but it was a feel-good pen. He was making his pitches and everything was under control. It's something to look forward to for next year."
Of this 2018 trio, Skubal got in the most work this summer, amassing 22 1/3 innings across three levels, including the full-season Midwest League. The left-hander pitched in small stints, but still put up an impressive 33/4 K/BB ratio to go along with a .192 batting average against and 0.40 ERA. He's very much an unpolished product after missing much of the 2016 season and all of the 2017 season because of Tommy John surgery. His 2018 season at Seattle was uneven, especially in terms of command, so the Tigers were thrilled to get him through the summer healthy and largely throwing strikes.
"I got to see him during the season and I'm really glad I did," said Owen, adding that Skubal is going through the same routines as Mize. "He's impressive. I really liked what I saw. A big guy with power, his fastball is plus, at times, he has a good curve, he has a good slider, he'll show you a changeup. It looks like he has the package. He's very composed and looked very confident on the mound."
Meadows and Liniak in lock step
The Tigers didn't just go after pitching in the 2018 Draft. They also got some very interesting, and toolsy, high school outfielders, going above pick value in the second and fourth rounds to get Parker Meadows and Kingston Liniak. The pair were in the Gulf Coast League together and even got a late bump up to the New York-Penn League together this summer. Now they're working out together at instructs, with the Tigers seeing the obvious developmental benefits for them to go through this process in tandem.
"I think it's huge," Owen said. "I think it's a very good part of this, that they are here together. Obviously we're having both in drills together, running around together, getting to know each other better. You've seen it in the past, where guys will develop relationships. They're kind of in the same boat. Maybe they can develop a bond or friendship when they feed off each other and push each other.
"You know they're going to be spending a lot of time together. Sometimes it just happens naturally. If they wind up climbing up together, it sure would be nice to have them both in Detroit together. That's the goal. To have two athletes like that in the big league outfield together, that's a good thing to have."