Man, those prospect questions dried up this week.
What has impressed me about doing this mailbag over the past couple of months has been the level of interest on Tigers prospects and the farm system in general, and the level of understanding about a rebuilding team. With Detroit coming off a rough week, however, the questions have turned more towards the big league club, and guys who could help it soon. It’s a reminder that while fans get what a rebuild entails, they still have an expectation for this team to compete.
The next couple of weeks should test that, starting Tuesday with a three-game home series against a Marlins club that has the worst record in the Majors, but just swept the Mets. Then the Tigers visit the Mets, Orioles and Braves. Only Atlanta sits over .500 among the bunch. A good stretch should regenerate some confidence in the clubhouse. Continued struggles will put this swing in another perspective.
Anyway, on to the questions (and yes, I did write this at Atomic Coffee, which A’s pitcher Mike Fiers mentioned Friday among his favorite places during his brief Tiger tenure) …
Six guys in the lineup are at or under the Mendoza Line, and another was sent back to Triple-A Toledo this week, yet club officials say the rebuild is on track. ... Really?
-- Robert S.
At this point, the performance of the Major League club is not a good barometer of whether the rebuild is on track, mainly because so few of the prospects the Tigers expect to build around are in the big leagues yet. That’s especially true on the position side. Jeimer Candelario’s demotion to Triple-A Toledo is a setback for sure, because he’s seen as a potential long-term piece, and he has drawn some concern about regression from a few scouts who have watched him this season. Christin Stewart is also struggling in his first full Major League season, going 4-for-33 with 10 strikeouts since his return from the injured list. Dawel Lugo is 2-for-12 since being called up to fill Candelario’s spot.
The other sub-.200 hitters are in varying situations. Josh Harrison is a veteran on a one-year contract. Grayson Greiner and JaCoby Jones are youngsters who could potentially be long-term pieces, but with prospects at their respective positions in Toledo (Jake Rogers at catcher and Daz Cameron in center), Greiner and Jones are going to have to compete to hold onto their spots. It’s a rough road in the short term, but it doesn’t say much about the rebuild at large.
Assuming there's no improvement, when do the Tigers give up on Harrison and Jones?
-- David B.
If the Candelario move was a sign that the Tigers have only so much patience for struggles and miscues among its young players, especially when hitting woes carry into the field, then Jones is at risk of falling into the same category. His offensive struggles have been well-documented, though his 6-for-26 performance over the last eight games looks like progress. Those woes hadn’t seeped into his defense until he committed two errors over his last nine games, both while charging balls when there really wasn’t a play. That can’t happen, because Jones’ stellar defense is the reason the Tigers have shown so much patience with him at the plate.
Though Cameron is next in line in center, the Tigers will likely give him the bulk of the season in Toledo, much like they did with Stewart last year, to learn lessons, encounter slumps and learn how to fight through them and learn how to deal with scouting reports compiled on him. Cameron hit .195 in April but has been digging his way out of the slow start over the last couple weeks. If Jones’ game takes a turn for the worse that demands a stint in Toledo to reset, Mikie Mahtook could be a stopgap option. He’s batting .303 (27-for-89) with a .963 OPS in Toledo since being outrighted last month.
Harrison’s situation is different, being a veteran on a free-agent deal. While he has struggled mightily early, especially on offense, his clubhouse presence has been a boost for a team going through trying times. The Tigers would almost surely cut ties rather than try to outright Harrison to Toledo, instead letting him try to hook on somewhere else. I think that’s a long way off, not just for patience and respect for Harrison, but because there’s no second baseman of the future ready to step in. Ronny Rodriguez could move over once Jordy Mercer returns, or Niko Goodrum could move back, but neither move would be long term.
Since bringing up Lugo, the Tigers have played him at third base, but he was playing second base in the Minors. Why not play him at second and play Harrison at third to change his focus a bit and maybe help his bat?
-- Michael S., Fort Wayne, Ind.
Lugo moved from second to third early in the season. Though Tigers officials were hoping he could be the second baseman of the future, Lugo's skill set played better at third, the position he played in the Diamondbacks organization before coming over in the J.D. Martinez trade.
Asked Thursday who in the organization made the decision to move Lugo, manager Ron Gardenhire had a good answer.
“Well, he made that decision on the field last year,” Gardenhire said. “Really, that’s how it works. He made that decision by the way he played second base. We put them where they think they can have success and get a chance to get to the big leagues. This is his place, third base.”
Could Willi Castro be in the big leagues by June 1?
-- Cornelius T., Richmond, Va.
Castro, the Tigers' No. 7 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, has been a huge bright spot in Toledo so far, and is looking like a major pickup for the Tigers in the Leonys Martin trade last summer. But while I think Castro has a good chance to be called up by season’s end, I’d be very surprised if he’s here by June 1. If he was that close, he probably would’ve been promoted when Mercer went on the injured list for a second time, or when Rodriguez struggled defensively at short. The Tigers like Mercer’s presence at short and his ability to calm down the infielders around him.
I know there has been talk about the Tigers being interested in James Shields. With the injuries to the rotation, is he still a possibility?
-- Tony D., Detroit, Mich.
While the Tigers watched Shields work out and had some contact, nothing has been serious at last check. Maybe that changes if either Jordan Zimmermann or Tyson Ross are shut down for the season, but for now, the Tigers are inclined to stay in-house or look for opt-out candidates in other organizations who could step in right away. While Shields has been working out, he’d need a couple of starts in Triple-A to get ready for big league hitting.
With all the injuries to the starters, why not make Hardy or Farmer or both a starter again?
-- Keith S., Macomb, Mich.
Blaine Hardy’s left elbow tendinitis, which landed him on the injured list, has all but ruled him out as a starting option, at least for now. He’s back, but he has said it’s not completely gone and might be something he manages this year. The Tigers don’t want to risk stretching him out and aggravating it.
As for Buck Farmer, his time on the starter-reliever carousel appears to be done now that he has found a comfort zone in the bullpen. With a 2.84 Fielding Independent Pitching, 21 strikeouts over 19 2/3 innings, one home run allowed, eight of 11 inherited baserunners stranded, a fastball averaging just under 95 mph and a better swing-and-miss slider, Farmer has been a bright spot in situational work.
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.