Rabelo heads Tigers' Minor League staffing shift

Former Detroit catcher to manage Double-A Erie in 2019

December 13th, 2018

LAS VEGAS -- A dozen years after Mike Rabelo climbed the Tigers' farm system to become a catcher in Detroit, he's on the rise again as a manager. The former Detroit draft pick will take over next season at Double-A Erie, where he'll likely be in charge of a slew of the organization's highly touted pitching prospects.

The promotion was one of a handful of shifts the Tigers announced in their Minor League coaching and instructional ranks on Thursday. Another former Tigers catcher, Brayan Pena, heads to Short-Season Class A Connecticut after winning a Gulf Coast League title this past summer in his first managerial turn. Former Tigers Minor League catcher Andrew Graham returns to Class A Advanced Lakeland, essentially swapping spots with Rabelo after one season in Erie.

"We like Rabelo a lot," Tigers vice president of player development Dave Littlefield said. "He's got an instinctual feel for things, a great relationship with the players, and just continues to get more experience. He's doing a good job.

"They're always very difficult decisions. A lot of people's views go into it, but ultimately we have to decide. I'm responsible for it, and I thought it would be good timing for Mike to have the Double-A job. We're pleased with the work he's done."

Rabelo managed three of the Tigers' top four pitching prospects last year. He has worked with former first-round draft pick Matt Manning for parts of the past two seasons. He'll likely get Manning again next season along with top prospect Casey Mize, Franklin Perez and Alex Faedo. That experience played a factor.

"Certainly part of the thought of players being there is the staff that's going to be with them," Littlefield said.

Here's a look at the staffs at each level:

Triple-A Toledo: Toledo native and former Major League first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz returns to the Mud Hens for a second season. But the big news in the Glass City is the return of longtime Mud Hens slugger and Minor League home-run king Mike Hessman, who takes over as hitting coach after spending this past season in Erie. Former Marlins pitching coach Juan Nieves is the new pitching coach, replacing Jeff Pico after he was promoted to Tigers bullpen coach at midseason. Coach Basilio Cabrera, athletic trainer Chris McDonald and strength/conditioning coach Jeff Mathers also return.

Double-A Erie: Rabelo takes a 281-213 managerial record into his new assignment with the SeaWolves. Longtime Tigers Minor League coach and former Tigers pitcher Mark Johnson follows Rabelo from Lakeland to take over as pitching coach. Brian Harper, last season's Mud Hens hitting coach, joins Erie in the same capacity. Coach Santiago Garrido and athletic trainer T.J. Obergefell return.

Class A Advanced Lakeland: Graham will manage the Flying Tigers for the second time in three seasons. Jorge Cordova takes over as pitching coach, promoted from Class A West Michigan. Hitting coach Tim Garland and coach Francisco Contreras return. Jason Schwartzman jumps from West Michigan to serve as athletic trainer, with Dax Fiore as strength/conditioning coach.

Class A West Michigan: Former Tigers great Lance Parrish returns for a second season with the Whitecaps, following up on his 2018 Midwest League postseason berth. Hitting coach John Vander Wal returns, while Willie Blair joins Parrish's staff after spending the past couple seasons in Erie. Eddie Dennis joins the staff as a coach and Chris Vick returns as athletic trainer.

Class A Short-Season Connecticut: Pena's staff includes pitching coach Carlos Bohorquez and Bill Springman, both promoted from the GCL. Sean McFarland returns as athletic trainer.

"[Pena] did a great job last year," Littlefield said. "We're very pleased to have him. Obviously the winning and the championship is nice."

Gulf Coast League: Gary Cathcart swaps teams with Pena to manage the West Division team. Longtime Tigers bullpen catcher gets his first coaching opportunity as a hitting coach, joining pitching coach Mike Alvarez and athletic trainer Cody Derby. Luis Lopez returns as Tigers East manager, joined by pitching coach Jose Parra, hitting coach Rafael Gil and athletic trainer Erick Flores.

On the instructional side, former Major League infielder and Pirates hitting coach Jeff Branson joins the Tigers as a Minor League hitting coordinator, working with former Tiger Scott Fletcher. Branson replaces longtime Tigers coach and instructor Bruce Fields. A.J. Sager returns as pitching coordinator after filling in as Tigers bullpen coach and Mud Hens pitching coach at different points last season.

Like Nieves, Branson brings Major League playing and coaching experience.

"Obviously we're trying to develop players to get to the Major Leagues and have success, so naturally there's some benefits to having experience with that," Littlefield said. "Those experiences are helpful to help finish off some players, to move them to the Major League level. I'm very pleased with being able to acquire those guys."

Branson's arrival is a noteworthy move toward the organization's hitting philosophy. He spent five seasons with the Pirates before parting ways at season's end. While Pittsburgh placed in the bottom third among Major League clubs in run production and home runs this past season, the Pirates had the fewest strikeouts of any National League team.

The Tigers, with encouragement from manager Ron Gardenhire and his staff, are trying to emphasize hitting for contact and testing defenses.

"We're going to have a meeting with the Major League staff and our Minor League staff at Spring Training and go over some hitting philosophies," general manager Al Avila said before the hire, "and just go over the basic fundamentals -- two-strike approach, putting the ball in play. A lot of that was talked about in our year-end meetings."