DETROIT -- The Tigers' rebuild has reached the point where the farm system is producing contributors at the Major League level.
The future of the rotation has arrived with Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning, but for the first time in years, Detroit’s bullpen is built around effective homegrown pieces, from closer Gregory Soto to Kyle Funkhouser and Jason Foley. Alex Lange, a former Cubs first-round pick acquired in the Nick Castellanos trade, is likely to join them.
Offensively, Derek Hill jumped forward in a year, transitioning from a former first-round pick with an uncertain future to a potential centerpiece of the Tigers’ outfield. Jake Rogers appeared to be on his way to a similar ascension at catcher before undergoing surgery that will cost him most of all of 2022. Top prospects Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson are close enough that the Tigers can plan their offseason moves around both of them making it to Detroit at some point next year, probably sooner than later.
This is why the Tigers went through some miserable years, so they could build a young core before adding free agents and trades to complement them. But beyond the highly rated prospects and top picks, the key test for a farm system is how many other contributors it can produce. Skubal was one, having risen from ninth-round Draft pick to key starter. More are hopefully on the way.
Here’s a look what else is coming from the Tigers' system, including from players you might have heard little about:
Three players who forced their way onto the radar
1. Ryan Kreidler, SS: The Tigers drafted Kreidler in the fourth round of the 2019 Draft believing the UCLA shortstop had the defense to play in the big leagues. This year showed his potential to be an all-around impact player. His surprising Spring Training pushed him to Double-A Erie, where he more than held his own betting behind Greene and showed solid power to back up his defensive strengths. A strong finish at Triple-A Toledo earned him a spot in the Arizona Fall League and likely an entirely different outlook on next Spring Training. If the Tigers somehow don’t acquire a shortstop this offseason, Kreidler could make a run for a shot at some point next year.
2. Beau Brieske, RHP: The Tigers’ 27th-round pick in the 2019 Draft was a relative unknown who pitched at Division II Colorado State-Pueblo. By the end of this season, his 9-4 record, 3.12 ERA and 5.04 strikeout-to-walk ratio between Erie and High-A West Michigan earned him Tigers Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors and landed him at No. 27 in the Tigers' prospect rankings as perhaps the Tigers’ next sneaky pitching prospect. He’s not a hard thrower, but he changes speeds effectively and thrives on his ability to locate his pitches.
3. Angel De Jesus, RHP: At 6 feet 4 inches, De Jesus has the body frame and power fastball that gets your attention when he takes the mound. Last year’s lost Minor League season cost him a chance to follow up on a 12.5 K/9 rate he posted in A-ball in 2019. He made up for it this year with 80 strikeouts and just 38 hits allowed over 64 2/3 innings between Erie and Toledo. De Jesus’ 32 walks over 51 1/3 innings with the Mud Hens are a concern, but with an upper-90s fastball and a deceptive delivery, he could be the Tigers’ next homegrown reliever.
Two breakout players to watch in 2022
1. Colt Keith, 3B: The Tigers felt like they’d acquired a top prospect when they landed Keith in the fifth round of the pandemic-shortened 2020 Draft and signed him away from a college commitment to Arizona State. Still, he was a teenager adjusting to pro ball in 2021. He quickly graduated from rookie ball, adjusted from a slow start to bat .320 at Low-A Lakeland and ended the season at West Michigan.
His plate discipline was advanced for his age with 41 walks in 270 plate appearances, though he struggled against High-A hitters near the end. If he can maintain that while growing into his power potential that drew high marks in high school -- he homered just twice this season -- watch out.
2. Reese Olson, RHP: Al Avila’s trade returns as general manager have been scrutinized plenty, but getting Olson from the Brewers for lefty reliever Daniel Norris was a surprising return, even for a GM who has arguably done better with smaller deals than bigger ones.
The former 13th-round pick turned 22 on the day he was traded, but quickly graduated from High-A ball to Erie, where he had mixed results over four starts before ending his season with six innings of one-hit ball and eight strikeouts. His command has to improve, especially since he doesn’t overpower hitters, but his 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings reflect a solid pitch mix.
One big question: Can the Tigers create depth in their system?
The one lingering criticism of the Tigers' system the last few years has been that it was top-heavy, without many projectable big leaguers beyond their top picks. Detroit has tried to address that through scouting and analytics in an effort to find more diamonds in the rough.
Now the organization is hoping new vice president of player development Ryan Garko can spearhead a system that maximizes talent from prospects beyond the top tier. That might be critical in the years ahead. The big-name pitching prospects have graduated, and Torkelson and Greene likely will reach Detroit next year. If the Tigers become contenders as hoped, their days of picking in the top half of the first round are over.