If a pitcher joins the Tigers organization, he'd better like speed.
That's not referring to fastball velocity or arm strength, though the organization does love that in its young pitchers. No, from Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello to many of the names on the Top 10 Prospects list below, Tigers pitching prospects typically take a very fast track to the big leagues.
Few have done it faster than Andy Oliver, No. 2 on the Top 10. The 2009 second-round Draft pick made his Major League debut on June 25, 2010, a little more than a year after the Tigers selected him out of Oklahoma State, and only 14 starts -- 11 relief outings in the Arizona Fall League certainly served as a springboard -- into his professional career.
"I went into last season trying to learn as much as I could," said Oliver, who was recently assigned to Triple-A Toledo after throwing five innings and allowing one run in Grapefruit League action. "I didn't know I was going to start in Double-A, and I started in Double-A. I started pitching there, learning everything and, sure enough, I'm pitching in Detroit my first year. It was a great experience for me, I believe. I learned a lot, I know how to handle it now. Going forward, I think it's going to be a great thing for me."
Oliver made five starts for Detroit, with the first two going well (12 innings, four earned runs), and the last three, not so much (10 innings, 14 earned runs). The good news is the young lefty went down to Triple-A and sorted himself out, admitting that he let his surroundings get the better of him.
"Just the distractions," Oliver said. "At the end of the day, it's the same game. Going up there a little early, at first I handled it well, then I started to let other things distract me. Going down, [to be] able to get mentally right again helped me as far as learning. Now I know what I need to do to stay up there."
Even though he's starting the year back in Toledo, there's a very good chance the 23-year-old southpaw, still firmly on that fast track, will see Detroit again soon. Oliver relishes the idea of getting that second chance in the near future, knowing the Tigers typically hang around the top of the AL Central.
"I think that would be a great opportunity, whenever that is," Oliver said. "I'm more than willing to do that. I know [Tigers owner Mike] Illitch does a great job in trying to get a competitive team out there, so I'll be thrilled."
Tigers' Top 10 Prospects
1. Jacob Turner, RHP: The No. 15 prospect on MLB.com's Top 50 list and No. 5 among right-handed pitching prospects), Turner appears to be on the typical Tigers fast track. He pitched at two levels last year and will begin the 2011 season in Double-A, where it's possible he could make the leap to Detroit at some point during the year. He's a much more complete pitcher than he was in high school two years ago, showing tremendous improvement in his secondary stuff and his command.
2. Andy Oliver, LHP: He got a taste last year and that will serve as a motivator in 2011. He threw well in big league camp before being sent down, and he'll be back in Detroit at some point in 2011.
3. Nick Castellanos, 3B: One of the better high school bats in last year's Draft class, Castellanos slid to No. 44 and the Tigers because of signability concerns. Castellanos signed right at the deadline for a sandwich-round record of $3.45 million. Still filling out, he has very good raw power and should hit for average, as well. He's back playing his more comfortable third base and could be an acceptable defender there. He'll hit the Class A Midwest League to start the season.
4. Casey Crosby, LHP: The hope was 2010, another year removed from 2008 Tommy John surgery, would be a huge season for Crosby. Instead, he made just three appearances all year, as elbow issues sidelined him. The good news is he didn't need more surgery. He has the raw stuff to be a frontline starter but hasn't had the mound time to refine it. This season will be a big one for the lefty to show he can stay healthy and start moving up the ladder.
WHEN WILL THEY ARRIVE?
5. Daniel Fields, OF: The Tigers don't shy away from going above slot in the Draft, and they did that with Fields, who went in the sixth round of the 2009 Draft because of his Michigan commitment. He grew up around the game (his dad Bruce coached for the Tigers), so Detroit felt comfortable sending him straight to Lakeland to start the year, and he held his own. He has that power/speed combination potential, and he's making a good transition to center field. Even if Fields repeats at Lakeland, he's still ahead of the curve.
6. Francisco Martinez, 3B: Martinez joined Fields as teenagers playing in the Class A Advanced Florida State League, and the third baseman was up for the challenge. He also wasn't overmatched when sent to the Arizona Fall League. He has raw power that he's yet to tap into during games, but that should come as he matures. He runs well, especially for the position. If Martinez, too, starts back at Lakeland, he could see Double-A Erie at some point in 2011.
7. Drew Smyly, LHP: The Arkansas product signed at the deadline last August, after being taken as a Draft-eligible sophomore in the second round. Smyly is all about command and feel for pitching, with his fastball, cutter, curve and changeup all having the chance to be effective (though the last two need some work). He stepped up as Arkansas' ace last year and responded well to that pressure, so he should do just fine if the Tigers push him aggressively up the ladder.
8. Avisail Garcia, OF: Big and toolsy, Garcia looks like the prototypical right fielder. He runs well and has good range in the outfield, and also has a good arm. He should hit, with some power, as he refines his approach at the plate. Eventually, he could be a 20-20 type offensive player. After two seasons in West Michigan, he's ready to hit Lakeland and won't turn 20 until June.
9. Chance Ruffin, RHP: The son of former big leaguer Bruce, this University of Texas product signed right at the deadline last August after being a sandwich pick. He's a polished college reliever who could move very quickly through the system. He has the arsenal to start, but he could be ready for Detroit in a year -- maybe less -- in the 'pen. That's where he will be when 2011 begins, perhaps in Double-A after a solid showing in the Arizona Fall League.
10. Jose Ortega, RHP: Signed back in July 2006, it took Ortega until last season to make it to full-season ball. Once he did, he was off and running, pitching at three levels and reaching Double-A. He's got power stuff that works well in the back end of a bullpen, though he still has some command issues. If he can address that, he could stay on the fast track to Detroit.
Under the Radar
Andy Dirks, OF: The 2008 eighth-round pick has always impressed with his work ethic and how he plays the game. He's also hit, finishing with a .296/.352/.466 line and reaching Triple-A in 2010. A non-roster invitee to big league camp this spring, he's been raking from the get-go while making a serious case to make the team as a reserve outfielder.
Adam Wilk, LHP: Selected in the 11th round of the 2009 Draft out of Long Beach State, Wilk was a Florida State League All-Star in 2010, led the organization with a 2.74 ERA and was MLB.com's choice for the system's Pitcher of the Year. He's definitely made more of a name for himself by beginning his Grapefruit League season with nine scoreless innings.
Hitter of the Year -- Fields
It's hard to know which young, high-ceiling guy to go with here, but the nod goes to Fields, who'll show the second time will be the charm in Lakeland, earning a promotion to Double-A and approaching 20-20 numbers.
Pitcher of the Year -- Turner
His first full season was pretty good; his second will be otherworldly. Look for Turner to go to the Futures Game and establish himself as one of the best pitching prospects in the game.