Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the season ahead. Some are competing for jobs in big league camps, others are prepping for the season as they vie for spots at Minor League affiliates up and down a team's system. MLBPipeline.com is visiting all 30 camps this spring. Today, we check in on the Detroit Tigers.
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The past two years have seen the Detroit Tigers steadily add youth to what has been an aging starting rotation, acquiring Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris in separate deals in July 2015 and then signing free agent Jordan Zimmermann, 29 at the time, in November 2015.
During that time, the Tigers also have been targeting pitching through the Draft and international signings, and in particular young, high-ceiling arms. As a result of their efforts, the Tigers enter the 2017 with 20 pitchers ranked in their Top 30 Prospects list -- including four in the top five -- giving the organization a strong foundation for developing potential rotation pieces in the years to come.
At the top of that list is none other than Matt Manning, the club's first-round Draft pick (No. 9 overall) and MLBPipeline.com's No. 74 overall prospect for 2017. He's followed by fellow right-hander and former Tigers top Draft pick (second round in '15) Beau Burrows, who checks in as Detroit's No. 3 prospect.
While it's still very early in spring camp, especially on the Minor League side, both hurlers have impressed Tigers director of player development Dave Owen.
"It's only been a couple intrasquad games, but they both have looked very good," he said. "For high school guys, Matt and Beau have very high baseball IQs. They have a good feel for who they are and what they want to be and the direction they want to go. They just carry themselves very well."
Manning's potential was on display last season during his pro debut in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, where he posted a 3.99 ERA and a 46-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 29 1/3 innings while making 10 starts (though none longer than three innings). The performance was especially encouraging considering Manning's focus had been divided between baseball and basketball -- he's the son of former NBA player Rich Manning -- as an amateur. Burrows, meanwhile, is participating in his second Minor League camp after a solid full-season debut at West Michigan that saw him pitch to a 3.15 ERA while logging 97 innings and making 20 starts.
"With Matt, there's a little bit more of a canvas, a little bit more room to get up and running, given his background as a baseball-basketball guy," said Owen about the 6-foot-6 right-hander, "whereas Beau was more baseball-oriented when we drafted him. Two very intelligent guys that we think have a chance to be very good."
As for what lies ahead for the two right-handers, Owens emphasizes the importance of not rushing their development.
"With both of them being younger guys," he said, "we want them to focus on their secondary pitches and being consistent with their release point and deliveries. When you get to the big league side [of camp], those hitters and coaches are going to pick up on something different in your delivery and you'll tip your pitches. We'll keep those guys on the plan they're on, knowing they'll be some bumps along the way."
The Tigers added right-hander Sandy Baez to their 40-man roster in November to avoid him being selected in the December Rule 5 Draft. He spent his entire 2016 full-season debut in West Michigan's starting rotation, recording a 3.81 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 113 1/3 innings (21 starts). This spring, the 23-year-old right-hander is opening eyes in big league camp, where he's racked up nine strikeouts and allowed just four hits across five appearances.
"When you talk about work ethic, this guy's got it; he has the intangibles you need to play in the big leagues," said Owen about the Tigers' No. 9 prospect. "Plus he's got a great arm, another power guy, and he's developed a 'fosh,' giving him three good pitches.
"That he's still over there in big league camp is great for him," he continued. "I love having him over there getting that feel for what it's like to be a big leaguer. We really expect some good things from him."
The Tigers had high hopes for center fielder Derek Hill when they selected him with the No. 23 pick in the 2014 Draft. After a slow start to his pro career that included a hamstring injury in 2015, the Tigers' No. 8 prospect was showing signs of turning the corner in earnest during his second tour of the Midwest League last year, only to have an elbow injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery derail his season in August. Overall it was an encouraging campaign for the 21-year-old, as he batted .266/.312/.349 with 24 extra-base hits and 35 steals before landing on the disabled list.
Though Hill will continue his rehab for much of the first half this season, Owen, who raves about Hill's physical shape this spring, believes the former first-rounder should be in a position to pick up where he left off once he returns to the field.
"Derek was just getting some traction last year when he got hurt," he said, "so we're expecting him to hit the ground running this year when he gets back. I don't have a specific date for that, but it should be sometime around the end of June -- enough time for him to play a good chunk of the season."
Owen and the Tigers also foresee a potential breakout performance from Jose Azocar, who split time with Hill in center field last season at West Michigan, hitting .281/.315/.335 in 129 games.
"Man, does this guy have some tools, especially run and throw," said Owen. "He's not a real big guy, per se, but he's got the body to get a lot stronger, and he already can really play the outfield. Both him and Derek are very good young players that we like a lot."
Mike Rosenbaum is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GoldenSombrero. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.