Position prospects come though for Tigers
Boesch, Avila, Worth show team has depth beyond pitching
DETROIT -- Dave Dombrowski felt his Tigers farm system was close. He couldn't have figured it was close to this.
When the team president/general manager talks with fans at TigerFest each winter, he usually spends a few minutes discussing prospects. He knows the prospect rankings out there, and he knows the well-founded belief that the farm system is all about pitching. Barely 10 minutes into his hour-long session before this season, he was talking about position prospects, and how they fit into the Tigers' plans for the coming years.
"We match up very well," Dombrowski told fans and reporters, "but now we also have some young positional players. ... I know our system hasn't been as [highly] regarded because we traded a lot of guys. I happen to think it's a lot stronger than other people do at this point."
Two months into the season, Detroit has shown more positional talent than nearly everyone would've figured right now. And a Major League team that for several years centered around a proven lineup with veteran hitters has received a serious youth infusion.
With Miguel Cabrera away from the team in Seattle, the Tigers had a rookie batting leadoff in Austin Jackson and another batting fifth in Brennan Boesch. Jackson was the American League's Rookie of the Month in April, and Boesch has a strong case to win it for May.
While fellow rookie Scott Sizemore struggled at second base before being optioned to Triple-A Toledo a week ago, another rookie in slick-fielding Danny Worth has helped fill his spot. Add in Alex Avila and his timeshare at catcher, and the Tigers have rookies garnering at least a share of the time at three of the most important defensive positions up the middle of the field.
For a team that hadn't enjoyed a full-time rookie position player since Curtis Granderson in 2006, and had just Granderson and third baseman Brandon Inge to show as homegrown full-time position players last year, that's a big development. It's also a major departure from the past.
It's not a coincidence. Three factors -- some of them planned, some not -- have played into the spat of Tigers rookie sensations.
The first comes from the front office, and began to emerge with the trades that sent out Granderson and Edwin Jackson over the winter. Though time has shown Detroit wasn't having that much-rumored payroll purge, it was definitely looking for young players, which were received in abundance in return.
"My goal was, if we were going to make those adjustments, to come up with players that could help us win now, that were young, that would set us up for the future," Dombrowski said in January. "And so, when we talked about trading a couple of the guys, Curtis and Edwin, we were in a position where our needs were very specific.
"We needed to get an everyday young center fielder, and also wanted to come up with a young starting pitcher that could go right into our rotation, plus other pieces. And not just ordinary pieces, not just guys that you say are just other names, that these guys were players that we think have a chance to be very good."
That brought in Austin Jackson, whom Tigers officials saw plenty last year with the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. It also brought in Max Scherzer to replace Edwin Jackson, though Scherzer's growing pains have added a detour to Toledo.
If and when Scherzer gets back to Detroit for good, he teams with Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello -- former first-round Draft picks all -- to give the Tigers a front three to their rotation that is still in its 20s and is under contractual control through at least 2014.
Immediately after those trades, Dombrowski discussed a philosophical change at the Winter Meetings. Detroit has had a top-level payroll and some very recognizable names the past three years, but this is a team getting back to developing players rather than simply acquiring them.
"I've always felt that the best clubs in baseball have young players being meshed in with veterans," Dombrowski said. "We kind of got away from that because we were always trying to win right now."
The second factor is Leyland's willingness to give young players a chance. His most important steps to the 2006 American League champions arguably were his decisions to put Verlander and reliever Joel Zumaya on the Opening Day roster, plus bat Granderson leadoff as a rookie. Jumping Porcello from Class A ball to the big leagues last year, in hindsight, made a huge difference in Detroit's chances to contend.
Leyland has said time and again: Given the choice between talent and experience, he'll go with talent and beat you every time. He earned his reputation for handling veteran stars from the 1997 Marlins, but he was also the manager for a slew of prospects on the Marlins in '96, '97 and '98. He also managed Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Doug Drabek, John Smiley and many other Pirates as rookies.
"It's exciting breaking in a young player," Leyland said earlier this season. "I like that. And I have no problem breaking in young players. I was in the Minor Leagues a long time. I know what that's like."
From Spring Training on, Leyland emphasized the Tigers would ride the ups and downs of their rookies, especially Jackson and Sizemore in regular roles. When Boesch pounded the ball upon arrival in late April, Leyland kept saying he wanted his slugger to stay aggressive, that he didn't want Boesch getting defensive at the plate for fear of striking out. When Boesch kept hitting, Leyland tinkered his lineup to get him an everyday role. Carlos Guillen's move to second base reinforces that.
The final factor is the talent itself from a farm system that hasn't produced many Major League position players. The Tigers earned their reputation for stockpiling young pitching by the way they drafted. Detroit has used its top picks on only one position player since 2003, and that player -- Cameron Maybin -- went to Florida in the Cabrera trade. Maybin was also the only top-ranked position prospect the Tigers have had in quite a while.
Yet quietly, they've looked for talent after the opening round. Detroit selected Boesch , fellow slugging prospect Ryan Strieby and Sizemore in the third, fourth and fifth rounds in 2006, all out of college. The Tigers paid good money to sign Jeff Larish a year earlier following a stellar career at Arizona State, and they did the same with Worth and shortstop Cale Iorg in 2007.
Detroit took a chance last summer to draft Daniel Fields, who was committed to play at Michigan, and signed him with a huge bonus. Fields could be its top prospect if not for highly touted hurlers Jacob Turner and Casey Crosby.
Worth is making a case as a defensive infielder. If Strieby can remain healthy, he could be the next Tigers position prospect called up later this year if they need another power bat. Otherwise, the converted first baseman could eventually slot into a corner outfield spot in the next couple years.
Add it all together, and the Tigers have found a different way to win this year. If things work out, it could at least give them a chance to win well past that.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.