Baseball America’s Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player’s long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven’t exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
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As horrible as 2003 got in the major leagues for the Tigers, who barely avoided matching the 1962 Mets� total of 120 defeats, it was nearly as disappointing at the minor league level.
For years, Detroit has banked on its emphasis on player development eventually paying off. But it hasn�t. And based on the performance of players who were considered to be the organization�s top prospects last season, the future doesn�t appear much brighter than the present.
Baseball America initially rated the Tigers� 2001 draft as the best in baseball, but most of the players who showed so much promise then have struggled since. Righthander Kenny Baugh (first round) has had significant shoulder problems. Second baseman Michael Woods (supplemental first) has had two major knee surgeries and hit .205 in high Class A in 2003. Righty Preston Larrison (second) couldn�t handle the jump to Double-A last year. Neither could Jack Hannahan (third), who no longer looks like the club�s third baseman of the future.
Those are far from the only disappointments in the system. Detroit once had high hopes for lefties Tim Kalita and Andy Van Hekken, righthander Matt Wheatland, shortstop Anderson Hernandez and outfielders Neil Jenkins and Nook Logan. All labored through last season, except for Wheatland, who didn�t pitch at all because of a shoulder ailment. He has pitched just 69 innings since the Tigers picked him eighth overall in 2000.
Where other organizations invariably find lightning in a bottle, the Tigers have been struck by it. Typical was the unveiling of Detroit�s much-anticipated double-play combination of Omar Infante and Ramon Santiago in 2003. Both fell so short of expectations, as have former top prospects Brandon Inge and Nate Cornejo, that the Tigers decided to move on this offseason. They signed free agent Fernando Vina and traded Santiago to Seattle for Carlos Guillen.
Detroit clearly lacks impact players. Jeremy Bonderman, acquired from the Athletics in a three-way deal that sent Jeff Weaver to the Yankees, appears to be the only big leaguer with star potential. Carlos Pena and Franklyn German, acquired in the same trade, haven�t shown nearly as much promise.
General manager Dave Dombrowski has tried to compensate by trading veterans for prospects. Two of the best players in the system, lefty Rob Henkel and third baseman Kody Kirkland, came when Detroit unloaded Mark Redman and Randall Simon. The Tigers also carried three major league Rule 5 pitchers in the majors last season: Wil Ledezma, Matt Roney and Chris Spurling. They made three more major league Rule 5 picks in December in first baseman/catcher Chris Shelton, lefty Mike Bumatay and righty Lino Urdaneta. These moves have given the organization improved depth.
Dombrowski�s approach is to move young players with promise to the majors quickly and let the chips fall where they may. In Florida, his last GM post before coming to Detroit, the carry-over from that philosophy paid off in a 2003 World Series championship. Given the Tigers� dismal track record with their prospects, Dombrowski�s current task is much more daunting.
Top Prospect: Kyle Sleeth, rhp
Age: 22 Ht.: 6-5 Wt.: 205 Bats: R Throws: R
Drafted: Wake Forest, 2003 (1st round)
Signed by: Bill Buck
Background: An 18th-round pick by the Orioles out of a Colorado high school in 2000, Sleeth opted to attend Wake Forest instead. He went 31-6 in three seasons, tying an NCAA record by winning 26 consecutive decisions. Sleeth entered 2003 as the top amateur pitching prospect and exited the draft as the first pitcher selected and third overall pick. Scouts considered him better than Bryan Bullington, who went No. 1 overall to the Pirates the year before. Sleeth didn�t sign until August, receiving a $3.35 million bonus. By that time, the Tigers decided that he shouldn�t make his pro debut until 2004. They didn�t want him to work many innings last summer in any case, after watching 2001 first-rounder Kenny Baugh develop shoulder problems shortly after signing. After signing, Sleeth worked out with the major league club and then with Triple-A Toledo. He did pitch during instructional league and was impressive.
Strengths: Sleeth has far and away the highest ceiling among Tigers farmhands. He had one of the best fastballs available in the 2003 draft, both in terms of velocity and life. He usually pitches between 92-94 mph and touches 96. His fastball seems even firmer, however, because of its movement. It bores down and in on righthanders. It�s a heavy ball. Sleeth throws both a power curveball and a low-80s slider. The curveball is the better breaking pitch, as he throws it in the high 70s, and it features a lot of depth and bite. His slider improved last spring, though some scouts say it�s a bit slurvy. His changeup has the potential to be an average major league pitch. Sleeth has a strong, projectable frame and was durable at Wake Forest. He�s quiet and confident. When the Demon Deacons struggled behind him last spring, he remained poised. Though not demonstrative, Sleeth exudes competitiveness.
Weaknesses: To move quickly through the minors and to be effective in the majors, Sleeth will have to be more consistent with each of his pitches. His ability to repeat pitches is still questionable. He sometimes loses his delivery, causing him to throw across his body or leave pitches up in the strike zone. Sleeth also has to decide whether he wants to use three or four pitches. His slider is too similar to his curveball.
The Future: If Sleeth had signed quickly and pitched last summer, he likely would start 2004 at Double-A Erie and be in line to reach Detroit by September. Now the Tigers won�t push him quite that hard, so he�ll probably make his pro debut at high Class A Lakeland. If he enjoys immediate success, the club won�t hesitate to promote him to Double-A, and he still could make it to the majors this year. He has that type of ability and makeup, and Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski won�t hesitate to bring deserving prospects to the majors.