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Top Ten Prospects: Detroit Tigers
Complete Index of Top 10s

By John Manuel
January 27, 2006

Chat Wrap: John Manuel took your Tigers questions
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, 2006.

The Tigers haven’t had a winning season since 1993.The only members of that team who were active major leaguers in 2005 were Chris Gomez and David Wells.

So it’s understandable if owner Mike Ilitch wants to spend free-agent money to find a short-term fix for his big league. That worked in 2004, when Detroit improved to 72 victories and respectability after establishing an American League record for futility with 119 losses in 2003.

The Tigers didn't make further progress in 2005, however, winning just 71 times as they couldn't keep key players such as Carlos Guillen and free-agent signees Magglio Ordonez and Troy Percival healthy. After a smashing Detroit debut in 2004, catcher Ivan Rodriguez slumped badly. His 11 walks were part of a team-wide problem, as the Tigers drew just 384 free passes, the lowest total in the majors since 2002, and ranked 12th in the AL in on-base percentage.

The stagnant offense, as well as a stagnant clubhouse, cost manager and former club icon Alan Trammell his job after three seasons. For the second time in his career as a general manager, Dave Dombrowski turned to Jim Leyland to manage his high-payroll team. While the Tigers perhaps have lower expectations than the 1997 Marlins—a winning season would be a good start—they have the kind of veteran talent Leyland is accustomed to working with. He did cause a stir at his introductory press conference when he said he wasn’t too familiar with Detroit's roster, but familiarity didn’t help Trammell and the Tigers win.

A poor season had some bright spots, and many of them were provided by a rebounding farm system. Chris Shelton, whom the Pirates somehow left unprotected in the 2003 Rule 5 draft, was Detroit's most consistent hitter and a much-needed potent righthanded bat. Outfielder Curtis Granderson, last year’s No. 1 prospect, got a chance at consistent playing time and seized it, slugging eight home runs in 162 at-bats and playing a competent center field.

The Tigers, who entered 2005 slotted 29th in Baseball America’s farm-system rankings, had their best year in the minors since winning BA's Organization of the Year award in 1997. The only real downers were injuries and poor performances by top draft picks Kyle Sleeth (third overall pick, 2003), who had Tommy John surgery, and Eric Beattie (second round, 2004), who has major control problems.

The organization’s affectation for hard throwers finally paid off as Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya had breakout seasons. Verlander, the No. 2 overall pick in 2004, took off after the Tigers altered his delivery slightly, started the Futures Game at Comerica Park and pitched in the big leagues three months into his pro career. Zumaya reached Triple-A as a 20-year-old and helped Toledo win the International League championship.

Verlander began the year at high Class A Lakeland, and even though he spent barely half a season there, Lakeland still piled up 85 wins to lead the minor leagues. In fact, the Tigers topped all organizations in minor league winning percentage at .555.

Now the Tigers' hope is that, with Leyland’s help, they can bring some of that winning feeling back to Detroit. In Ilitch's 13 full seasons as owner, his club hasn't climbed back over .500 since his first. The Tigers also haven't made the playoffs since 1987, a streak exceeded by only the Royals in the AL.

1. JUSTIN VERLANDER, rhp      Born: February 20, 1983 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-5 Wt: 200
Drafted: Old Dominion, 2004 (1st round)   Signed by: Bill Buck

Background: Verlander was considered a possible top-five-round talent out of high school, but his commitment to Old Dominion, strong grades and raw arm prompted him to pass through the 2001 draft untouched, much to his disappointment. He went to Old Dominion and became the No. 1 starter instantly. While his college career included several highs, such as pitching for Team USA in 2003 and setting school and Colonial Athletic Association strikeout records, he posted a modest 21-18 record and all three Monarchs teams he played for posted losing records. The Padres considered Verlander with the No. 1 overall pick in 2004 but he wasn’t in their final trio of choices, leaving him available for the Tigers at No. 2. Negotiations broke off in October before his father stepped in, called the Tigers and got the contract settled. Verlander signed for a $3.12 million bonus and $4.5 million guaranteed major league contract. His late signing delayed his pro debut until 2005, when he was spectacular. Verlander led the minors in ERA (giving up only one run in 33 innings at Double-A Erie), started the Futures Game in Comerica Park and made his major league debut at Jacobs Field on Independence Day.

Strengths: Verlander has one of the best arms in the minors and features both the best fastball and curveball in the organization. Tall, lithe and athletic, he generates tremendous arm speed that gives him an electric fastball with both above-average velocity and life. His heater sits at 93-96 mph and touches 99. He commanded his fastball--and all of his pitches, for that matter--much better as a pro than he had in college. Most scouts had noticed that as an amateur, Verlander landed on a stiff front leg, cutting off his follow-through and leading to a tendency to leave his pitches up in the strike zone. The Tigers deemed this flaw correctable, but what impressed them most was how quickly Verlander took to his new delivery. He rarely if ever reverted to his old form. Verlander’s curveball is a true knee-buckler, a power breaker with excellent depth and late bite down in the zone. He has excellent arm speed on his late-moving changeup, which also improved with his new delivery and ranks among the best in the organization.

Weaknesses: Stuff-wise, Verlander has none. His changeup helped him shackle lefthanded hitters in the minors (.175 average, no homers in 171 at-bats). He didn’t have that kind of success in his first two big league starts against the Indians and Twins, as lefties went 10-for-30 against him and drew four walks. The Tigers attribute much of that to nerves and inexperience, though. Verlander did recover from a three-run first inning in his first big league game to later retire 12 of 13 batters. As an amateur, he had the reputation of responding to adversity by trying to throw harder, and opponents thought he could be easily rattled. Neither was evident in his first pro season, however.

The Future: The Tigers already have one power righty in their big league rotation in Jeremy Bonderman, who is just four months older than Verlander. He should join Bonderman in the rotation in 2006, if not out of spring training then shortly thereafter. If Verlander learns the nuances of pitching to go with his electric stuff, he could supplant Bonderman as Detroit’s No. 1 starter.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Lakeland (Hi A) 9 2 1.67 13 13 2 0 86 70 3 19 104 .230
Erie (AA) 2 0 0.28 7 7 0 0 33 11 1 7 32 .103
Detroit 0 2 7.15 2 2 0 0 11 15 1 5 7 .313

2. JOEL ZUMAYA, rhp        Born: November 9, 1984 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-3 Wt: 215
Drafted: HS—Chula Vista, Calif., 2002 (11th round)   Signed by: Rob Wilfong

Background: Zumaya has added 25 pounds to his frame since high school, when he threw in the upper 80s with a delivery charitably described as raw. Through his added strength and refined mechanics, he has become one of the minors’ hardest throwers, regularly touching 100 mph.

Scouts in and out of the organization no longer describe Zumaya’s delivery as maximum-effort. Now they use the term strong. More under control than ever, Zumaya unleashes a plus-plus fastball and much-improved changeup with similar arm speed, helping him rank second in the minors in strikeouts and opponent average. His curveball also is a plus pitch with serious depth and low-80s velocity.


Some scouts still believe Zumaya’s delivery will preclude him from holding up as a starter and require a shift to the bullpen. He missed two starts with back pain in 2005. His curve can flatten out, as he tends to drop his elbow.


The Future:
Zumaya is starting to believe he can dominate better hitters, and his improved changeup and less-violent mechanics give him a chance not just to start but to be a frontline starter. He’ll compete with Justin Verlander for an opening in the 2006 rotation.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Erie (AA) 8 3 2.77 18 18 0 0 107 71 8 52 143 .187
Toledo (AAA) 1 2 2.66 8 8 1 0 44 30 2 24 56 .194

3. CAMERON MAYBIN, of    Born: April 4, 1987 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-3 Wt: 195
Drafted: HS—Arden, N.C. (1st round)  Signed by: Bill Buck

Background: Maybin has been around the pro game since his early teenage days, when he served as a batboy for the Class A Asheville Tourists, his local team. He was Baseball America’s Youth Player of the Year in 2004 after leading the Midland Redskins to the Connie Mack World Series title. Negotiations with the Tigers were difficult, but he signed for $2.65 million in time to go to instructional league. His cousin Rashad McCants was a first-round NBA draft pick after helping North Carolina win the national championship last spring.

Maybin does it all and invites comparisons to players such as Joe Carter and Andre Dawson for his game and physique. He’s a graceful runner and defender, and nearly can match Dawson’s arm strength. Maybin has wicked raw power and launched a 450-blast that was the talk of instructional league. He fit right in with his new teammates, reinforcing the organization’s belief in his quality makeup.


He didn’t face the toughest high school competition, so there were concerns that Maybin's bat might lag behind his other tools. He started to put those to rest in instructional league, where he showed the ability to make quick adjustments and use the whole field. He had hamstring issues that slowed him late in camp, but they aren't a long-term concern.


The Future:
The Tigers like Maybin even more after seeing him in instructional league. If his spring performance matches what he showed in the fall, he’ll easily make the low Class A West Michigan roster and could move faster than initially expected.

2005 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS
Did Not Play-Signed 2006 Contract

4. BRENT CLEVLEN, of        Born: October 27, 1983 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-2 Wt: 190
Drafted: HS—Cedar Park, Texas, 2002 (2nd round)   Signed by: Tim Grieve

Background: After playing well in his first full season, Clevlen struggled for most of 2004, never finding a groove in high Class A. He repeated the level in 2005, however, and rarely slumped on his way to the Florida State League MVP award while helping Lakeland post the best record in the minors.

Clevlen learned how to grind out a season and avoid protracted slumps, allowing his confidence to remain high and his tools to come out. He fits the profile for a big league right fielder. He's athletic, has above-average power potential, runs a tick above-average and has a plus throwing arm.


During his cataclysmic 2004 season, Clevlen pressed when good at-bats didn't yield good results. He needs to remember to let the game come to him. He can get pull-conscious, though like most hitters, he's best when he uses the whole field.


The Future:
If Clevlen makes consistent contact like he did last season, the next league he'll repeat is the American. The Tigers already are paying their right fielder (Magglio Ordonez) handsomely, so they won't rush Clevlen. He'll spend 2006 in Double-A and projects to become a full-time big leaguer in 2008.

2005 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS
Lakeland (Hi A) .302 .387 .484 494 77 149 28 4 18 102 65 118 14 5

5. WILKIN RAMIREZ, 3b        Born: October 25, 1985 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-2 Wt: 190
Signed: Dominican Republic, 2003   Signed by: Ramon Pena

Background: After an intriguing debut in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2003, Ramirez missed the entire 2004 season after right shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum. He returned to play his first full season last year, though he spent the majority of his time playing DH in deference to his defense and his shoulder.

Until Cameron Maybin signed, Ramirez was the closest thing the Tigers had to a five-tool player. He has the most raw power in the organization, able to drive the ball out of any part of virtually any park thanks to excellent bat speed. His arm strength has returned to above-average, and he's one of the organization's better runners.


Ramirez has good hands, enough range and plenty of arm to play third base, but his rust and poor footwork led to 26 errors in just 57 games there. The Tigers aren't in a hurry to move him, and he's athletic enough for an outfield corner if needed. His lack of plate discipline and a consistent approach resulted in him leading the low Class A Midwest League in strikeouts last season.


The Future:
Ramirez should start 2006 in high Class A. If the Tigers think his bat is ready for an early promotion, don't be surprised if a position switch follows soon thereafter.

2005 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS
West Michigan (Lo A) .262 .317 .410 493 69 129 21 2 16 65 35 143 21 8

6. HUMBERTO SANCHEZ, rhp    Born: May 28, 1983 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-6 Wt: 230
Drafted: Connors State (Okla.) JC, D/F 2001 (31st round)   Signed by: Rob Guzik/Buddy Paine

Background: Born in the Dominican Republic, Sanchez moved to New York City when he was 10. The Tigers drafted him out of a New York junior college in 2001, and he signed for $1 million as a draft-and-follow after facing better competition at Connors State (Okla.) JC. He missed the first two months of the 2005 season with muscle spasms and an oblique strain, as well as most of August with a groin injury, but he finished strong as one of the top starters in the Arizona Fall League.

At his best, Sanchez has stuff just a shade behind Verlander's and Zumaya's. Sanchez' fastball often sits at 93-95 mph. His low-80s curveball is a plus pitch with excellent depth. He uses his size for power, to intimidate hitters and to keep his stuff down in the zone.


Sanchez can get out of sync with his mechanics, which contributed to his early injury problems and to the fact that he was never quite right all year. He needs to keep himself in better shape and repeat his delivery more consistently. His changeup is just fair.


The Future:
If Sanchez puts it all together, his big fastball and power should make him a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. He also could be a factor in the Detroit bullpen fairly soon if needed. He'll return to the Double-A rotation to begin 2006.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Erie (AA) 3 5 5.57 15 11 0 0 65 72 10 27 65 .283

7. JORDAN TATA, rhp      Born: September 20, 1981 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-6 Wt: 220
Drafted: Sam Houston State, 2003 (16th round)  Signed by: Tim Grieve

Background: A two-way player at Sam Houston State, where he also played the outfield, Tata first opened the Tigers' eyes when he touched 93 mph in his first instructional league in 2003. He flew under the radar on West Michigan's 2004 championship club, before breaking out as the Florida State League's 2005 pitcher of the year.

Tata has good size and good arm speed, giving him an above-average 90-93 mph fastball with excellent sink. He complements it with a cut fastball that he throws just as hard as his fastball, and one club official said he saw Tata throwing 94-mph cutters late in the year. He can pitch to all four quadrants of the strike zone using his fastball and cutter 90 percent of the time. Cleaner mechanics gave him much better control last year than he had in the past.


At 24, Tata has yet to pitch above Class A. His slurvy curveball lags behind his other offerings, but when he throws it for strikes, it’s usually an effective change of pace.


The Future:
Tata’s breakout year was rewarded with a spot on the 40-man roster. The organization’s faith in his sinking and cutting fastballs will be tested when he takes his first spin through Double-A this year.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Lakeland (Hi A) 13 2 2.79 25 25 2 0 155 138 12 41 134 .239

8. TONY GIARRATANO, ss    Born: November 29, 1982 B-T: B-R Ht: 6-0 Wt: 180
Drafted: Tulane, 2003 (3rd round)   Signed by: Steve Taylor

Background: Injuries hit Giarratano again last season, short-circuiting a campaign that saw him get his first big league promotion in early June when Carlos Guillen went down with a pulled hamstring. Giarratano went out with a sports hernia in August, and he was limited to rehabilitation work in Lakeland during instructional league in the fall.

When he's healthy, Giarratano grades out as above-average in four tools. He has a quick bat and covers the strike zone with a compact stroke, spraying line drives from pole to pole. He's a plus defender thanks to his range and strong, accurate arm. He also runs well.


Giarratano needs to get stronger to keep from getting the bat knocked out of his hands by quality inside fastballs. He figures to never hit for much power anyway. Injuries have affected him three of the last four years going back to his sophomore year at Tulane, including postseason shoulder surgery in 2004, so his durability is a major concern.


The Future:
His 2005 callup shows what the Tigers think of Giarratano's defense. For his offense to keep him in the majors, he'll need to stay healthy and get more at-bats. His spring performance will determine if he returns to Double-A Erie or graduates to Triple-A Toledo this year.

2005 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS
Erie (AA) .266 .334 .373 346 40 92 22 3 3 32 32 75 12 5
Detroit .143 .234 .214 42 4 6 0 0 1 4 5 7 1 0

9. JEFF LARISH, 1b       Born: October 11, 1982 B-T: L-R Ht: 6-2 Wt: 200
Drafted: Arizona State, 2005 (5th round)   Signed by: Brian Reid

Background: After an All-America season in 2003, Larish slumped as a junior in 2004 because of a wrist injury. He spurned a $650,000 offer from the Dodgers as a 13th-round pick and returned for his senior season, leading Arizona State to its first College World Series trip since 1998. He tied a CWS record with a three-homer game against Nebraska and hit six in 24 pro games after signing for $220,000.

Larish generates big-time power with a swing that has excellent leverage, allowing him to drive balls to any part of the park. He has shown the ability to catch up to good fastballs when healthy. He has a determined approach that allows him to wait pitchers out, seeking a pitch he can drive. The Tigers rave about his work ethic after seeing him in instructional league. He has more athleticism and arm strength than most first basemen.


When he struggled in 2004, Larish’s swing was called mechanical by scouts, and it can get long. It’s not a textbook stroke, but Larish has been effective with it. A long swing and patient approach will translate to plenty of strikeouts.


The Future:
It’s easy to live with lots of whiffs if a hitter mashes like Larish can. He’s set to join the fast track as a college senior with an advanced approach, starting 2006 in high Class A.

2005 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS
GCL Tigers (R) .222 .375 .278 18 1 4 1 0 0 4 4 5 0 1
Oneonta (SS) .297 .430 .625 64 16 19 3 0 6 13 13 6 0 0

10. KEVIN WHELAN, rhp     Born: January 9, 1984 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-0 Wt: 200
Drafted: Texas A&M, 2005 (4th round)    Signed by: Tim Grieve

Background: Whelan took control of his career in the Jayhawk League in 2003, asking his coach to move from catcher to pitcher, but had to move back behind the plate at Texas A&M due to injuries to the Aggies’ other backstops. He exploded as a pitching prospect in the Cape Cod League in 2004 with a 0.42 ERA and a league-best 11 saves. He finally became a full-time pitcher in 2005, signed for $265,000 as a fourth-round pick and had a sterling pro debut.

Whelan has classic closer stuff. His four-seam fastball tops out at 96 mph, and his two-seamer has wicked sink. When he widens his grip on the two-seamer, it morphs into a mid-80s splitter that buries hitters. His delivery has some deception as well, complicating matters for hitters even more. He’s a dogged competitor.


Just 6 feet tall, Whelan has to make sure he maintains his over-the-top delivery to keep his fastball from flattening out. He generally succeeds. He continues to pick up pitching nuances as he gains experience on the mound.


The Future:
Whelan hasn’t yet to pitch above low Class A, but few in the organization will be shocked if he reaches Detroit in a set-up role this year. With no defined closer in Detroit, he could step forward and seize the role by 2007.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Oneonta (SS) 1 1 2.25 11 0 0 4 12 2 1 6 19 .051
West Michigan (Lo A) 0 0 0.73 14 0 0 11 12 4 0 2 22 .098

Photo Credits:
Zumaya: Rich Abel
Maybin: Tony Farlow
Verlander: Mike Janes
Clevlen, Ramirez: Steve Moore
Sanchez: Kevin Pataky

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