Motown’s up-the-middle talent

Following Rick Porcello‘s big league promotion, the Detroit Tigers’ farm system is considered rather fallow by prospect evaluators. Baseball America has the Tigers ranked 26th in the publication’s annual talent rankings, and ESPN’s Keith Law places the club 17th in his organizational rankings.

But with Curtis Granderson in the Bronx, Placido Polanco patrolling the hot corner in Philadelphia and Gerald Laird eligible for free agency following the 2010 season, the Tigers are in the process of breaking in a new trio of up-the-middle position players. What can we expect from second baseman Scott Sizemore, center fielder Austin Jackson and catcher Alex Avila? Here’s a brief look at Detroit’s new starters at the keystone spot and in the middle garden, as well as the team’s catcher-of-the-near future.

Scott Sizemore
Age: 25
B/T: R/R
Baseball America organizational ranking (within Tigers system): 10th
Keith Law organizational ranking (within Tigers system): 4th
-Just missed Law’s Top 100 prospects (listed at number 107)

Selected out of Virginia Commonwealth in the fifth round of the 2006 draft, Sizemore has authored a career .296/.383/.441 minor league line. The 6-foot, 185 pound second baseman has drawn a walk in 11.4 percent of his plate appearances, punching out in 16.9 percent of his at-bats and posting a .145 Isolated Power. Sizemore didn’t display much pop during his first three seasons in pro ball, but he hit .308/.389/.500 between Double-A and Triple-A last season. Though his speed is considered just average, he managed to swipe 21 bases in 25 attempts as well.

Considering his age and just adequate defensive scouting reports, Sizemore looks more like a decent, cost-controlled regular than any sort of standout talent. BA called his range “fringy,” and Law wondered how Sizemore’s broken ankle (suffered on a double-play attempt in the Arizona Fall League) would affect his lateral agility early on during the 2010 season. Sean Smith’s CHONE projects Sizemore to bat .255/.323/.389 next year (92 wRC+), with -1 run defense at second.

Austin Jackson
Age: 23
B/T: R/R
Baseball America organizational ranking (within Tigers system): 3rd
Keith Law organizational ranking (within Tigers system): 2nd
-Ranked 76th on BA’s top 100 prospects list
-Ranked 70th on Law’s top 100 prospects list

Picked up along with Max Scherzer, Daniel Schlereth and Phil Coke in a three-team bonanza that landed Granderson in Yankee pinstripes and Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy in Arizona, Jackson’s prospect ceiling has gradually lowered from potential impact player to a solid everyday option.

New York’s eighth-round selection in the 2005 draft, Jackson was persuaded to forego a Georgia Tech basketball scholarship by an over-slot $800,000 signing bonus. His career minor league line stands at .288/.356/.410, with a nine percent walk rate, 23.7 percent strikeout rate and a .122 ISO. An above-average runner, Jackson has been an efficient base stealer on the farm (78 percent success rate).

However, his secondary skills (walks and pop) are lacking. Baseball America projects Jackson to have “average power at best,” and Law remarked, “his contact and walk rates have been dropping as he’s been promoted.” Check out Jackson’s core numbers as he transitioned from Double-A to Triple-A:

Double-A (2008): 9.6 BB%, 21.7 K%, .134 ISO
Triple-A (2009): 7.5 BB%, 24.7 K%, .106 ISO

Jackson is described as swift defender by BA, gliding to balls and possessing a strong arm. Law considers him playable, but “not a top-flight defender yet.” The 6-1, 185 pounder’s minor league TotalZone numbers are all over the map, from excellent to abhorrent.

CHONE figures that Jackson might not be ready for prime time, forecasting him to hit .265/.320/.387 (89 wRC+) while costing the Tigers half a win with the leather. Long-term, Jackson looks like a league-average hitter with passable D and a little value on the bases. That’s not a star package, but average starters making $400K are assets.

Alex Avila
Age: 23
B/T: L/R
Baseball America organizational ranking (within Tigers system): 6th
Keith Law organizational ranking (within Tigers system): 5th

Michigan News - February 20, 2010

Assistant GM Al Avila’s son, Alex Avila is no nepotism pick. The Alabama product was taken in the fifth round of the 2008 draft, considered a bat-first prospect who would likely have to move off of the catching position in short order. Instead, Avila has improved enough defensively for Baseball America to call him agile with solid catch-and-throw skills.

The 5-11, 210 pound backstop followed up a patient, if impotent 2008 season (.305/.383/.385 in the pitcher-friendly Low-A Midwest League, with an 11.1 percent walk rate, 19.2 percent whiff rate and .080 ISO) with a robust Double-A showing and a scorching cup of coffee with Detroit in 2009. In Double-A, Avila batted .264/.365/.450, drawing ball four 13.4 percent, striking out 23.4 percent and posting a .186 ISO. He then had a 151 wRC+ and five round-trippers in 72 big league plate appearances.

In 2010, Avila figures to split time with Laird, a 30 year-old vet with a slack bat (projected 78 wRC+ by CHONE) but defensive chops (CHONE has Laird saving a little more than six runs behind the dish). Avila is projected to hit .242/.320/.390 next year (90 wRC+). That’s not terrible considering the position that he plays, though CHONE is not a fan of his catching skills (he’s projected to cost Detroit more than win with the glove). If Avila can stick at catcher, he could be another adequate, if not awe-inspiring starter making near the major league minimum.

Card Corner Plus: Gene Michael and High Intelligence on 1972 Topps
Three smart players devoted their lives to baseball.

Sizemore, Jackson and Avila don’t appear destined for All-Star appearances and national acclaim. But many teams would gladly take three young, inexpensive, league-average players at premium positions on the diamond.

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Larry Smith Jr.
Larry Smith Jr.

I think the projection systems may be underselling Sizemore.  He’s either hit well or shown great patience at every level, and last year he did both.  It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him in the 105-110 range in wRC+.