Thursday, May 23, 2013

Checking In on Toledo

Since the beginning of this month, I have spent a great deal of time attending games at Fifth Third Field and following the Tigers' Triple A affiliate in general. It's safe to say that the Mud Hens have struggled this year. They're 15-32, and while their pitching has been solid for the most part, their offense has struggled (though it has started to pick up the pace recently). This post will be similar to my winter ball reports, though not quite as formalized. I'll provide you with my observations on various players that may be of interest to Tigers fans who may not follow the minor leagues that closely (and by the way, if you want to know much more on the Mud Hens, start reading John Wagner's blog). Just for the record, I'm just going in the order that they appear on the Mud Hens' roster page, and instead of listing all their numbers, I'll link to their player page. By the way, if you'd like to see more pictures from Sunday's game, I have an album right here.

Al Alburquerque (RHP): I'm putting him in here for the sake of completeness, but he hasn't thrown a pitch in Triple A yet. He did not arrive in Toledo until Tuesday (according to Jason Beck, he was dealing with a personal issue), and I did observe him working out with the other pitchers that morning, but he didn't pitch in the actual game. I would guess he will pitch tonight (the Mud Hens were off yesterday and are set to begin a four-game series tonight in Gwinnett).

Jose Alvarez (LHP): You may remember this lefty from spring training (or from my winter ball reports). He has been, by far, the Mud Hens' best starting pitcher this season, sporting a 4-2 record to go along with a 1.98 ERA. He has 55 strikeouts against just nine walks, and has not issued more than two walks in any game. Going by performance alone, if the Tigers should need a starting pitcher for more than just a spot start, he's deserved the first shot at the job. However, the 40-man roster is currently full, he's not on it, and the two guys that I considered to be the most likely candidates to be DFA'd (Jose Ortega and Evan Reed) have been in the big leagues (and Ortega is still there, though I don't know how much longer that will last), so I have no idea who is at the bottom of the 40-man pecking order right now.

Casey Crosby (LHP): Crosby was just placed on the disabled list with shoulder soreness. I don't know how long they expect him to be out, but I did see him throwing a bullpen session on Tuesday morning along with Pat Misch, another Hens pitcher who is on the DL. Prior to his landing on the DL, his numbers weren't all that great. He's 1-5 with a 5.30 ERA, and command has been an issue. He's given up 28 walks in 37.1 innings. His best start came on April 21st, when he threw seven shutout innings against Columbus, only walked two, and picked up his only win of the season. His final start before hitting the DL was on May 12th. He lasted only 4.2 innings against Indianapolis and gave up four runs (and usually, in the minor leagues, it's pitch count that knocks you out of a game, not ineffectiveness). On the bright side, he has only given up two home runs this season.

Luis Marte (RHP): I'm including him in this report because I have seen people question why he hasn't been called up, given all the bullpen turnover that's occurred. The reason why he hasn't been called up is because he's only pitched two innings and has been on the disabled list with a shoulder problem since early April. He is not with the team right now (apparently he's down in Florida working with the trainers in Lakeland), and it's unclear when he's coming back.

Evan Reed (RHP): Reed has only made one appearance since being sent back to Toledo after the Tigers' series in Arlington, and it wasn't a good one. It was on Tuesday, the Mud Hens had a 3-1 lead in the eighth inning, and they brought Reed in to pitch the eighth inning, which is not his normal role (They've been giving Brayan Villarreal the eighth inning setup duties, but Bruce Rondon was not available on Tuesday, so they were holding Villarreal back so he could close). He could not throw strikes. A leadoff walk started his trouble, and that was the only walk he gave up (plus there was an error that compounded his problems), but he fell behind every hitter he faced. He did get two outs (one of which scored a run) before being lifted with a runner on in favor of Kenny Faulk for a lefty-lefty matchup. Faulk gave up a 2-run home run that gave Syracuse a 4-3 lead (and then had problems of his own with throwing strikes in the ninth inning, but we'll get to that later). However, this was only one game and so it's pretty hard to see where this is going yet.

Bruce Rondon (RHP): Rondon finally gave up an earned run in his last outing. He took the loss in extra innings against Syracuse on Monday when he issued a leadoff walk to former Tiger Rule 5 pick Jeff Kobernus. Kobernus then stole second and third on consecutive pitches and scored on a sacrifice fly. Other than that, he's converted all his save opportunities and hasn't given up any other runs, but it's hard for me to gauge his progress because he was putting up zeros in Toledo before he got called up and that didn't really seem to help him in the big leagues. From my observations, he's been pretty fastball-heavy. I have seen the slider and changeup occasionally (and I have seen guys swing and miss at them), but most of the time, he uses the heater. My assessment would be that on most nights, he's good, but not dominant. He's only walked six this season, but he does fall behind hitters a lot. He hasn't really paid for that yet, though. The one time I've seen him look dominant was on Sunday, when he got the save with seven pitches, all strikes, and that included two strikeouts. Generally, though, he gives up one baserunner, but gets the job done.

Brayan Villarreal (RHP): Villarreal's done pretty well since being sent to Toledo. The eight walks in thirteen innings doesn't look good on the surface, but consider that most of it comes from two appearances where he walked three. He had two other appearances where he walked one, and five appearances where he didn't walk anyone, so that line is not as bad as it would seem. The positive sign is the 16 strikeouts in 13 innings. His slider has looked really good since joining the Mud Hens, and it's getting lots of swings and misses. I've seen his fastball range from 93-98 MPH, with the majority of fastballs usually around 96 (though the Toledo radar gun tends to be a little slow). Curiously enough, he's not getting many swings and misses with the fastball. The majority of his strikeouts have come with the slider, and when he has struck someone out on a fastball, it's usually a called third strike. His last few outings have been rather fastball-heavy, but that might be by design, because he had an outing last Thursday where he could command his fastball at all (that was one of those aforementioned three-walk games). He did get through 1.2 innings without giving up a run (and stranded two inherited runners, and the Hens had a one-run lead at the time), but he wasn't happy with it. He's made two appearances since then, and has thrown almost entirely fastballs, but he is throwing them for strikes, and perhaps he's focusing on fastball command right now. He hasn't struck out as many in the last few outings, and that might relate to not throwing the slider as much, but hitters have also been putting the ball in play early into the at-bat recently (especially in his last two outings, which were both against Syracuse, a team that seems to have a lot of aggressive hitters). As I said before, the Mud Hens have been trying to use him as the 8th inning setup man, but the problem with that is that the Hens don't have a lead in the 8th inning very often, so they've had to use him in other situations just to get him work. He would have been the closer on Tuesday (something I would very much have liked to see), but as I already stated, Reed and Faulk blew the lead in the 8th inning. He did end up pitching in the 9th inning, but the Hens were losing and Kenny Faulk had lost sight of the strike zone and loaded the bases with nobody out. He only need six pitches (five of them strikes) to get the three outs, but he was unable to prevent Faulk's runners from scoring. That being said, while it's hard to tell exactly what the front office is thinking these days, I would think he should be the next call-up when the Tigers have a need for a reliever (which may be sooner rather than later).

Bryan Holaday (C): I'm going to mention him because of all the talk over Alex Avila's struggles. Holaday has always been known more for his defense than his offense (and he is a VERY good defensive catcher), but he's been swinging a hot bat recently. He's been hitting .389 over his past ten games, and his average currently sits at .286. The one caveat is that he doesn't walk a lot (only two walks in that 10 game stretch), but he also hasn't been striking out very much.

Danny Worth (IF): Worth has not appeared in a game since April 15th and has been on the disabled list with a bone bruise in his heel that he suffered while trying to lunge at the first base bag (This is the same injury that Avisail Garcia suffered in spring training). He is apparently close to coming off the DL (for the record, he is with the team), but he might be sent on a rehab assignment first. He was hitting .156 at the time of the injury.

Quintin Berry (OF): Berry has struggled at the plate all season. His average is currently at .184 and has hovered around there all year. He did miss a few games earlier this month after being hit by a pitch in the elbow. His struggles at the plate haven't caused too much of a decrease in playing time, but who knows what will happen if/when Avisail Garcia returns to Toledo. Interestingly, he began the season wearing uniform number 0 (which is not the first time a player has done that), supposedly because he didn't want to be in the minor leagues long enough to have a number. He's now wearing 2, which is being referred to as "deuce" and not "two" by the Mud Hens' public address announcer.

Nick Castellanos (OF): Castellanos has gotten off to a slow start with the bat in Triple A. His average currently sits at .253, but he has started to swing the bat better in recent days. Over his past ten games, he's hitting .314, and after having somewhat of a power outage (He has five home runs and three of them were hit during a four-game series in Durham), he did hit a monster three-run shot on Tuesday, the first time I've seen him homer. And from my own observations, his outfield defense is getting better. He still sometimes takes odd routes to the ball, but he generally catches what he should and there have been several occasions where an opposing player has hit what looked to be a double off the wall, and he's held them to a single. I don't think he's quite ready for the big leagues yet, but things are looking more promising.

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