Down I-75 from Detroit, in Toledo, there was a nice blend of minor league veterans and youngsters with a chance to still shine with the Tigers. The season started out with Marcus Thames destroying the International League pitchers. Thames was so hot; a promotion to Detroit was all but a foregone conclusion. After 64 games of complete domination, Marcus took his act north to Detroit, where he continued to hit well in his major league outfield audition. The much ballyhooed speedster Nook Logan spent the season trying to advance his offensive abilities, working towards a shot in the vast expanse of centerfield in Detroit. Logan struggled to make consistent contact (the theme of his career to this point), and saw a decrease in his walk rate, but every time he was on base, he was still a threat to steal. With an injury to Alex Sanchez, Logan found himself getting his first big league shot. After a blazing start, Logan predictably cooled off, but still made enough of an impression on manager Alan Trammell, that he may get another shot in 2005. Neither Chad Alexander nor Eric Owens performed all that well in their outfield stints, but they did serve their purpose in the absence of real prospects. Both players held their own, putting up numbers near league average, but neither should be expected to contribute much in the future as the organization's minor league depth improves.
The story for the AA Erie Seawolves is similar to that of Toledo; a combination of minor league veterans and young prospects full of potential. Kurt Airoso (primarily a DH) and Chad Meyers both had nice seasons in Erie, but are still considered long shots for major league jobs. Airoso set a new Seawolves record for homeruns in a season, and Chad Meyers exploded onto the AA scene after hitting well in the Mexican League earlier in 2004. Both players could return to the organization in 2005, but will likely just be holding spots until more promising players are ready. The real prospects in Erie were youngsters Curtis Granderson and David Espinosa. The former NCAA batting champion, Granderson was named the 7th best prospect in the Eastern League by Baseball America after the season, and he earned every word of praise he received. After an average start to the 2004 season, Granderson exploded in the second half, finishing with a .303/.407/.515 line. The Tigers had hoped Curtis would improve his offensive output enough to contribute on an everyday basis in Detroit, and he certainly provided plenty of evidence that he could be an impact player as soon as 2005. Granderson combines solid tools across the board with an exceptional work ethic, enabling him to not only improve all facets of his game, but to step up and lead his teammates by example.
David Espinosa is a former first round pick of the Cincinnati Reds, who finally broke out in 2004. After three rather non-descript seasons coming out of high school, Espinosa was a dominating force in the seasons first half. Despite some second half struggles, Espinosa showed significant progress in nearly all areas of his offensive game. He was able to increase his walk rate, and increase his power output, all while maintaining above average speed on the bases. Espinosa finished 2004 with a .264/.366/.440 line, and heads home with some specific goals in mind, most notably improving on his strikeout totals and making strides in his outfield defense. David could use another year of development in the Eastern League before moving on to Toledo, but in recent years, the Tigers haven't hesitated to challenge their young players. A lot will depend on spring training performances from Nook Logan and Curtis Granderson. If one of both of those players makes the opening day roster in Detroit, Espinosa is likely to start 2005 with the Mudhens.
Quite possibly the biggest disappointment of 2004 was Lakeland outfielder Brent Clevlen. The 2nd round pick out of Texas' Westwood High School had shown signs of being a superstar in the making with a strong performance in a horrible hitter's park at West Michigan in 2003. Scouts, fans, and analysts alike were in agreement that Clevlen was an up and coming name throughout the minor leagues. After starting the season out on fire, Clevlen fell apart. Brent entered a slump so deep; he lost all confidence in his abilities at the plate and in the field. Despite intermittent signs of progress, Clevlen time and again fell back to his bad habits and struggles. Brent finished the season with an abysmal .234 batting average and a measly .350 slugging percentage, while striking out in over 25% of his plate appearances. Still a very young player, Clevlen will attempt to re-establish his prospect status by repeating his time in Lakeland in 2005. The tools are certainly there, but Clevlen needs to find his stroke to stay on track for an appearance in Detroit at some point. Also seeing significant time in the outfield for Lakeland this season were Victor Mendez, Pedro Cotto, David Mattle. Of the three, only Victor Mendez should be considered a significant prospect. Mendez struggled in 2004, the second time he has done so in the last three professional seasons. After a solid New York-Penn League season in 2002, Mendez has regressed in nearly all facets of his game. With decreasing plate discipline and a dip in batting average as he continues to move up, Mendez is not helping his case as a prospect. With other prospects pushing him, Mendez will likely get a shot with Erie in 2005, but I wouldn't be expecting much. Pedro Cotto and David Mattle both struggled mightily in 2004. Neither player displayed much strike zone judgment, power, or contact ability. At an advanced age for High-A, Mattle is not expected to contribute much moving forward, but at age 22, Cotto still has a chance to make significant strides and become a player within the organization.
--Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2 of the Organizational Outfield Analysis.