Despite being handed a whitewashing as thorough as it was unexpected, there remain silver linings for the Tigers to take into the offseason.
Things are never that bad if you're still fielding likely the league's best pitcher and hitter, both of whom are still very much in their prime. The emergence of Phil Coke as a potential closer is a positive step, as is the continued growth of Doug Fister and Max Scherzer, who now look extremely capable of holding the torch when Verlander cannot.
And the last bright spot was the development of 21-year-old top prospect Avisail Garcia, who materialized out of Double-A to play a critical role throughout October. I personally lost count of the Tim McCarver monologues spun on behalf of the impressive young outfielder. It was Garcia that battled from a 1-2 count to work a walk against Jeremy Affeldt in the eighth last night, before he'd go on to strike out Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Delmon Young in succession.
If you watched the playoffs, you might have noticed the superlatives used to describe him:
- One-time highly sought after Venezuelan international free agent
- Just turned 21 years old this summer
- Known for a highly advanced bat
- Proved himself at High-A, excelled at Double-A in 2012
- Large frame points to burgeoning power, corner profile
- Idolizes Miguel Cabrera while receiving comps to his idol
Any Mets prospect watcher worth his salt likely processed these words and thought one thing: Wilmer Flores.
It's true, the pair of 21-year-old Venezuelans have more than a little bit in common. Coming into 2012, John Sickels concurred. Ranked 19th in a somewhat sub-par Tigers system, Garcia elicited a C grade from Sickels based on the strength of his excellent hit tool and power potential. In addition, Garcia possesses good natural athleticism that's allowed him to be mildly valuable on the basepaths and in the field — he stole 23 bases this year and also possesses a very strong arm in right field. Yet you don't often see a player with his size — 6-4, 235 pounds — maintaining foot speed, so Garcia's long-term value is tied to his bat.
Flores ranked 9th in a similarly so-so Mets system, grading out as a borderline B-/C+ based almost entirely on a highly advanced bat and the hope that the power would follow the frame. With Flores, however, there were no preconceptions of value aside from the offensive skills as his ensuing move to third base and abnormally poor foot speed gave him minimal defensive value.
Fast forward to the end of 2012: Both players followed a very similar path over the summer, proving themselves in a repeat showing at High-A before tearing it up at Double-A. But it was Garcia that got the promotion that counts, making his major league debut on August 31. He went on to bat .319 with a .379 OBP over 23 games for Detroit in the regular season.
Even in the postseason, Garcia was starting elimination games, wrapping up an October that saw him bat .261 over 25 postseason plate appearances. He was among the American League Champion Tigers' team leaders in RBI while setting a Detroit record for pinch hits in a single postseason with three. Meanwhile, Wilmer Flores remains a key cog in the lineup of the Bravos de Margarita.
Suddenly, a comparison that was neck and neck at the end of August seems to have swung solidly in Garcia's favor. And yet, while many a Tigers fan and national commentator alike fawn over Garcia's meteoric rise, Flores is still projects to be the better hitter. That supposition only becomes clearer as you delve deeper into the more robust minor league numbers (click images to embiggen):
*Statistics via Baseball-Reference.com
Again, the first thing that stands out is the similarity of their 2012 seasons. Both began exhibiting more much-awaited power, while maintaining the excellent hit tools that got them here. Hit totals, total bases, OPS were all close.
There are, however, some key differences here. We already discussed the difference in athleticism, leading to Garcia's big advantage in stolen bases, doubles, and triples. But the real key to this discussion is the elephant in the room: plate discipline. Flores maintained his excellent contact rate in 2012 (11% strikeout rate), while boosting his walk rate to a career high at approximately 7%. Garcia featured a strikeout rate near 20% while his characteristically low walk rate hung around 3%.
Many successful players rise above poor plate discipline to have a lot of success. Hell, Garcia did just that over the final two months of 2012. But the model for sustained success looks a lot more like Flores' approach.
So now as we officially begin our long and depressing offseason, setting out to ruminate on lessons learned in 2012, let's think of one gleaned this October. Avisail Garcia looked like a very promising young player, and as Mets fans, we should all be that much more excited for the rapidly approaching start to the Wilmer Flores era.