BY MATT LaWELL
LAKELAND, Florida | During his three decades on minor league diamonds and in minor league dugouts, Dave Huppert played on incredible teams, managed league champions and watched future Hall of Famers shovel up ground balls and hit easy home runs. But he has never seen a team like the one he has right now.
Huppert is a measured man, calm and thoughtful, a veteran. He has gray hair and wears glasses and carries more weight than he did when he played behind the plate in the 1970s and ’80s. He will turn 55 next Tuesday, and though he might look a bit younger than that, he still looks older than his team, the Lakeland Flying Tigers, full of kids just out of their teens who impress him every day.
And the Flying Tigers should impress Huppert, because they’re supposed to good this season. Huppert knows this. His coaches know this. Most of the fans at Joker Marchant Stadium don’t know this, though they have different priorities at the park than those in charge of player development for the Detroit Tigers. The Flying Tiger have prospects, lots of them — the top two in the Tigers organization, seven of the top 13, an even dozen of the top 30. There are pitchers and outfielders and coveted corner infielders. The youngest among them turned 20 in March, the oldest turned 22 in February. They have all the potential and possibility in the world that is minor league baseball.
“This,” Huppert says, “is the next wave for Detroit.”
“We knew there was going to be a lot of talent here. We just have to pull that talent out of them. It makes for a very exciting year. If we get the most out of them, we’ll be a pretty good ball club.” — Lakeland manager Dave Huppert
Start with third baseman Nick Castellanos. He ranks second among prospects in the organization according to Baseball America thanks to a bat that produces gap power and scatters hits all over the field, and a defensive range developed at shortstop in high school. Just 20, he might play at Comerica Park in three years, or perhaps a little sooner. Then there’s outfielder Tyler Collins, who ranks thirteenth. He skipped Low-A on his way from the New York-Penn League last season to the Florida State League and has been “a pleasant surprise this year,” Huppert says. Left-handers Alex Burgos (No. 8) and Brian Flynn (No. 24), and righty Kevin Eicchorn (No. 26) — the bulk of the starting roation — all impress, too. So do catcher James McCann (No. 9) and his defensive presence, outfielder Avisail Garcia (No. 10) and his raw power, righty Bruce Rondon (No. 12) and his deliciously ridiculous strikeout potential ...
And then there's Jacob Turner. The ninth pick in the draft three years ago, Turner pitched for the Flying Tigers in 2010, cruising right along on his way to Detroit and the Majors. He was 20 then and not quite ready, but almost too good to keep at Toledo. But tendonitis lingers in his right shoulder and here he is, back with kids his own age in Lakeland. No one sees him much or knows where he is, or at least that’s what they say. Either way, for now he caps an incredible roster.
“We knew there was going to be a lot of talent here,” Huppert says. “We just have to pull that talent out of them. It makes for a very exciting year. If we get the most out of them, we’ll be a pretty good ball club.”
Huppert figured a lot of the players on the Flying Tigers roster would hang around Lakeland after spring training ended earlier this month because the majority of them played all or part of last season for the West Michigan Whitecaps in the Low-A Midwest League. Not that he was able to work with them much during March. Because Detroit executives like president and general manager Dave Dombrowski, and David Chadd, the director of amateur scouting, wanted to watch how the young players would react on a bigger stage, many of them practiced and played with the Major League team.
“We had a handful of them here and there every day, but not the majority of the time,” Huppert says. “I didn’t have them all together until the night before opening day. That’s what happens when you get that kind of talent. It’s good for the kids.”
When the roster was finalized last week, some of the players say they were excited to see familiar faces in a clubhouse filled with card games and iPads. “You kind of build a little chemistry, and that helps us throughout the season,” says Burgos, who struck out seven Wednesday night over six quality innings but took the loss. “It’s fun to watch a lot of the top prospects on this team.”
The Flying Tigers are 3-3 after a week of games, but the record matters far less than the development on the field, the evolution of skills and stuff. Some will probably end up in Detroit, but not before at least a couple months here, a stretch up in Erie, Pennsylvania, and maybe another in Toledo, Ohio. The Tigers have positioned themselves well, with a young group that could provide another strong core in two or three or four seasons. The team has its objectives. The players have their goals. “If I spend the whole year here, that’s fine,” Castellanos says. “If not, I’m going to take the promotion and be happy about it. If I play well enough to move up a level every year, that puts me in the big leagues at 22, 23. I can’t complain about that.”
Until then, small crowds will watch them in Lakeland, most not all that certain how good the players on the field really are.
Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.
THE NEXT WAVE
No. 1 — Jacob Turner, 21, RHP
No. 2 — Nick Castellanos, 20, 3B
No. 8 — Alex Burgos, 21, LHP
No. 9 — James McCann, 21, C
No. 10 — Avisail Garcia, 20, OF
No. 12 — Bruce Rondon, 21, RHP
No. 13 — Tyler Collins, 21, OF
No. 24 — Brian Flynn, 21, LHP
No. 25 — Dixon Machado, 20, SS
No. 26 — Kevin Eichhorn, 22, RHP
No. 27 — Daniel Fields, 21, OF
No. 30 — Hernan Perez, 21, 2B/SS
All ranks are according to the 2012 Baseball America Prospect Handbook, published December 2011