(Photo: Charlie Blalock/ Corpus Christi Hooks)
In those crazy, closing moments of Aug. 31, when Justin Verlander would either stick with the Tigers or pitch in this month’s big-league playoffs, futures for three young Astros hotshots were also being decided within a trade deadline’s rapidly expiring seconds.
Among the prized Astros kids a team from Detroit was chasing was a 19-year-old, right-handed pitcher: Franklin Perez.
Depending upon who was doing the ranking, Perez was either the best pitching talent (Baseball America) on an Astros farm flush with arms, or no deeper than second- or third-best.
Age and class said as much. To be a teenager shining at Double A, which is close enough to the big leagues to make any player an easy call-up, is extraordinary.
But then Perez’s numbers would have hinted that evening why, a few ticks before midnight, the Tigers were insisting on Perez as Verlander finally said yes to Houston and the Tigers got ready to bring to a farm-starved team Perez, outfielder Daz Cameron, and catcher Jake Rogers.
In a combined 19 starts (seven at Double A, 12 at Single A), Perez had a 3.02 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP. He threw 86 1/3 innings, was slapped for 71 hits, struck out 78, and walked 27.
He had a fastball that cruised at 93-94 mph and occasionally would hit 95 or 96. He had a sharp curveball, a refined change-up, and a slider that is still being hammered into shape.
Because of his youth and polish he probably sits today a half-step ahead of Tigers prospect Beau Burrows, a right-handed starter who is a year older and who had a decent break-in at Double A Erie after the Tigers pushed him north from Single A Lakeland.
Perez has been working this month at the Tigers’ Instructional Camp at Lakeland, Fla., a customary post-season finishing school for Tigers prospects that wraps up Saturday.
“An intelligent, humble person who’s interested in learning and in getting better, which obviously are nice traits,” said Dave Littlefield, Tigers vice president of development who has been following Perez and his cohorts during the three-week Instructional seminar. “He’s a hard worker, all around the facilities, on the field, at strength and conditioning, everywhere.
“Really, you add it all up — the stuff, the velocity, the way the arm works, and those are the guys you look at as frontline starters. Obviously, the performance is good to see.”
Perez was a third baseman from Valencia, Venezuela, whose arm was so strong he was coaxed into pitching even before he landed at the Carlos Guillen Baseball Academy in Maracay, directed and supported by one of the Tigers’ jewels from 2004-11.
He had the smooth athleticism and size (now 6-foot-3, 197 pounds) that could separate a teen from broad swaths of Venezuelan talent. The Astros were so impressed they handed $1 million to a 16-year-old.
The Tigers were aware.
“Our scouts liked him a lot,” said Tom Moore, the Tigers’ director of international operations. “It was just one of those things where the money probably got a little steeper than we wanted to go.”
By the 2016 season, when he was all of 18, teams from the Midwest League, including the West Michigan Whitecaps, were getting a taste of a Quad Cities starter who was throwing more like a 20-year-old: 2.84 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 15 games, 10 of which were starts.
He spent most of 2017 at the Astros’ high Single A stop at Buies Creek before moving to Double A Corpus Christi. He adjusted quickly. Simply ask Frisco Roughriders manager Joe Mikulik, who got a taste of Perez last summer in the Texas League.
“First and foremost, what you saw was this kid take the mound and you realized he’s only 19 years old at a pretty advanced level,” Mikulik said. “You saw the composure, the size, the arm strength. The upside’s there, no doubt.
“And he shows some pitchability,” Mikulik said, meaning there is finesse and thought to the Perez package. “He handles himself well. Young guys tend to get panicky. But even when he left some balls over the middle of the plate, he didn’t panic at all.
“He didn’t walk a lot of guys. He showed a little fight. And he attacks with that mid-90s fastball.
“We don’t tend to really evaluate the opponents during a game,” Mikulik said, “but he stood out. He jumps out on that mound, a big guy coming at you. And when you look out across a field, that’s something you can’t help but measure.”
So why didn’t the Tigers at least get a game-day look at a pitcher who had thrown but 86 innings in 2017, in part because of knee soreness that crimped his spring?
Mostly because the minor-league season was four days from wrapping up on the early morning when Perez learned he was Detroit-bound. There was another hang-up, as well.
“He had a little blister that was healing right on the fingernail,” Littlefield said. “Just a small thing, but it just didn’t make any sense to push it. It was still a little tender. We just gave him some time.”
Where and when he finds himself in a big-league rotation is nothing the Tigers say needs to be answered today. Not when the pitcher doesn’t turn 20 until Dec. 6.
“I’ve scouted for a long time and you’re always going to get a range of opinions, which is why I use with him the term ‘front-end starter,’ ” Littlefield said. “He’s 1, 2, 3 — in that range somewhere. He’s more of a pitcher who has really good stuff and an above-average fastball.
“But you can’t lose track of the fact he’s 19. Guys do get better. They do fill out. They become stronger, more durable. They refine their pitches and their mental approach.”
And then they begin the next season anew with a fresh organization. In the case of Perez, it will be at Double A Erie. The Tigers will take their time. It’s going to be a long year in Detroit. Any kids integral to Detroit’s remodeling job will not be rushed.