Winter ball preparing Lennerton for spring with Tigers
First baseman seeks opportunity to turn strong campaign into Major League role
DETROIT -- No matter the time of the year, the league, the team name on his jersey or the All-Star blocking his path to the big leagues, Jordan Lennerton continues to hit. With his winter ball campaign nearly complete, his next task will be to take the momentum from the Puerto Rican League into his first real shot against big league pitching this Spring Training.
Of the handful of Tigers prospects who played winter ball through the holiday season, Lennerton arguably has the most interesting situation. He became a Futures Game selection and Triple-A All-Star last summer on the strength of a torrid start at Toledo, yet couldn't get a September callup as a first baseman on a team that had plenty of options at the position last year. The Prince Fielder trade took away one of them, but Miguel Cabrera's return from third base to first puts Lennerton in the same spot.
With his 28th birthday coming up Feb. 16, Lennerton's time as a prospect is running thin. The longer he keeps hitting, though, the longer the Tigers watch him. They thought enough of Lennerton to place the left-handed hitter on the 40-man roster in November rather than risk losing him to the Rule 5 Draft in December. He hasn't let up since.
Lennerton finished his winter for Ponce ranked third in the Puerto Rican League in hitting with a .340 average and .414 on-base percentage, leading the league with a .953 OPS and 76 total bases, and tied for third with 21 RBIs. In a league not known as homer-friendly, Lennerton's five home runs in 39 games tied him for second in the league. Though much of his power came early, his pure hitting picked up near the end, including a 13-for-33, five-double stretch over nine games entering the final weekend of the year.
In many ways, it's a continuation of the Canadian's numbers with the Mud Hens. He hit .278 at Toledo with 25 doubles, 17 home runs, 57 RBIs and 84 walks in 139 games, good for an .812 OPS. The bulk of the run production came in the season's first two months, including a seven-homer, 19-RBI tear in May. Because Lennerton didn't make the jump in September, he had some time off before his winter campaign began.
How those winter numbers translate to the big leagues remains to be seen. Though Puerto Rico has ranked in the past among the most pitching-rich Winter Leagues in Latin America, the rise of talent in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela has left it behind on level of play. Puerto Rico still attracts a good number of prospects from the U.S. mainland, but it doesn't boast the same depth as its Caribbean brethren, either in prospects or veterans.
That said, Lennerton's continued production after a full season of Minor League play warrants attention, especially after the Triple-A campaign seemed to drag down his statistics as the year went on. More importantly, a strong winter could be his springboard into Spring Training as he tries to make an impression on a new coaching staff, including new Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and Triple-A manager Larry Parrish.
Moreover, recent history shows others who have carried winter ball success into the Grapefruit League and either won a roster spot or put themselves in position for an early callup. Andy Dirks and Brennan Boesch did it a few years ago, as did Ramon Santiago before them.
None of them, however, were blocked by quite so much talent as Lennerton. With Detroit's lineup and much of its bench seemingly set going into the year, and Lennerton's versatility limited, he has a challenge going into camp. Even if he simply establishes himself as a solid insurance option, though, he'll have gotten something out of his winter work.
Lennerton isn't the only Tigers prospect who went into winter ball looking to improve his standing. Hernan Perez went into the offseason as the Tigers' potential next second baseman before the trade for Ian Kinsler drastically changed his prospects for 2014. It did not change Perez's winter ball plans, though a midwinter trade in the Venezuelan League changed his locale.
Between Caracas and Zulia, the 22-year-old Perez finished the Venezuelan regular season batting .265 (31-for-117) with six doubles, 11 RBIs and five stolen bases in seven attempts. Perez struggled down the stretch into the holiday season, but picked up his baserunning, going 4-for-4 after the trade out of Caracas in early December.
That momentum carried into the playoffs over the weekend. Perez went 5-for-9 combined over Saturday and Sunday with a double and four runs scored.
Others finishing up winter ball include Tigers relief prospect Jose Ortega, who will try to take his work in Venezuela into the spring and win a spot in a competition for one of the last spots in Detroit's bullpen. The hard-throwing 25-year-old righty allowed six runs, two earned, on 15 hits over 16 2/3 innings in 17 appearances for Magallanes, walking seven batters and striking out 10. He threw six scoreless innings in December, striking out six and walking two in six games, before adding 1 1/3 innings of scoreless relief with a hit and a strikeout on Friday.
One Tigers player participating in winter ball who's virtually assured of a spot in Detroit is catcher Bryan Holaday, who spent a few weeks in December playing in the Dominican with Licey. He went 5-for-28 (.179) with two home runs, two doubles and seven RBIs before heading home for the holidays. He homered in back-to-back games Dec. 15-17, driving in three runs apiece, to account for the bulk of his offense.