Henning: Stranded at third in MLB draft, Tigers must go back to bats

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
| The Detroit News

Rather than getting stoked for October’s playoffs, which in olden baseball days (2006-14) was a Tigers habit, Detroit again is left to get its postseason thrills and chills from an MLB Draft countdown.

It’s not exactly seeing Magglio hoist one into the heavens to earn the Tigers a World Series ticket, but these days Detroit’s baseball cosmos will take all the entertainment it can get.

The Tigers will pick third overall in 2021’s sweepstakes. Granted, that’s silly. As silly as a 60-game (58 if you were the Tigers) season determining draft order. As silly as seven-inning games in 2020 counting as much as nine-inning contests. As frivolous as beginning extra innings with a man on second base. As nonsensical as seeing the last two world champions — the Red Sox and Nationals — finishing fourth-worst (Boston) and in a tie for seventh-worst (Washington) in this year’s “standings” and in the 2021 draft’s pecking order.

But this was 2020. And for Commissioner Rob Manfred to say 60 games was enough to forge a creditable season — with 16 teams in the playoffs — The Commish was also duty-bound to say this year’s draft order is sacrosanct.


The Tigers could scream and say that the last 162 games, or the last two seasons, would be a better determinant of true draft-order integrity. And they would be absolutely right.

If true draft-day fairness were to be presented going into 2021 — say, taking those last 162 regular-season games — the Tigers would be picking first next July. (The 2021 MLB Draft is moving from its usual June perch to July as a means to inject the All-Star break with theatrics).

Swing for fences in draft

The Tigers are fine. They would be fine with a first overall crack. They’re fine with that third turn.

They’ll get the brand of talent you tend to get with an early, early choice — a regular All-Star, maybe even a stud who at least invites loose talk of “franchise player” chatter.

Who will it be? Who should it be?

A hitter. Definitely, a hitter.

Enough of taking pitchers with first-round spins.

In those first six or seven draft turns, it’s imperative to grab bats and everyday talents you can better trust to (a) perform and (b) produce at the big-league level. Pitchers simply are not worth the gamble. They break down. They don’t always throw in the bigs as they threw in high school or even in college.

College hitters are easier to project and more valuable season-long treasure. The data (take a look at WAR numbers from most drafts) supports such a thought empirically.

This is not lost on the Tigers. Not on their analytics staff, which in the past five years has expanded at about the same brisk rate as sushi bars.

But they’ll need to prove that next July.

As it stands, and in contrast to the preceding premise, pitchers very likely will go first and second in 2021, to the Pirates and Rangers.

Kumar Rocker from Vanderbilt is the easy first overall pick as 2021’s draft crop is measured.

Next in line: his Vandy sidekick, Jack Leiter, another right-handed wizard who might be better than Rocker and who for three years has been considered by big-league scouts to be rotation royalty.

Assume, for now, those two Aces in Waiting go as they’re currently pegged.

The Tigers are on the clock.

And the bat will be there.

Short supply

They need, above all, a shortstop. There could be a good one waiting: Matt McLain, a UCLA junior who slashes right-handed and who has power more impressive than his size: 5-foot-11, 175 pounds.

There are prep shortstops, also, who stack up, including Luke Leto of Portage Central High, outside of Kalamazoo, who could be grabbed in the first 10 picks next July. Jordan Lawlar, a Texas prepster, qualifies, as does Marcelo Mayer, from Eastlake High, in Chula Vista, California.

So, they’re in supply, shortstops who could do for the Tigers what Alex Bregman has done for the Astros.

And yet most of the best are high-schoolers. The Tigers next year need a safer pick, a college star who inside of two years can swing his way into the thick of a reconstituted roster.

That might be McLain.

Or, more likely, because hitting for big numbers will be most vital, Detroit’s choice could be outfielder Jud Fabian of the University of Florida. He has a gun-barrel for a left-handed bat and the tools to play center field, which because Comerica Park’s original surveyors got carried away, means he could also defend Comerica’s left-field prairie.

Another possibility, as much as these scenarios can be evaluated nine months ahead of the draft:

Alex Binelas, a third baseman from Louisville, whose left-handed cut tends to launch baseballs a long, long way. He can play positions other than third base and probably will if the Tigers snag him and continue to see Spencer Torkelson as their main man at third. But this is the kind of bat the Tigers ideally will need to add to any future mix that will have Torkelson and Riley Greene somewhere at the lineup’s top or middle.

Then, too, there is Adrian Del Castillo from the University of Miami. Yes, he bats left-handed. And yes, he swats the ball. He also happens to be a catcher who, if catcher isn’t viewed as his best long-term work cubicle, could move to the outfield or first base.

These are names that will be shuffled, to some degree, as 2021 evolves. It’s hard to say whether college and prep seasons will reach full flower if by next spring COVID-19 hasn’t eased after it shredded prep and college schedules this year.

But already, there is enough intelligence, enough data, and sufficient video to give scouts and those ever-more-deft analytics gurus enough grist to pull off 2021’s draft.

The Tigers really need to think hitters. Again.

Good friend, and national draft savant, Harris Frommer, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area has impressive numbers from past years on teams that go with hitters over pitchers. The combined WARs (wins above replacement, as most know) of hitters taken early, so many years, overwhelms those of pitchers drafted.

Frommer took a look at the 2011-15 drafts and compared the WARs of hitters versus pitchers taken early: 92 for hitters, 37 for pitchers.

The Tigers know how this goes. And they know there are exceptions. Justin Verlander, only the most important Tigers draft pick from the past 40 years, was a first-rounder (second overall). So was Rick Porcello, as well as Andrew Miller, although Miller was dealt for Miguel Cabrera before Miller became a star.

But look at so many other Tigers first-round grabs: Cade Gaspar, Mike Drumright, Seth Greisinger, Matt Anderson, Matt Wheatland, Kenny Baugh, Kyle Sleeth. All testimony to Frommer’s point, which long has been shared by another friend and sublime baseball brain, Dave Chilton, who follows the Tigers from Waterloo, Ontario.

As these gents and various front-office minds agree: It’s becoming impossible to not see that hitters are a better risk early in the draft and that pitching can be found later. Even the Tigers have shown with Tarik Skubal and Spencer Turnbull that you can get power pitching in later rounds more easily than you can uncover bats.

One more example, witnessed by Tigers students: The Indians rotation this year. Shane Bieber, who’s going to win the Cy Young Award, was a fourth-round pick. Aaron Civale, third round. Zach Plesac, 12th round.

The Tigers are examining tissue and toxicology reports from their pared-down 2020 schedule to see what moves can and should be made ahead of whatever a pandemic allows in 2021.

But their scouts and video dissectors and algorithm whizzes already are at work forging a 2021 draft order.

For the Tigers, picking first or third hardly matters. What counts is who they take from a cadre of gifted athletes. And unless something happens that changes likely realities, it needs to be a hitter. It should be a basher they can lump with Torkelson, Greene, and a half-dozen others who can expect to carry a team’s offense deep into playoffs the Tigers once upon a time visited routinely.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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