Henning: Kumar Rocker is popular pick, but here’s why Tigers should go different direction

Detroit News

Lynn Henning | The Detroit News

Al Avila was asked during a media session Wednesday if he wouldn’t mind listing the Tigers’ top three or so draft choices heading into the beginning of the 2021 college baseball season, which got going Friday.

This was, of course, asked jocularly, even if no one but the Tigers general manager laughed.

Avila’s scouts along with other MLB bird-dogs have 4 1/2 months to study college and prep stars before Draft Day arrives, which this year is set a month later than normal, July 11-13. There will be much draft-board jostling in the coming 20 weeks.

Adding to that flippant Avila request is knowledge that Detroit isn’t sharing its draft list any more than 29 other teams will be tipping hands ahead of July 11.

So, here it comes, anyway. Baseball doesn’t compare to the NFL or NBA’s celebrity shows, but particularly in the case of Detroit, the 2021 draft figures roundly in Detroit’s rebuild and in how it might help a roster looking down the White Sox’s heavily loaded gun-barrel for the next half-decade or more.

The Tigers pick third overall in July. Among what might be considered three kingpin picks for 2021 are two pitchers — right-handers Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter of Vanderbilt — and a prep shortstop, Jordan Lawlar, from Jesuit High in Dallas.

You can mix in other names here: Adrian Del Castillo, catcher from the University of Miami; Jud Fabian, University of Florida outfielder; and Matt McLain, UCLA shortstop.

Other names surely will rise as college baseball, which had its 2020 season zapped a week into March 2020, and high school baseball, which likewise was COVID-crashed a year ago, all resume schedules, pretty much intact at this early stage of 2021.

Who the Tigers should take at No. 3, and whether position overrides differing degrees of talent, is a question worthy of debate even in February.

More: Tigers camp primer: Not many open spots, but plenty of tight battles

Philosophically, at least for those of us who share this philosophy, the Tigers should insist on a hitter. This stems from the obvious fact they still need a truckload of everyday position talent, especially at shortstop, if they’re to make the White Sox, Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, and even the Kansas City Royals act at all threatened by the Tigers’ ongoing reconstruction.

This has to do also with the fact premium hitters tend to be a bit more reassuring than pitchers. Pitchers as a group are known for all kinds of fluctuations, not to mention injuries that sometimes are far worse than missing 18 months because of Tommy John surgery.

According to this orthodoxy, the Tigers should go with Lawlar, the right-handed hitting jewel from Dallas who scouts see as having (you knew this was coming) the brand of talent a guy named Derek Jeter flashed 30 years ago at Kalamazoo Central High.

Ah, but there’s a problem. Lawlar, even if he happens to be that sublimely skilled, will not be ready for big-league ball for three, maybe four years. That’s too long to wait for a prime-time shortstop when the Tigers’ brick-and-mortar work calls for major foundational help now.

Of course, there could be an answer to this sticky wicket that satisfies all needs: Simply draft the UCLA shortstop, McLain, who could be an intriguing add when another guy named McLain (Denny) ranks as one of the most valuable and most colorful stars in Tigers history.

Easy choice there — if McLain during these next four months proves he has the bat and accessories to make him a worthwhile grab at third-overall. Same with Fabian, who doesn’t play shortstop, but who has an immensely respected right-handed bat and who as an everyday outfielder could bring dynamite to a batting order that will take every piece of game-busting artillery it can get.

Therein is the issue.

Do you practice any firm philosophical credo if you’re the Tigers in July? Stay away from pitching, since you have a nice chunk of it and need everyday offense desperately? Focus on shortstop when any championship-hunting team knows it needs lusty talent at the most essential position on a field and the Tigers at present don’t have such a prospect or player?

Opt for a flagship college pitcher like Rocker or Leiter when they’ve shown they can master even the best bats the Southeastern Conference and the College World Series shoves at them?

Or, do you go with the prep kid, Lawlar, or with a pitcher of any extraction, if he looks like a true franchise talent, and then worry about finding your immediate All-Star-grade shortstop either by way of free-agency or a trade?

That last point is important, because the Tigers may in fact be in position to get Their Man through means other than drafting him.

Free-agency is a possible path, for sure. Two splendid big-league shortstops are headed for free agency next autumn: Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros, and Colorado Rockies star Trevor Story.

More: Tigers’ AJ Hinch takes on responsibility, and ‘privilege’, of managing Miguel Cabrera

The Tigers will be in investment-mode come autumn. It has been known, internally, for some time that Detroit would be freer to spend ahead of the 2022 season. This has to do with matters of finance (pandemic easing, with manageable payroll becoming more friendly as Miguel Cabrera’s paydays continue to dwindle), and also with timing as a rookie crop of pitchers and position prodigies prepare to arrive, pretty much intact, during the 2022 season.

At that point, adding a big, expensive piece, with the ability to entice a big celebrity star, was always going to be more feasible just ahead of 2022. It’s an assurance new Tigers manager AJ Hinch received and bought into when he agreed in October to hook on with Detroit.

If you don’t win the free-agent sweepstakes, which is more than likely when plenty of bidders will be chasing Correa and Story, a trade is another option, particularly so for the Tigers who will have talent to swap, maybe as part of a grand package.

The Tigers’ organizational plus is pitching. Granted, that’s today’s assessment, with Spencer Turnbull moving toward ace status, along with the incoming kids: Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, and soon, Joey Wentz who has been joined in the Tommy John Recovery Capsule by Alex Faedo.

One of those horses, very possibly Turnbull, could become trade bait at the summer deadline. Also, very possibly, the Tigers could be in position to deal a bat, which just might become Jeimer Candelario when the Tigers suddenly find they have a glut of position prospects (Isaac Paredes and Spencer Torkelson) at third base.

If the Tigers have drafted, say, Rocker or Leiter at No. 3, that trade becomes even more feasible.

So, there’s some wiggle room as the next six months play out.

These draft debates aren’t always easily resolved. Even if you go with that golden-oldie draft maxim — pick the best available player — there will be debates and dice-rolls about which player is in fact “best.”

More certain is that locking onto a star of any variety that early in any draft, third from the top, means you likely have done your franchise a lovely long-term favor.

More: Nothing is given: Bryan Garcia poised to fight for Tigers’ closer job again

That is, if you can trust health and talent to coalesce into just such a prize.

Even in baseball, the crapshoot of all draft-day crapshoots, the Tigers are all but guaranteed to get premium, game-changing talent with that third-overall turn.

Who it is, and the roster spot that player eventually occupies, will become a little less murky these next 4 1/2 months.

Some interesting tracking is ahead.

Lynn is a former Detroit News sportswriter and a freelance writer.

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