Tigers draft watch: Fragility of pitching might shift attention to hitting at No. 3

Detroit News

Editor’s note: This is the 10th in a weekly series of stories in which Detroit News freelance writer Lynn Henning will rank the top prospects in July’s MLB Draft.

Is there a firmer, more obvious, storyline emerging as the Tigers get ready to draft with July’s third overall pick?

Is this draft about to reinforce that Detroit has seen enough pitchers as first-round choices?

The Tigers will say, with acceptable candor, nothing has changed, and nothing will. They will go with the best player who has the best chance to help in the big leagues.

So be it.

But look at this current Tigers roster and understand why philosophies on Comerica Park’s third floor might change. And, perhaps, why they must change.

Casey Mize this spring is having his moments of grandeur. Just as apparent are those interludes where his fastball isn’t behaving and his pitches aren’t spinning at supersonic speeds. He can make one reflect on that No. 1 overall pick Detroit expended on him in 2018. In hindsight that always follows big-league drafts, he can make an analyst wonder why the Tigers didn’t go with the guy who most often was mentioned as Mize’s draft-day rival: Jarred Kelenic, an assassin of a left-handed hitter who is about to tear it up for the Mariners.

Think, also, of Matt Manning. Good pitcher — we think. But still not in the big leagues, and still not a sure bet to dazzle once he gets there, not that pitchers automatically impress once they’ve been delivered to a MLB clubhouse.

Ponder for another moment Franklin Perez, a true blue-chip prospect the Astros hated sending Detroit’s way four years ago in the Justin Verlander deal. Neither the Astros nor the Tigers had reason to believe a pitcher as strong, as powerful, as Perez was about to get hurt and pretty much stay hurt and/or ineffective well into 2021.

Perez was not drafted. He was signed by the Astros out of Venezuela. What he underscores, of course, is the fragility of pitching, even when you believe you have acquired something of a safe bet.

This isn’t to imply, this small sampling, that you simply opt for position players and hitters who in baseball have no more assurance of making it to the majors than pitchers.

But it’s something to chew on as the Tigers, whose farm system has been a dead end for so many position picks these past 20 years and more, consider their No. 3 selection in July.

Take a random look at one club: the Cleveland Indians. Note where their rotation pitchers were picked.

Shane Bieber: fourth round. Zach Plesac: 12th round. Aaron Civale: third round. Sam Hentges: fourth round. Triston McKenzie: sandwich pick, 42nd overall.

The Indians today are 10th in the MLB in pitching. The Tigers are 29th. The Indians, who have traded away Francisco Lindor, are 25th in hitting with a .666 OPS. The Tigers are 30th (.593 OPS).

Don’t make too much of statistics that can gyrate and shuffle and land anywhere in a comparative column.

But don’t make too little of them, either, or of trends that make analysts in abundance wonder if going for first-round pitching is as wise of a gamble as focusing on bats — acknowledging how difficult, so very difficult, it is to find good hitters anywhere in any MLB Draft.

How the nation’s best high school and college players stack up ahead of July’s MLB Draft:

1. Jack Leiter, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-1, 205: Is this anything to worry about? This sudden string of OK-to-not-so-OK starts, marked by Saturday’s clunker against Florida when Leiter lasted four innings and 93 pitches, was socked for five hits and three home runs (two by Jud Fabian), walked four and struck out four? He hasn’t thrown an abundance of innings in his young and distinguished time at Vanderbilt, so this might be the simple story of a long season catching up. But it’s something to wonder about as May and tough SEC teams, followed by the NCAA tournament, draw close. Last week’s ranking: 1

2. Kumar Rocker, RH pitcher, Vanderbilt, 6-4, 255: Nothing troublesome in his Friday start against the Gators. But the four walks, and 95 pitches, all in a start capped at five innings, was far from dominating. The Tigers — and other teams at the top — will continue to ponder whether Rocker and the price tag sought by Scott Boras will be a worthwhile early-pick investment come July. Last week’s ranking: 2

3. Marcelo Mayer, SS, Eastlake High, Chula Vista, California, 6-3, 188: Mayer continues to look, in the first week of May, as a percentage pick for Detroit. Percentages, of course, can shift during the eight weeks between now and July’s draft, but he has too much talent to believe Mayer will go deeper than third overall in 2021. He’s batting .381 in 16 games, with seven homers. Be prepared for soaring stats down the stretch as Eastlake heads into league play — and this prep conference is your definition of “soft.” Last week’s ranking: 3

More: Tigers draft watch: Marcelo Mayer’s ‘beautiful swing’ packs plenty of power

4. Henry Davis, C, University of Louisville, 6-1, 205: Davis has been the most consistent of any top-10 college player in 2021, which speaks to his sublime hitting skill. Last weekend at Clemson, he was 5-for-12, with a home run, double, one walk, and one strikeout. Only way he falls out of the top three is if the Tigers begin to chill on Dillon Dingler. So far, no sign they’ve backed away from thoughts Dingler is their next regular catcher. Last week’s ranking: 4

5. Gunnar Hoglund, RH pitcher, Ole Miss, 6-4, 210: Looking like an automatic next-pick pitcher once college baseball’s ballyhooed duo, Leiter and Rocker, are out of the way. Then again, the way Hoglund’s been tossing, he might surpass at least one of the Vandy guys. He took on a good South Carolina team Friday and allowed all of one hit over six innings. He struck out nine, walked none. This kid is good. Last week’s ranking: 5

6. Brady House, SS, Winder-Barrow High, Winder, Georgia, 6-3, 212: Doing what he does best: hits, impressively, and steadily. He has 119 plate-appearances in 2021. House is batting .571, with eight home runs, 13 doubles, and a 1.709 OPS. Could go top five in July, and certainly will be gone inside of eight picks. Last week’s ranking: 6

7. Jordan Lawlar, SS, Dallas Jesuit High, 6-2, 180: Lots of hometown pressure on the Rangers to take at second overall a kid with talents as tempting as Lawlar’s. Not that hometown sentiment will overly influence scouts who see in Lawlar markings reminiscent of Derek Jeter. Last week’s ranking: 7

8. Ryan Cusick, RH starter, Wake Forest, 6-6, 235: Didn’t have the best of Friday nights against North Carolina State. Cusick was battered a bit — seven hits, six earned runs, in 6⅓ innings. Still, he whiffed nine and walked no one. No serious alarms sounding just yet. Last week’s ranking: 8

9. Sam Bachman, RH starter, Miami (Ohio), 6-1, 235: This conference isn’t to be confused with the SEC or Pac-12. But what many scouts know is Bachman’s 100-mph stuff will play anywhere, including, they’re betting, the big leagues. Last week’s ranking: 9

10. Jackson Jobe, RH starter, Heritage Hall High, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 6-2, 190: Probably the best prep pitcher in America — at the moment — and a certain first-round grab in July. Typical package: fastball that explodes into the high 90s, sophisticated secondary stuff. Has plenty of athletic DNA — his dad, Brandt Jobe, played on the PGA Tour. He’s committed to the University of Mississippi, but he’ll be working off a minor-league mound soon. Last week’s ranking: Unranked

Dropped from Top 10 status: Matt McLain, shortstop, UCLA, 5-11, 180.

Pushing for Top 10 inclusion: McLain, SS, UCLA, 5-11, 180; Colton Cowser, OF, Sam Houston State, 6-3, 195: Ty Madden, RH starter, Texas, 6-3, 215; Alex Binelas, 1B, Louisville, 6-3, 225; Ethan Wilson, OF, South Alabama, 6-1, 210;  Alex Mooney, SS, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, 6-1, 175; Jud Fabian, OF, Florida, 6-foot, 190; Jonathan Cannon, RH starter, Georgia, 6-6, 207; Mason Black, RH starter, Lehigh, 6-3, 200;  McCade Brown, RH starter, Indiana, 6-6, 225; 6-4; Adrian Del Castillo, C, University of Miami, 5-11, 210; James Wood, OF, IMG Academy, 6-6, 230; Khalil Watson, SS, Wake Forest High, Wake Forest, North Carolina, 5-11, 168. Cody Schrier, SS, JSerra Catholic High, San Juan Capistrano, California.

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

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