The Tigers’ draft strategy under the rule of current General Manager Al Avila as been a topic of some contention, as the results have yet to show up in the Major Leagues. His recent draft classes have been received with a great deal of enthusiasm by fans, but it’s easy to look good immediately post-draft when in possession of top-5 picks. There’s still plenty of time for things to go sideways for his latest additions to the organization.
It’s a slow simmer, but indications are that the heat is being dialed up little by little on Avila by ownership. He’s responded with some distinctly positive steps, like hiring an uber-competent coaching staff and upping the role of technology in evaluations as well as in player development. In late 2019 they finally made substantive changes to the player development staff. It seems that the coercion to prove he can do well without spending ownership’s money may hint at the Tigers draft strategy as well.
A recent report from FanGraphs indicated just that, saying that “this regime’s behavior will be influenced by the need to show big league results soon.” Big league results feel long overdue, and it’s refreshing to hear the team may start taking their major league product seriously after several long losing seasons. However, taking this approach in the draft may not be as positive of a report as it immediately appears.
FanGraphs’ draft expert Eric Longenhagen didn’t hold back on his opinion about the Tigers potentially keying in on major league readiness and need. “Making draft decisions based on who is already in your system feels like a bad idea but so does making one based on pressure for the big club to perform soon,” he bluntly wrote.
Longenhagen’s point is a completely reasonable one — the cardinal rule of scouting is to trust your evaluations and always target the highest-graded player available. Viewing the scouting staff’s evaluations of draft-eligible players through the prism of which players will make the fastest impact on the major leagues is like deciding to go on a diet after seeing your reflection in a funhouse mirror. It might not wind up being the wrong choice, but it’s made based on faulty logic that is not reflective of reality.
However, the Tigers have the luxury of picking third in a draft that has a gorgeous variety of players in the top tier. Depending on how the board falls, there’s a good chance the top player on their board is also the most likely to race to the major leagues.
The potent pair of Vanderbilt starters, Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker, are both possibilities for the Tigers with their first pick. They’re both closer to a finished product than many of the pitchers in this high school-heavy class. As of late, Leiter has been more the darling of the scouting industry and adjacent media because he’s shown that he can maintain high velocity despite his somewhat lacking stature. Added to his already impressive set of breaking balls and deep understanding of how to pitch, he can be a lethal weapon in the majors quickly.
Rocker is less surgical, but he can be equally as impressive when he’s right. He entered the season as a prime candidate to be the first pick in the draft, but his slow start killed those chances. He’s still in play for the Tigers because of his impeccable pedigree and ability to throw heat from a delivery devoid of violence. If injury doesn’t get in the way and his bounce-back from a weirdly toothless start to the season is real, he’s going to find a role in the major leagues somehow.
There’s also a good chance that college catcher Henry Davis will be on the board for the Tigers. If he’s the guy, that doesn’t mean the Tigers have forgotten about Dillon Dingler. It’s just tough to resist snagging a catcher with real impact tools on both sides of the ball, especially considering what tough luck Detroit has had with catching prospects in recent years. Davis and Dingler aren’t mutually exclusive, and it could potentially make life easier for the team to have both in the system, freeing them to explore options such as a positional change or a trade if it becomes the responsible thing to do.
Don’t bite on this report too hard, though. Rumors run always wild in the weeks leading to the draft and this one could be more narrative than fact. Consider some conflicting evidence.
There’s been regular reporting that Marcelo Mayer is the team’s favorite draft prospect since coverage of this class began. The adage that where there’s smoke, there’s fire doesn’t always apply to the MLB draft, but sustained, specific reporting rarely proves utterly false. Although Mayer is getting more love of late as the possible first overall pick, the 18-year-old isn’t necessarily expected to fly through the minors. If the love for Mayer is real, it contradicts FanGraphs’ opinion on the Tigers mindset. Of course there’s also a good chance the Tigers won’t even get a look at him.
There’s also conflicting reporting on how much the Tigers like Rocker. Of course, his early and dramatic drop in velocity could make any team jittery, but the league still seems to consider him a top 10 prospect in this class, if not better. If Detroit was prioritizing players who they believe could be major league contributors in short order, Rocker should have been unquestionably on their radar. He may not be a starter long-term, but he has stuff that should quickly translate to pro ball.
The long and the short of it is this — the Tigers are primed to add a great player to the pipeline with their first pick in the draft. However, their choice falls under the lengthening shadow of the potential endangerment of Avila’s job. If proximity to the majors is actually a factor, there are still plenty of justifiable options, particularly the pair of Vanderbilt aces. It’s just difficult to know if that’s just another piece of contradictory reporting to muddy the waters, or an actual view into the club’s thought process with the draft now just a month away.