Every fifth day during this 2021 baseball season, when Casey Mize starts a game for the Tigers and a fan decides, “I’m going to tune in to see what the kid’s doing tonight,” it’s a reminder how vital the MLB Draft is and how quickly it can affect a big-league team.
Tarik Skubal has been another of the Tigers’ must-see types. By next year, Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson, and probably Dillon Dingler, also could be luring folks hungry for meaningful new talent and blood at Comerica Park.
It is with that reality in mind the Tigers cosmos will be paying attention at 7 p.m. Sunday when the 2021 MLB Draft convenes.
The Tigers pick third overall and yet seem torn between two prep blue-chippers: Jackson Jobe, a right-handed pitcher from Oklahoma City; and Brady House, a shortstop from Winder, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta.
The semi-downer for Tigers officials and scouts who have been locked in closed-door meetings this week is that the player they most want, prep shortstop Marcelo Mayer, of Chula Vista, California, is likely to be slurped up by the Pirates with the draft’s first pick.
It’s not that the Tigers aren’t comfortable with either House or Jobe. It’s not that they’re 100% sure Mayer will be markedly better than the player they take at No. 3. No such guarantees exist in the casino game that masquerades as a pro-sports draft.
But the man they want, and for some months have wanted, is Mayer.
The Tigers figure also to add people of significant value with two more early picks: 32 overall, and again at 39. Pick No. 32 is a bonus they receive for being part of the select Competitive Balance group that MLB has decided (win-loss records, market size, etc.) should be endowed with an extra selection.
So, prepare for some intrigue Sunday night, as well as some quick study of names baseball fans probably have never heard of as the Tigers and their 29 MLB partners slog through a draft that this year will be capped at 20 rounds and will extend through Monday and Tuesday.
Viewing this year’s draft is something like digesting book chapters. Separate subtexts, story lines, and issues are folded within a 20-round sweepstakes.
Some classroom notes on each:
How Tigers see first two picks unfurling
The Tigers understand, as does all of baseball, that you can never be sure about the Pirates. They have a reputation for being cheap, which means — based on some past history — they might not want to pay Mayer the $8 million or so he’ll be expecting at No. 1 overall.
They could, if Pirates tradition sticks, decide to sign a less expensive talent with the first pick, then use some or all of that cash to entice later-round picks who might otherwise opt for college offers.
But there are multiple reasons to believe the Pirates will go with Mayer:
He probably is the best two-way talent in a 2021 draft viewed by scouts as weaker in talent at the top than is the case in most years. Accordingly, it is known the Pirates have all but lived with Mayer the past four months and appear to adore his left-handed bat and infield skills. Also, the Pirates are now run by ex-Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington. Cherington likes bats and understands that in baseball you get what you pay for.
It’s possible — possible — the Pirates might have quietly negotiated with Louisville catcher Henry Davis, or North Carolina prep shortstop Kahlil Watson, and would draft either player with the provision that player accepts less than the $8.4 million MLB has decided is the ceiling for a first-overall pick in 2021.
But for now, most of the MLB world assumes the Pirates will take Mayer. As for the Rangers at No. 2 — they are heavy favorites to snag Vanderbilt ace Jack Leiter, or, perhaps opt for backyard star Jordon Lawlar, a shortstop from Jesuit Dallas High.
That leaves the Tigers on the clock.
The great debate: Jobe vs. House
You can surmise this was at the heart of heavy internal conversation this week at the Tigers’ organizational headquarters at Lakeland, Florida. The Tigers were busy assembling their draft board — the descending order in which they view college and high school players — and it is believed the Jobe and House camps (scouts are inclined and encouraged to have healthy squabbles) were jawing at full throttle.
The Tigers have assumed Mayer will be gone. They figure the Rangers will grab Leiter, not that Leiter would be Detroit’s pick. Although there is great respect for his skills and smoothness, there are concerns about his size (barely 6-foot) and long-term durability.
That leaves, in the team’s likely view, a choice between Jobe, a right-hander who is 6-foot-2 and about as flaw-free as a prep pitcher can be; and House, a 6-foot-3 shortstop and right-handed hammerer who might have the grace to remain at short even as he gets older and bigger.
Each comes with small-print warnings:
Jobe is a prep pitcher. Baseball-draft history mandates that you view high school pitching stars with skepticism. They simply can’t be trusted. The old cynical take that a prep pitcher throwing 98 in high school will be throwing 88 in five years is not often enough disproved.
The Tigers, of course, know this. So does their well-schooled analytics staff. There are exceptions to those scary prep projections (Clayton Kershaw, for example), but the Tigers understand Jobe would be a tough sell to their audience, and perhaps a dangerous pick when they need and prefer help at shortstop, however long it takes to develop.
As for House … They want to believe in him, badly. He has that great body, and bat, with loads of power. He plays an excellent shortstop, with nimble feet, and a big arm. They have only one, big, fat question: Will he hit for enough average, with acceptable quantities of strikeouts, to justify a pick this early, this essential to their future competitiveness?
Oooh, boy. This is why baseball specializes in danger in any draft. It simply is not a sport that offers certainty that the NFL, NBA, and even NHL bring with their cream-of-the-crop talents.
The Tigers are known to have worked out House a few weeks ago, spanning two days, at their Lakeland complex. They got the full picture. They did not necessarily receive a mandate to draft him at three.
But with more storm warnings about prep pitchers than Florida saw this week with Elsa’s approach, House could well be Detroit’s man Sunday.
As for the other guys …
Yes, the Tigers genuinely like all the guys who figure to go in those top 10 spots Sunday. Leiter, as mentioned, they consider a marvel, albeit slightly undersized. Davis, the Louisville catcher, isn’t much of a catcher but will hit wherever he ends up, which probably will be Boston.
Lawlar, the Dallas shortstop, is a near-immaculate athlete. But it isn’t only the Tigers who worry about his bat against premier pro pitching.
Kumar Rocker? The Tigers are high on him, as well. He offers a direct contrast, physically, to his Vandy teammate, Leiter, in that Rocker is 6-foot-5, 245 pounds. It’s his command, not to mention thoughts he might soon end up in a bullpen, that have dissuaded the Tigers.
Those next picks
It’s easy to forget the Tigers will be selecting very quickly once that first round wraps up. They have the 32nd turn, courtesy of their Competitive Balance status. This is a MLB creation that allows the Reds, Marlins, Twins, Rays, and Brewers to each have a bonus pick between the first and second rounds — an acknowledgment that these teams are among needier franchises, thanks to market size and past records.
It is difficult, nearly prohibitively difficult, to imagine who will be there at 32 who would entice Detroit.
If you care to take a stab, don’t rule out Alex Mooney from Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. He’s quite a shortstop and would offer the Tigers some insurance if they choose Jobe over House. Mooney has a Duke commitment and isn’t likely to sidestep his scholarship — unless a team makes it so financially sweet that Mooney bites. There is wiggle room for the Tigers, but this isn’t a scenario to bet on.
More likely, the Tigers will find a quality pitcher or different position player at 32, just as they will find when they choose again at 39, with their true second-round turn.
Ah, that distorted draft order
It’s ridiculous, flat-out ridiculous. Manfred decided last year that lending credence to the COVID-crimped, 60-game regular season would require a carryover into 2021’s draft.
It was not good judgment.
Quality teams could legitimately play their way into what last season was a 16-team playoff, but MLB teams at the bottom end of the spectrum need to be assessed more judiciously. They are more sensitive to draft needs and draft order than the better-heeled clubs that were good enough to qualify for October’s tournament.
Manfred should have made an easy call here: Base this year’s draft on the teams’ final 162 games — extending into the 2019 season — or use cumulative records from 2019 and 2020. That would have been a far more accurate measure of where teams rested in terms of their deeper competitive status and their rebuilding timelines.
The Tigers would have had the first pick had either the final 162 regular-season games, or combined 2019 and 2020 records, been used to determine 2021 draft order.
But they lost, because of Manfred’s stubbornness. It isn’t the most acute injustice in America in 2021, but where it really stands out as silly is that the Red Sox, who won a World Series three years ago and are back in first place in the American League East, pick fourth. The Nationals won the world championship in 2019 and 11 months later were judged by way of 60 games to be the 11th-worst team in baseball. They, of course, choose 11th Sunday evening.
Not only is Detroit losing out (probably) on Mayer, you can be sure those third turns in each of the subsequent rounds also will cost them a player or two they otherwise would have grabbed.
That’s not a sour-grapes local take. It’s an example of how a commissioner blew this year’s draft order in the same manner NHL boss Gary Bettman shafted the dirt-poor Red Wings with his nonsensical lottery arrangement in 2020.
Scouts are skittish about the 2021 draft. Last year collapsed the amateur baseball world. A pandemic wiped out schedules, summer leagues, showcase events — all the routine exposures scouts count on to size up prospects and talents heading into 2021.
This month, far more than in past seasons, teams are operating minus some bedrock background they depend upon in an industry already too fraught with hopes, wishes, and misses.
But MLB clubs also are doing their most sophisticated work in memory, by way of video and analytics, to reduce their own version of the strikeout. The Tigers are included there.
We’ll know Sunday night, and through Tuesday, in whom they’ve staked faith. A necessary reminder there is that faith, as we know from other applications, is a belief in something which can’t be proved.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.