The Tigers were coming off an American League pennant and in the thick of the AL Central race in 2007, their roster relatively stacked with young talent and their window for contention seemingly wide open, when they used the 27th overall pick in the MLB Draft on a high school pitcher. They selected Rick Porcello over similar college talent such as N.C. State’s Andrew Brackman.
Two years later, Porcello was a key member of Detroit’s rotation at age 20, helping the Tigers to the brink of a division crown. He went on to play a key role in four consecutive AL Central titles.
The lesson is that the Tigers don’t draft based on their perceived window of contention, or to try to accumulate players at similar ages or windows where they could realistically contribute. After all these years, they remain on a philosophy of drafting the best player available.
“We always try to get the best guy available at the time that we pick,” general manager Al Avila said recently. “The fact that this guy might take an extra couple years to get there as a projection, and this [other] guy might get there sooner. … At the end of the day, we’ve always made the decision to take the guy that we feel has the highest upside.”
As Avila and his staff head into this weekend’s Draft with the third overall pick and no certainty which players will be available when their turn comes around, that philosophy remains key.
Day 1 of the 2021 Draft will take place live from Denver’s Bellco Theatre on Sunday. It will feature the first 36 picks and will air on MLB Network and ESPN at 7 p.m. ET. Day 2, which will span rounds 2-10, begins at 1 p.m. ET on Monday. The Draft will conclude with rounds 11-20 on Tuesday, starting at 12 p.m. ET. MLB.com will simulcast MLB Network’s broadcast and provide live coverage on all three days.
As former general manager Dave Dombrowski said for years, teams can never have enough pitching, which makes Vanderbilt ace Jack Leiter an appealing option if he isn’t drafted first or second. At the same time, the Tigers are believed to think highly of Oklahoma City high school righty Jackson Jobe, almost universally recognized as the top prep pitcher available.
Then there’s the highly regarded crop of high-school shortstops, a position that remains a missing piece in Detroit’s rebuilding project as it nears its advanced stages. Marcelo Mayer has been scouted all spring by many, including the Tigers, but could go first overall to the Pirates. Jordan Lawlar has the athleticism and defensive skills Detroit is trying to accumulate in its system. Brady House is seen by many as a potential impact hitter, but his size could force him to another position in pro ball.
All of them involve projection, more so than most college players.
“The high-school player is probably the most difficult to evaluate, and at the same time, the injury factor,” Avila said recently. “Luckily for us, we’ve had good experiences with a lot of our high-school drafts.”
Avila pointed to former first-round pick Matt Manning, currently in Detroit’s rotation, as well as No. 2 prospect Riley Greene, who will be in the outfield at Sunday’s All-Star Futures Game. Daz Cameron was also a first-rounder out of high school by the Astros as a compensation pick before the Tigers traded for him.
“It is the toughest area to evaluate, particularly position players as far as: ‘Are they going to hit?’” Avila said. “Yeah, there’s a lot of high-school shortstops out there, but at the same time, you also want them to hit. I feel we have experience on that. I do believe we have a good staff in our analytics department, plus our amateur scouting staff is very experienced at this. So I think we’ll come away with a very good pick.”