Wojo: Tigers take a flyer for the future, just like every team in town

Detroit News

As a movie concept, “Back to the Future” is great, an all-time favorite. As a continuing pro sports theme, uh, not quite as thrilling.

For Detroit fans, the future can’t get here soon enough. In the absence of contending teams, this is the month of truth, with prime picks in the MLB, NHL and NBA drafts. In fact, it might be the single most important month for the Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons, all with top-six picks, all hunting for franchise-changers.

The Tigers started it off Sunday night with a pick for — you guessed it — the future, grabbing Oklahoma high school pitcher Jackson Jobe at No. 3. The surprise was, the Tigers passed on high school shortstop Marcelo Mayer, who was expected to go No. 1. The Pirates opted for a more signable player, Louisville catcher Henry Davis, but GM Al Avila stuck with the guy he wanted.

It’s a significant gamble by Avila, considering Mayer went to the Red Sox with the next pick. By all accounts, the Tigers loved the 6-2 Jobe and his high-end potential, and some analysts consider him the best prep pitching prospect in years. It’s a debatable choice because the Tigers have needed a shortstop forever. But any high school pick is a risk, and the Tigers desperately need a shortstop for now, not just the future. The last time they took a high school pitcher in the first round? Matt Manning in 2016, and five years later, he’s developing nicely.

The Tigers had been trending upward in Detroit’s four-team rebuild race, although it’s difficult to judge the authenticity of their recent success. Before collapsing in a four-game sweep against the Twins, they’d won 31 of 54 games. Avila has made four straight top-five picks and all have the potential to be stars, with Casey Mize already on his way. Spencer Torkelson (No. 1 in 2020) and Riley Greene (No. 5 in 2019) are excelling in the minor leagues and both played in the All-Star Future Games on Sunday.

The future is near

You’re sick of hearing about this distant, theoretical future, I know. But after multiple seasons of losing, the future is getting closer, believe it or not. There are glimpses, with the Pistons’ Jerami Grant on the U.S. Olympic basketball team, and Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart on the USA Basketball Select Team. Oh, and they do have that shiny No. 1 overall pick.

We’ve regurgitated the rebuild axioms, rated the GMs and debated the strategy. Now it’s impact time, because while all the teams have collected potential foundation pieces — including the Lions with the No. 7 overall pick in Penei Sewell — we’re still waiting for some stars.

Pistons GM Troy Weaver has the most to gain with the top choice in the July 29 NBA draft, and the most pressure to get it right. You can’t miss at the top. Well, you can miss, but if you do, it’s more damaging than missing with, say, a pick between seven and 15, where the Pistons have blown it for a decade.

If Cade Cunningham is indeed the consensus No. 1, and Weaver is part of that consensus, no need to trick around for a trade. It’s easy to declare Cunningham the guy, a 6-8 point forward who plays strong defense and has competitive character. But a fan, or media person, is allowed to be wrong. (Those are the rules!) Weaver has to be positive he’s not simply taking the safe route and bypassing a future star in Evan Mobley or Jalen Green.

The Pistons have the potential for the quickest jump because one player can make a huge difference in the NBA. In his first season, Weaver already made a series of shrewd moves and added three potential starters — Killian Hayes, Stewart, Bey — in the first round.

“We’re excited to be in this position,” Weaver said. “Getting the pick right? That’s what I was hired for. We’ve got to do our work and be ready.”

I think the Lions have the second-best chance for a jump because the NFL practically mandates parity, and new GM Brad Holmes has the makings of a top-five offensive line. The Lions actually have a decent mix of present and future pieces, with two first-round picks each of the next two seasons, thanks to the Matthew Stafford-Jared Goff deal.

The Tigers have the least to gain immediately because baseball prospects take so long to develop, but Avila has the most to gain from a perception-credibility standpoint. Plucking Mize and Torkelson at No. 1 didn’t require much debate. Tigers fans are getting antsy, but Avila can’t let the heat affect his moves. He didn’t on Sunday when he took a high school pitcher, knowing he has prized pitching prospects in Tarik Skubal and Manning ready to emerge.

Work for Wings

The Red Wings are the tough one to figure, stuck again at No. 6 in the July 23 draft. They made significant strides in Steve Yzerman’s second season here, but they don’t have a centerpiece. Or a cornerstone goalie. And after six seasons, we still don’t know if Jeff Blashill is the coach that can win when it’s time.

Yzerman is one of the most respected GMs in hockey and his reputation rises every time Tampa Bay wins a Stanley Cup. He put together most of the team and hired the coach that just won back-to-back championships. Naturally, that increases expectations for the Wings, which isn’t totally fair considering the meager remnants he inherited. But Yzerman is raising them himself, with his surprise pick at No. 6 of defenseman Moritz Seider in 2019. Seider could be a star, and there are varying degrees of excitement about other picks, including Lucas Raymond at No. 4 last year.

With a little lottery luck, the Wings could have landed Michigan defenseman Owen Power at No. 1, but Yzerman should have a shot at Swedish forward William Eklund, Michigan forward Kent Johnson or defenseman Luke Hughes. The Wings also have Washington’s first-rounder at 22, acquired in the Anthony Mantha-for-Jakub Vrana trade, and three second-round selections.

Like all four Detroit teams, the Wings have the draft capital to get the job done, which is why the next three weeks are so critical.

“We’ll build a good team and we’ll figure out a way,” Yzerman said. “We’ll get a superstar in the draft somewhere.”

Somewhere, somehow, someone has to do it. The Pistons have the best odds with the highest pick, but the Wings, Tigers and Lions have selections high enough to pluck a prize. The stars haven’t aligned in Detroit for several years, but at least a few stars might be getting in line.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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