The tall and short of it: Tigers feel good about draft complicated by COVID

Detroit News

Based on how COVID messed up 2020’s scouting season, the Tigers might be in line, ironically, for something of a gift from Tuesday’s final 10 rounds of the 20-round Major League Baseball Draft.

Players were harder to inspect last spring, summer, and into autumn. There was less data on hand. Fewer exposures allowed for the possibility pitchers and hitters, especially from smaller schools, could be missed — and that surprises on the plus side might loom in those latter rounds from 2021’s draft, simply because talent could have slipped through COVID’s cracks.

Whether their luck is good, or not so good, the Tigers won’t be shocked if help arrived in the final rounds.

“I’m hoping to get some pleasant surprises,” said Scott Pleis, who heads the Tigers’ amateur scouting. “I know these guys have some pleasant ability.”

And some colorful extremes, beginning with size.

Pleis drafted in the 14th round Tuesday the biggest player he’s ever tabbed in a draft — 6-foot-8, 300-pound, right-handed pitcher RJ Petit, from Charleston Southern.

He followed in the 17th round with perhaps the shortest player he’s taken in his years as a scout: 5-8, 193-pound, right-handed reliever Aaron Haase from Wichita State.

The Tigers otherwise stuck to conventions Tuesday, drafting four more pitchers, two catchers, a third baseman, a first baseman and a pair of outfielders after they had gone pitching-heavy in the draft’s first two days.

“This could be a standard answer, but we feel very good about what we’ve done,” Pleis said. “It was a super-tough year to scout. The draft pushed back (from its traditional June date to July), and with COVID, we couldn’t get to some of the parks. There were just a lot of obstacles. But as a group, I think we all did pretty well.”

Baseball America, which tracks the draft and amateur baseball non-stop, agreed  — on Detroit’s early picks, anyway — when it listed Detroit as one of MLB’s four big winners from the first 10 rounds, mostly because of the quality arms Pleis and his crew amassed.

Tuesday’s haul was, predictably, mixed, with an early focus on catchers.

Josh Crouch, a right-handed hitter from Central Florida, was grabbed in the 11th round, just ahead of switch-hitting Mike Rothenberg, a Duke senior.

“The catching part — you always need catching and we’ve had our eye on these guys for a while,” Pleis said. “We wanted to get two. We thought if we didn’t get them off the bat, we might miss out on them.”

Crouch, 22, is 6-foot-1, 200 pounds. He batted .311 in 59 games, with 15 homers and a 1.009 OPS.

Rothenberg, also 22, is 6-3, 215. He batted .251, with an .839 OPS and nine home runs.

“Crouch, we had him here (Lakeland, Florida) for a workout and he threw well and swung the bat well,” Pleis said.

“Rothenberg’s a switch-hitter with good size and arm strength. He was a little up and down (offensively), but we’ve seen in the past how he swings. Both are interesting. If they uptick a bit, they’ll turn themselves into good players.”

Detroit’s only regional pick came in the 13th round: third baseman Chris Meyers from the University of Toledo. Meyers (6-3, 210) is a left-handed batter and senior.

“He’s definitely a corner guy, and we definitely like the power,” Pleis said of a man who batted .382 in 53 games and hit 15 home runs for the Rockets in 2021. “He’s got power to all fields, which is what really attracted us.”

Then came the 14th round — and Pleis’ decision to draft a pitcher built more like a NFL left tackle. And, yes, the last name is pronounced “Pet-it” and not, “peh-teet,” which wouldn’t have worked terribly well for a man 6-8, 300.

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Petit was a starter at Charleston Southern and not a great deal of fun to bat against. He had a 2.43 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 84 innings. The secondary numbers: 69 hits, 75 strikeouts, 31 walks.

Petit has an upper 90s fastball and a customary selection of secondary pitches, all of which need refinement.

The Tigers will be happy to help.

“We have some history on him,” Pleis said. “One of our area guys (scouts) knows him from Charleston, so we had a little interesting track on him. We like what we saw.

“We’re definitely going to start him,” Pleis said to a question about whether Petit would start or relieve. “If it becomes a two-pitch thing (limited repertoire), maybe relief.”

Petit appeared on a Tigers-arranged Zoom interview Tuesday and was thrilled to be in Detroit’s plans.

“I know they do a really good job with pitchers,” he said, revealing that he had been in Lakeland last week for a Tigers-supervised workout.

Petit said he found the draft’s first two days “nerve-wracking” as he waited to hear his name. The 14th round paid off for a 21-year-old who, despite his size, never played other sports except for church basketball.

“I was the Scottie Pippen of church basketball,” said Petit, who is from Rock Hill, South Carolina.

The Tigers added three more pitchers in the final six rounds, as well as a first baseman and outfielder. Among their final selections:

►15th round: Blake Holub, 22, right-handed pitcher, St. Edwards (Texas) University, 6-6, 230. Holub was a two-way player at St. Edwards, working primarily as a designated hitter when he wasn’t pitching. He had a .349 batting average, with five home runs and a 1.116 OPS in 32 games.

But the Tigers will stick with him as a pitcher. In 11 games, 10 of which were starts, allowed 50 hits in 59.2 innings, with 77 strikeouts and 31 walks.

►16th round: Jack Anderson, 21, right-handed pitcher, Florida State, 6-3, 197. A reliever almost exclusively, Anderson had a 2.47 ERA in 23 games. His 40-inning span: 32 hits, 45 strikeouts, seven walks, a .208 opposing batting average.

► 17th round: Haase, the fire-plug Wichita State reliever whose numbers were strong: 18 games, all from the bullpen, with a 1.78 ERA, .169 opposing batting average, and a stretch of 25.1 innings in which he was nicked for 15 hits, while striking out 24 batters and walking two.

►18th round: Ben Malgeri, 21, outfield, Northeastern, 6-2, 215. A right-handed batter, Malgeri batted .280 in 45 games, with a .358 average, seven home runs and an .816 OPS.

►19th round: Justice Bigbie, 22, first base, Western Carolina, 6-3, 200. A right-handed stick, Bigbie rolled up a .395 batting average in 29 games, with nine homers, 37 strikeouts and 36 walks.

►20th round: J.D. McLaughlin, 20, outfield, Central Arizona Junior College, 6-3, 195. McLaughlin, another right-handed swinger, batted .338 in 60 games, with 13 home runs, 10 triples and 13 doubles. He also stole 13 bases.

Tigers scouts will now busy themselves handing contracts to their drafted players, with money matters presumably settled and signatures to follow.

They’ll also chase non-drafted free agents, which figure to be in heavy supply in a year when baseball’s once-hallowed 40-round draft was chopped to 20.

That’s a COVID consequence, of course. The Tigers hold faith that a pandemic didn’t prevent them from adding this week a few layers of desperately needed farm depth — and, eventually, some manpower destined for Comerica Park.

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

Tigers 2021 draft picks

First round, No. 3 overall: RHP Jackson Jobe, Heritage Hall (Oklahoma) HS

Competitive Balance A, No. 32 overall: RHP Ty Madden, Texas

Second round, No. 39 overall: SS Izaac Pacheco, Friendswood (Texas) HS

Third round, No. 74 overall: RHP Dylan Smith, Alabama

Fourth round, No. 104 overall: RHP Tyler Mattison, Bryant

Fifth round, No. 135 overall: RHP Tanner Kohlhepp, Notre Dame

Sixth round, No. 165 overall: OF Austin Murr, N.C. State

Seventh round, No. 195 overall: LHP Brant Hurter, Georgia Tech

Eighth round, No. 225 overall: RHP Jordan Marks, South Carolina-Upstate

Ninth round, No. 255 overall: RHP Garrett Burhenn, Ohio State

10th round, No. 285 overall: OF Austin Schultz, Kentucky

11th round, No. 315 overall: C Jason Crouch, Central Florida

12th round, No. 345 overall: C Mike Rothenberg, Duke

13th round, No. 375 overall: 3B Chris Meyers, Toledo

14th round, No. 405 overall: RHP RJ Petit, Charleston Southern

15th round, No. 435 overall: RHP Blake Holub, St. Edwards University

16th round, No. 465 overall: RHP Jack Anderson, Florida State

17th round, No. 495 overall: RHP Aaron Haase, Wichita State

18th round, No. 525 overall: OF Ben Malgeri, Northeastern

19th round, No. 555 overall: 1B Justice Bigbie, Western Carolina

20th round, No. 585 overall: CF J.D. McLaughlin, Central Arizona College

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