A briefing from Tigers minor-league headquarters, not so much obtained as understood, reveals various issues at work in 2021:
►The Tigers and all of Major League Baseball are adjusting to a historic late start in placing draft picks at minor-league teams and towns. That’s because this year’s draft was a July, rather than June, event. It messed up an old calendar that had been in place for decades.
►The Tigers and all of MLB are dealing with new terrain: Last year’s COVID-deleted season, which eliminated games and, most directly, innings young pitchers needed in building arms and durability. It has left 2021 innings-capacities in flux. It has further scrambled any uniform plan that might have been in place as last week’s draft picks sign their contracts.
►July’s draft also had its effects, seemingly negative, on position players and hitters drafted. Many have not played competitive baseball since May. Their bodies, and their skills, need a reboot even before front offices decide where these hitters — and pitchers — are assigned.
►As for those minor-league teams to which players will be shipped — there are 42 fewer clubs in 2021 after MLB pared and streamlined Minor League Baseball at the end of 2020. That means fewer opportunities for players to get at-bats or throw innings for sanctioned teams in summer games. The Tigers, for example, lost their former low-A stop at Norwich, Connecticut, which used to be a haven for some of the draft’s better talent.
“Definitely a different year this year,” said Dave Littlefield, who directs Tigers player development. “We’re trying to put our heads together and build a plan based on how pitchers are feeling, how many innings they’ve worked, and so on.
“We’re talking about it as an organization, obviously, and getting input from amateur scouting relative to their knowledge of what these pitchers have done and how they were looking (at season’s end).”
As two examples of how strategies can, and will, differ, consider Detroit’s two top picks from last week: Oklahoma prep pitcher Jackson Jobe, and University of Texas starter Ty Madden.
Jobe is 18 years old and threw 51.2 innings this season for Heritage Hall High School in Oklahoma City.
Madden, 21, from February through June worked 113.2 innings for the Longhorns.
Here are two pitchers, with two entirely different realities for the Tigers, despite the fact both were taken early Sunday. Jobe was selected third-overall in last week’s draft while Madden was taken with Detroit’s next pick.
“They’ve all pitched a different amount of innings, and all have different pasts,” Littlefield said. “We’ll definitely customize things for each person.”
Littlefield won’t make any predictions, but once players have signed contracts, their next move is routine: players will report to Lakeland for orientation.
Jobe, perhaps, could get some game exposure in either the new Florida Complex League (the old Gulf Coast League) at Lakeland and its vicinity, or even for the low-A Lakeland Flying Tigers.
The leash would be short, and tight. And under no circumstances will he throw a competitive pitch that isn’t approved by coaches, doctors and any other gurus who might be trusted with counsel on an investment as critical and fragile as Jobe.
Madden likely is done throwing game pitches in 2021. Same for the Tigers’ third-round choice, right-handed starter Dylan Smith of the University of Alabama, who this spring tossed 98.1 innings for the Crimson Tide.
Twelve of the Tigers’ 21 selections last week were pitchers, each of whom will receive a specific program reflecting a slew of variables.
Throwing baseballs, whether on practice fields or in games, or under supervised bullpen sessions, is not necessarily a priority when pitchers report.
Introducing them to professional baseball’s culture is a first step. Identifying where their bodies — not just arms — are in terms of what can reasonably be pursued this summer is an issue the team will decide in step with doctors and training staff.
It’s possible that what pitchers learn off the field will matter as much as anything that happens on a mound or in a bullpen. Welcome to 2021 and to science bending a man’s pitching profile.
“Discussions on their pitches,” Littlefield said. “Approaches. Strength and conditioning, mental skills, movements and patterns — there are all kinds of things we’ll be doing with everybody.”
Hitters and position players will be in a slightly different sphere in that pitch-counts and innings-limits won’t apply. But age, experience, and how much time has passed since a player’s last game will be measured for a catcher, infielder, or outfielder in the same way as pitchers are gauge.
The minor-league season began in 2021 a month later than had been the norm. It will extend a month deeper into the year, through September.
Typically, players have headed in early autumn for instructional camp, a kind of refresh, review, and reinforcement seminar for a team’s greener prospects.
The Tigers aren’t sure about details there. COVID has kept its hold on timelines and protocol, all of which MLB must bless.
“This thing isn’t over, as you saw with the Yankees last week,” Littlefield said, alluding to Thursday’s Yankees-Red Sox game that had to be postponed because of positive COVID tests.
“MLB oversees all of that,” Littlefield said. “We take direction.”
They’ll be taking stock, as well, of how rapidly those contracts from last week’s new picks are signed and how fast new blood will be checking into Lakeland — particularly on the pitching side, which dominated last week’s Tigers draft drama.
“It was a nice mix of real high-end high school arms and a bunch of college pitchers — and a lot of big, strong guys that throw hard,” Littlefield said.
Now, the next phase: Placing those pitchers — and their position brethren — in venues and programs that, their Tigers bosses hope, push them closer to Detroit.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.