The truncated MLB amateur draft in 2020 appears to have been a good one for the Detroit Tigers, despite the unfortunate circumstances. They were handed a near ready-made middle-of-the-order slugger with the first overall selection in Spencer Torkelson, and followed that up with a good pick at the top of the second round, taking Ohio State catcher Dillon Dingler. The rest of the five round draft, with a comp B pick after the second round added in the Tigers case, drew pretty solid reviews, particularly as they were able to land prep infielder Colt Keith in the fifth and final round.
Players coming out of high school are a riskier proposition as a matter of course. Colleges do a lot of the sorting for major league teams, and it’s easy to grade 21 and 22-year-old players who are already near physical maturity and facing consistently good competition. For the same reason, it’s harder to find excellent college position players outside the first round or two of the draft. The risk of adding a prep player or two every year is balanced by the chance to land a really good player before he’s grown up and made it obvious to the industry.
The question for the Tigers amateur scouting and new player development staff is whether they can continue to produce hitting talent after the likes of Torkelson and Riley Greene graduate to the majors. Right now, other than perhaps Cristian Santana, there aren’t any that scouts are particularly high on, but there is a decent group of teenaged talents who could break out. The hope, is that between young players like Santana, Roberto Campos, Izaac Pacheco, Keith, or some of the other young international free agents, that the Tigers will manage to hit on at least one good everyday player along the way and find some depth as well. For now that’s a longshot, but such a development would have the farm system on much better footing for the long haul.
Keith was a two-way standout in high school, capable of running a mid-90’s fastball to the plate with a good developing breaking ball, and working the rest of the time as a power hitting shortstop. He played high school ball for Biloxi High School in Mississippi and was well known to scouts by his junior year. While good on both fronts, he wasn’t quite a top shelf prep prospect at either position. Reportedly, many teams had given up on him in the later rounds, expecting him to go to Arizona State. Keith got some calls during the second round checking in on his price, but those teams ultimately went different directions. Meanwhile, the Tigers wisely kept in touch and ultimately selected him in the fifth round and managed to sign him over slot.
The Tigers haven’t showed any interest in Keith pitching. Instead, after holding him back until the summer months, they started him off with a brief rookie ball tune-up in 2021, and then moved him to A-ball with the Lakeland Flying Tigers. Against Florida State League pitching, Keith was an on-base machine, posting a .436 OBP on the strength of a 16.6 percent walk rate and a line drive rate over 32 percent. However, the advanced approach didn’t translate to much power. He did start to drive the ball more later in the season, but hit a wall late in the year in a brief look at West Michigan.
Keith has some size, standing 6-foot, 3-inches and weighing in at 211 pounds. He’s not likely to fill out much more as he’s now 20 years old, but should get a little stronger in the coming years. He’s obviously got a big-time arm, and seems well suited to play a solid third base. He’s not fast enough to play good corner outfield, but his arm strength might make him an interesting right-fielder under certain conditions as well. Still, Keith’s strong approach at the plate and solid power potential from the left side are his key selling points.
In 2021, Keith showed a really good eye at the plate for a prep pick in his first year of pro ball. He uses a toe-tap or small kick generally, and has a compact, level stroke that isn’t yet tuned to cash in on his average raw power, but allows him to make solid contact to all fields. Keith doesn’t have great hands, but he isn’t grooved either. He showed some ability to drive tough pitches on the outer half to the opposite field and the patience to work deep into counts and still make good contact. There is some feel to hit here, but he could probably stand to be a little more aggressive to build on the experience earned in 2021.
For now, Keith leans on a strong eye for the strike zone, doesn’t chase too much, looks for his pitch, and sprays line drives to all fields. The ability to line balls the other way bodes well for development of the hit tool. A-ball pitchers had a really tough time getting him out until he moved up to High-A and struggled some late in the year. If he can maintain that approach while finding more pitches to get his A-swing off against, the Tigers could be in business here.
In an interview after the season, Keith recognized that he’ll have to start developing into more power production. He stated that he was largely just getting used to pro pitching after waiting on the shelf after the 2020 draft. As a result, he focused on seeing strikes and making quality contact, and he did so quite successfully until the late season swoon.
Overall, Keith doesn’t have the standout tools among the Tigers’ younger positional prospects. Keith has a big arm, and perhaps the possibility of a fallback plan to pitching remains, but otherwise he’s more of a solid all-arounder with a better chance to hit than most. If Keith can learn to tap into his raw power in the coming years, the Tigers will have themselves a useful infielder even if he never reaches beyond his utilityman projections.
Projected 2022 team: High-A West Michigan Whitecaps
Keith struggled in his first brief tour of the Midwest League, and needs time to settle in at the level. He’ll presumably play third base most days, and unless he just goes nuts, will probably spend most of the season in West Michigan. It may take a little time, but it’s fair to expect more power there. If he’s driving the ball with more authority and getting on base, Keith could reach Erie by the time he turns 21 in August. That would be a pretty good pace, so if he struggles some instead, patience is still advised.