Henning: Tigers could surprise, valuing hitting over another arm in MLB Draft

Detroit News

In a bygone era (2018-21), Tigers drafts were more intriguing than next month’s MLB sweepstakes figures to be.

In the last four years, the Tigers have picked third, first, fifth, and first — overall. Indeed, all that losing from April to October lent drama to Detroit’s seat at the MLB Draft, although that probably wasn’t the first priority for Motown fans who missed those days when playoff tickets were fairly regular and a tad more satisfying.

This year is different. The Tigers screwed things up in 2021, draft-wise, by finishing 77-85, which is worth no better than the 12th pick when Commissioner Rob Manfred’s talent show convenes July 17.

There’s an outside chance the Tigers can get the college hitter they (or, maybe, we) figure they most need to eventually help resuscitate an offense that perpetually begs for bats.

Jace Jung from Texas Tech, who can bludgeon pitches with his left-handed swing, is a possibility. So is Daniel Susac, a catcher from the University of Arizona.

And then there’s Justin Crawford, son of former MLB speedster Carl Crawford. He plays for Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas, Nevada, handles center field, hits (well) left-handed, and might be the Tigers’ choice even if they’ll need to wait a few years for Crawford to blossom.

But that’s the brunt of an everyday cast — for now — that might offer the Tigers a shot at a bat at pick No. 12.

It didn’t have to be this way. The 2022 draft crop a few months ago was shaping up as underwhelming terrain brightened by at least a sprinkling of skilled college pitchers. And then those college arms did what baseball arms too often do: They headed for Tommy John surgery.

Peyton Pallette, University of Arkansas.

Connor Prielipp, University of Alabama.

Landon Sims, Mississippi State.

Blade Tidwell, University of Tennessee.

Reggie Crawford, University of Connecticut.

First-rounders, some of them top 15-grade, marched to their ligament-replacement appointments and suddenly the 2022 draft was knocked upside-down.

Same problem on the high school side, headed by Georgia dazzler Dylan Lesko, who is so revered by scouts, some team (Detroit?) might yet grab him as an early first-round option if Tommy John recovery updates are reassuring.

The Tigers must be considered next month in terms of history and habits.

This team might as well have logos stitched to its uniforms proclaiming that old baseball creed: “You never have enough pitching.”

And, in the team’s defense, this season has confirmed it, in an unplanned and unfortunate way. The Tigers quickly in April had their outfield wiped out. Assorted ills later cost them four-fifths of their starting rotation.

And still, in fairly astonishing fashion, they have managed on most days to feature a strong starter and a deadly bullpen. They have been in game after game even when, on a big day from the bats, two runs is something of a quota.

That’s a nifty job of building pitching depth. And it has been a godsend, preventing what by now could have been a team so ravaged by bad and ugly losses that AJ Hinch would have sought a Presidential pardon for taking this manager’s job.

But it’s offense that has eluded this team. Always and everywhere, the Tigers can’t seem to draft and develop bats, even if a couple of young gems, Spencer Torkelson and the healing Riley Greene, are about to appear jointly in Hinch’s batting order.

Five weeks before draft boards are locked in and Manfred dons makeup and a stiff suit for his first-round intros, here’s how it appears to be shaking out for the Tigers at 12.

Jace Jung, second baseman

He is the younger brother of Josh Jung, who three years ago was taken eighth overall (three picks behind Riley Greene) by the Rangers and who presently is rehabbing following torn-labrum surgery.

Jace Jung is 21, has 14 homers in 61 games, a .335 batting average, .481 on-base percentage (59 walks), and 1.093 OPS.

He isn’t fleet, and has been even slower this spring, scouts say, perhaps because of a diving defensive play in April that appears to have left a mark.

It doesn’t matter, when his bat is why Jung will go somewhere in that first round — probably early — and maybe before the Tigers get their crack at 12.

Daniel Susac, catcher

Susac, the Arizona catcher, isn’t viewed as the same brand of hitter as Kevin Parada, from Georgia Tech, who might be gone in the draft’s first five picks. Nor is Susac the defender MLB teams tend to demand at catcher.

But scouts are into drawing a new distinction in 2022: The automatic strike-call is about to become part of MLB life. That old sleight-of-hand trick, framing, is on the way out as a catcher’s (and pitcher’s) weapon.

Susac, who hits right-handed, is batting .366 with nice back-up numbers: .430/.582/1.012 OPS. He has 12 homers. He also would be joining a Tigers crew that is looking at Jake Rogers as its starting catcher, once he makes it back from Tommy John surgery, and — for now — Dillon Dingler as its long-term hope, which will require a chop-down on Dingler’s strikeouts.

Justin Crawford, outfielder

Crawford is a prep option and probably a good one as an outfield talent the Tigers always desire and rarely find. But this is a team that ideally is looking for more immediate help and more security in projecting a hitter’s future. The only thing riskier than taking a high-school pitcher is opting for a prep hitter.

It would be a surprise if the Tigers go the Crawford route. But assumptions are best avoided when it comes to any MLB team and the draft.

Other options in play

Other hitters the Tigers might fancy on July 17 who all are likely to vanish before pick 12: Druw Jones, Jackson Holliday, Termarr Johnson, Elijah Green, Brooks Lee, Jacob Berry, Cam Collier, and Gavin Cross.

Lee, Berry, and Cross are college hitters, and one or more probably would have been in play for the Tigers — until the orthopedist got involved this year with all those college arms.

Drums are rolling as speculation turns to another Tigers’ golden oldie: prep arms.

They went that route a year ago, for better or for worse, in snagging Jackson Jobe ahead of the shortstop most of us thought they would opt for: Marcelo Mayer, who has been shining on the Red Sox farm.

It’s possible the Tigers will say next month what they said about Jobe: “Yes, prep arms are risky, but we can’t afford not to take” … say, Brock Porter, the 6-foot-3 thoroughbred from Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, who looks as if he’ll disappear within the draft’s first 15 picks.

They might figure, since Lesko’s ordeal with Tommy John is now history, that he is an absolute mandate. And plenty of critics would be in their corner on Lesko.

They could turn to a Tigers-grade trick and talk 6-9 prep lefty Noah Schultz (Oswego (Illinois) East High out of his Vanderbilt scholarship.

Or (pensive musical background), how about this script-stunner?

Kumar Rocker, who a year ago was headed for an early first-round ticket, and got it from the Mets (10th overall), but saw the Mets back down because of medicals they didn’t appreciate.

Rocker is pitching powerfully in the Pioneer League and is back, all 6-5, 245 pounds of him, and in line to be tabbed again next month.

Scouts agree this 2024 draft was supposed to have been a bonanza. And then they chuckle and acknowledge that every next-year’s draft looks promising — until you get there.

“The college pitching tier was weak in general this year,” said one scout for a National League team who, because of sensitivity to the Tigers, asked to remain nameless. “Now it’s even more deflated (Tommy John casualties). A guy like Lesko could have gone first.”

That same scout was asked for thoughts about the Tigers.

“After X-number of college bats are gone, where do you go?” the scout asked, pretty much sympathizing with Detroit’s dilemma.

“They’ll take a high-school arm,” he said. “Realistically, that’s what the draft is this year.”

On deck: Blue Jays at Tigers

Series: Three games at Comerica Park

First pitch: Friday – 7:10 p.m.; Saturday – 4:10 p.m.; Sunday – 1:40 p.m.

TV/radio: BSD/97.1

Probables: Friday – RHP Jose Berrios (4-2, 5.24) vs RHP Elvin Rodriguez (0-1, 10.13); Saturday – RHP Kevin Gausman (5-4, 2.78) vs. RHP Beau Brieske (0-5, 4.93); Sunday – RHP Ross Stripling (2-1, 3.65) vs. LHP Tarik Skubal (5-2, 2.33).

Scouting report

Berrios, Blue Jays: He’s coming off his best start of the year, and, of course, it was against his former team, the Twins. He struck out 13 and allowed two runs over seven innings. But on the year, his walk rate is up 2 percentage points, his strikeout rate is down 7 percentage points, his home run rate is up 2 percentage points and the opponent average is up 41 points over last season.

Rodriguez, Tigers: He learned a very painful lesson against the Yankees in the Bronx. He was pounded for 10 runs, including four homers in 4.1 innings, not necessarily because his stuff was bad (though he did center-cut a couple of fastballs that left the yard), but because he was tipping his pitches when he worked out of the stretch. Guarantee that issue will be resolved for this start.

— Chris McCosky

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