How Detroit Tigers went from drafting like ‘zombies’ to finding late-round gems

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Tigers used to draft like zombies.

They slogged through the draft tired, exhausted and a little brain-dead.

This isn’t quite as hyperbolic as it sounds, when you consider the process they used to set their draft board. Tigers officials used to go to Lakeland, Florida, about 10 days before the draft to start putting together their board by holding marathon sessions — going through the entire draft player by player, a mind-numbing process that left everybody drained.

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“We’d put one name up there and you go, ‘OK, this guy or this guy,’ and you used to go all the way down,” Scott Pleis, the Tigers director of scouting, said. “And by 10 days of that, you’d be like, ‘Just take somebody, my head is killing me.’”

Now, in retrospect, this approach didn’t make sense and the results were predictably unspectacular.  The Tigers drafted poorly and got little out of their minor leagues.

But that is changing rapidly.

And you can see the results in Detroit.

Suddenly, the Tigers are getting production at the major league level from several young players who were not high draft picks. Part of the progress is a result of the process the Tigers are now using to set up their draft board, mixing analytics and an improved scouting department with far more advanced preparation.

More than a week before this year’s draft, which begins Sunday, the Tigers already had their draft board set.

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“The bulk of the information is up,” Pleis said in early July, adding they could still make tweaks. “We know where we like these guys. We’ve spent countless conversations and hours doing it, so we don’t have to pound it into a 10-day period and we’re exhausted on Day 1 of the draft and we’re like zombies.”

The Tigers can now approach the draft with clear eyes.

“We want to be fresh at the most important time of the year,” Pleis said. “So it seems to work that way a little bit better. Have a fresher mind that day, so that’s why we’ve done it. And that seems to work for us.”

Criticize, but give credit where it’s due

It’s fair to criticize the Tigers front office and general manager Al Avila for many things regarding the Tigers rebuild.

You can criticize how long it’s taken — it feels like forever now.

You can criticize recent free-agent pickups, most of whom have done jack squat.

You can criticize this underperforming roster that Avila assembled — but the players should take some of that blame, too.

Even Avila will admit, “at this point, you can see that there could’ve been some mistakes.”

But despite all those issues, they have done a better job drafting in later rounds.

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Now, I know what you might say: Heck yes, it’s easy to draft when you have high draft picks. But I’m not talking about Spencer Torkelson and Casey Mize, both taken first overall.

I’m not even talking about Riley Greene, who I would argue was the best pick in recent memory because the Tigers took him at No. 5 and he looks like he’s going to be a star.

I’m talking about finding gems in later rounds.

Guys like Beau Brieske, who was taken with the 802nd pick (27th round) in 2019.

Think about that. They don’t even have 27 rounds anymore. Just 20.

A year ago, Brieske started out at High-A West Michigan but now he’s doing fantastic in the big league rotation. He has a 1.200 WHIP, while recording 54 strikeouts with 25 walks in 81⅔ innings.

Clearly, he’s a keeper.

Then, we could move on to Garrett Hill, the Tigers’ 26th-round pick in 2018 from San Diego State. Hill pitched a gem in his Tigers’ debut, becoming the first pitcher in organization history to throw six innings and allow just two hits or fewer in his MLB debut.

There is Jason Foley, who went undrafted and signed as a free agent with the Tigers. He has pitched in 40 games over the last two years.

Add in Tarik Skubal, who was taken in the ninth round, and it becomes clear the Tigers have found some serious pitching prospects in later rounds.

And if this rebuild has any hope of working — and it’s understandable to be skeptical — they have to find players like that.

Deep in the draft.

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Why Flores to Futures Game is big

All of this was set into motion in November 2015, when the Tigers beefed up their analytics and scouting departments, hiring four major league scouts and four analytic staff members.

Basically, they came in from the dark ages.

Clearly, it took a few years to figure out how to make it work. But suddenly, they keep finding talent.

This is why it was so notable when Wilmer Flores, a right-handed pitcher at Double-A Erie, was selected to represent the Tigers at Saturday’s All-Star Futures Game at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

Yes, catcher Dillon Dingler was also selected. But Dingler was the 38th overall pick in 2020 out of Ohio State. He deserves praise for the accomplishment,  but high draft picks are supposed to make the Futures Game.

So I give the Tigers far more credit for finding Flores and developing him to the point of getting into this game.

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The Tigers signed Flores for $20,000 as an undrafted free agent in July 2020 out of Arizona Western College.

“He’s a big, strong guy, and there’s deception in the delivery and there’s a good pitch mix,” Ryan Garko, the Tigers vice president of player development, said. “What’s been really exciting is that he’s held those numbers he had in West Michigan, in Erie. He really looks like a horse.”

Yes, technically, Flores was an undrafted free agent. But the 2020 MLB draft had just five rounds because of COVID. So I have to believe he would have been drafted at some point, if it was a regular draft.

But to make the Futures Game from outside of the top five rounds is noteworthy. Of the 50 players invited to this gam: 13 former first-rounders, six second-rounders, three third-rounders, two fourth-rounders and three fifth-rounders.

For Flores to go from undrafted to making this game is a massive win for the scouting department, as well as the developmental staff.

“We are developing some of these young pitchers that were picked later,” Garko said. “I think something that our scouting department should be really proud of that they are finding good arms later in the draft, that that are shining brightly. Two of them now the major leagues and Wilbur hopefully close behind.”

To be clear, the Tigers can still get better at finding and developing position players. Right now, the most intriguing late-round prospect is Kerry Carpenter, a 19th-round pick in 2019 who has 24 home runs in the minors this season. He was promoted from Double-A Erie and continues to rake at Triple-A Toledo.

But no matter how frustrated you are with this organization, the farm system is improving — it is ranked No.6 by Baseball America. Because they are no longer drafting like zombies.

Now, if only they could stop hitting like zombies at the MLB level.

Contact Jeff Seidel: Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

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