Henning: Tigers flip draft strategy, but their lost picks could prove costly

Detroit News

Upon further review, as the replay chiefs like to say, this week’s MLB Draft — and the Tigers’ stake in it — continues to take shape:

1. The Tigers went for bats early and arms late, which, without making too much of this week’s haul, has been a sequence long-recommended by a particularly vocal camp of fans and analysts.

2. Their new developmental team has merged with the analytics staff and Detroit’s scouts to address another chronic Tigers farm-to-table issue: on-base percentage. Every one of the seven Tigers’ hitters drafted this week had a 2022 on-base percentage of at least .401. Doubt very much there were any coincidences there.

3. The Tigers paid a price — perhaps a serious price — for signing Eduardo Rodriguez to a free-agent deal and having to trade for Austin Meadows four days ahead of Opening Day. They lost a pair of third-round picks. Those are tough chips to forfeit. They’re potentially valuable in terms of talent and affordability when six years of service time belong to the club ahead of free agency.

4. The MLB Draft remains stuck in a bad July slot, all because MLB is stuck with a bad commissioner, Rob Manfred, who insists on making the draft part of All-Star Week trappings. Never mind that it screws up scouts and front offices and hurts everyone — including players — but Manfred.

Some additional thoughts on four meaty points:

Bats early, arms late

The Tigers and most MLB front offices will insist that you take what the draft offers. True, to an extent. The “best player who’s there” mantra is practiced fairly widely by most MLB clubs when a particular talent mandates. You also can have an overarching philosophy built on the premise, which carries some empirical data, that it’s better to focus on hitters early, given that hitting is so difficult and finding hitters is a goal better pursued in the draft’s earliest rounds.

The ongoing and trendy policy followed by some teams is to fixate more on batters — well, off the bat — especially if they’re college hitters. Seems a team from Detroit this year stayed away from the kind of exception made a year ago when an organization crying for offense opted for prep pitcher Jackson Jobe with the draft’s third-overall turn. This year they followed, probably strategically, a script the sideline analysts have long-promoted.

They went with Texas Tech slugger Jace Jung with their first pick, then doubled up with a bat in the second round when they snagged University of Oklahoma shortstop Peyton Graham.

They did go for an arm with their next turn, in the fourth round, then plucked bats with their ensuing three picks.

They finished Tuesday by scooping up nine pitchers in the final 10 turns of a 20-round draft.

Again, there are no absolutes. But take a peek at why this route might be the best path for an MLB club.

Casey Mize, first-overall MLB Draft pick, 2019: On the shelf with Tommy John surgery.

Matt Manning, first-round Tigers pick in 2016: Out most of this year with arm issues.

Alex Faedo: first-round Tigers prize in 2017, who has just made it to Detroit this season following an earlier bout with Tommy John ligament work.

Compare this with Tarik Skubal (ninth-round steal), Beau Brieske (27th round) and even Garrett Hill (26th round) and you get a superficial, but hardly distorted, view of why it’s probably better as a rule to roll the dice on hitters versus pitchers with those quick picks and trust that arms will materialize from deeper rounds.

On-base percentage

Are you weary, perhaps, of seeing a bad Tigers offense? Of seeing guys chase pitches? Of seeing walks, in this team’s case, being more like something couples take in the park?

The Tigers have always professed to pay attention to on-base percentage. But never have they put it into such statistical clarity as they did with this week’s choices, which featured a uniform group of prospects who all carry .400-plus OBP.

Again, there’s a bit too much circumstantial evidence to ignore. There is a new development sheriff (Ryan Garko) in charge of grooming minor-league hitters. There is an analytics team, which has grown exponentially under Al Avila, the Tigers’ besieged general manager. And there is a manager in Comerica Park’s dugout who has rather had it with lineups that strike out and don’t walk, not that AJ Hinch would find himself in exclusive company there.

It seems a commingling of the above, in concert with scouting director Scott Pleis, forged a firm approach to making strike-zone judgment rather essential to any Tigers signing bonuses handed out in 2022.

If so — well, it’s about time.

Lost third-round picks

Essentially the Tigers coughed up the 71st overall pick, and another pick 20 turns later, for having signed Rodriguez, whose whereabouts are unknown as he remains on MLB’s Restricted list, minus pay. Another was spent because of an emergency April trade.

That’s tough stuff, in any number of ways. The Tigers not only have an upper-end starter missing in Rodriguez, but they lost a draft pick of unknown value but one that might very well have been bronze, silver, or even gold, as a compensation penalty, which benefited the Tigers’ good friends from Boston.

The Tigers got hurt again, later, because of April’s trade for Meadows, which sent Detroit’s Competitive Balance turn to the Rays. That’s a pair of draft choices within the top 100 that were forfeited because of (a) a free-agent pitcher being lost somewhere in the cosmos, and (b) a foul ball that ricocheted off Riley Greene’s foot, costing him 10 weeks, and necessitating a deal for Meadows.

Something to think about: Draft picks are precious. They allow you the chance to absorb players that down the road can eliminate the need for signing free agents, or making trades that — look at these two examples — in turn, cost you better chances to efficiently replenish your roster. At the same time, those draft chips can help you avoid, yep, having to make similar deals down the road that once again can come at the price of losing early picks.

This creates, often, a self-perpetuating cycle that compounds roster-construction complexities.

July MLB Draft Week

It is a no-benefit disaster. Correction: It benefits, in his mind anyway, Manfred, who feels that this somehow contributes pageantry to All-Star Week.

Has he polled MLB GMs on this? Scouting directors? Scouts? Players?

Previously in the game’s modern times, MLB drafts were early-June events, which worked out fine for all parties.

High school and college players were just wrapping up their seasons and could gain an extra couple of months on the farm if they soon signed their pro contracts. That could be big, very big, in their development.

Scouts had separate and vital reasons for wanting a June draft. They needed a full spring and summer to evaluate talent ahead of the following year’s sweepstakes. They needed to be at June showcase events, or at the Cape Cod League scoping talent.

Instead, they’re still busy through mid- and even late-July tending to this year’s draft and trying to get kids signed.

What a waste of time — all because Manfred wants some glitz and glamor that really doesn’t do much for the fan base, except frustrate it, along with everyone else, when folks have to wait till mid-season for the Draft Day drama.

This year’s doings are now in the books. A team from Detroit got a definitive good one in Jung, who figures to be playing second base at Comerica Park in 2024.

We’ll see about everyone else. We’ll see if taking bats first and locking in on on-base percentage paid dividends clearly plotted ahead of this 2022 haul.

We’ll take notes, also, on how the Rays and Red Sox fared with some choices inherited from Detroit that might have been turned into silk by the time they have wended their way through the farm journey.

It’s an ancestral line of study, this Draft Day stuff. And for some of us, it is irresistible.

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

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