Henning: Projecting Scott Harris’ moves to revamp Tigers’ scouting

Detroit News
Lynn Henning |  Special to The Detroit News

Scott Harris had been on the job minutes, maybe hours, but apparently, not much longer, when on Oct. 6 he made his first big move as the Tigers’ new front-office chief.

He fired his 12-year director of amateur scouting, Scott Pleis, whose primary responsibility was to turn Draft Day into a talent conduit that would make the Tigers’ roster competitive, at worst, and playoff-grade, ideally.

Given the Tigers have not made the playoffs since 2014, a new boss clearly had thoughts there, which led to Pleis being dismissed after 17 years in Detroit.

More:Tigers hire three coaches to form a new hitting department, make roster moves

More moves were expected. More followed.

A few days later, David Chadd, who had first joined the Tigers as scouting director in 2004 and who later hired Pleis, also departed. Chadd was an assistant general manager under former chief Al Avila before returning to the scouting side in a bit of a clumsy back-and-forth, which would explain why a new, lesser position offered by Harris wasn’t going to be Chadd’s preference.

In came two high-level hires: Rob Metzler from the Tampa Bay Rays, where he had been scouting chief ahead of Harris hiring him as a Tigers vice-president and assistant GM. Also added: Mark Conner, Detroit’s new amateur scouting director, who had earlier worked as scouting chief and special assistant with the Padres.

Note that the Rays and Padres are playoff teams chock-full of organizational talent. Note that the Tigers, even as they have added the occasional bright light, headed by Riley Greene, remain in the bottom end of farm-system rankings heading into 2023.

This has been the Tigers’ ongoing plight. This has been the Tigers’ root problem spanning decades. Too little talent has been making its way from Detroit’s farm to the big-league table. It is Reason 1, Reason 2, and Reason Any Other Number, why the Tigers have failed to win a world championship since 1984.

Harris, even at age 35, understands this history. From his earlier years with the Giants and Cubs, he also had a first-hand bead on where the Tigers’ primary weakness lay.

He talked about it last month, or rather, touched on it without indicting Pleis or Chadd or others who all were assigned their part in a long run of bad baseball in Detroit.

“The draft is exceptionally competitive,” Harris said, feet firmly planted on the high road. “We need to differentiate ourselves.”

So, here we go with a new regime assigned to changing the Tigers’ luck on Draft Day and, also, in signing international talent, which is another personnel stream that for too many years in Detroit has been more of a trickle.

Conversations with various scouts, scouting directors, and front-office staffers — all of whom insisted on anonymity, mostly due to their desire not to insult the Tigers — led to a consensus on where the Tigers have been, where they are today, and where Metzler and Conner, and Harris, might now lead them.

  1. The Tigers’ area scouts are not viewed as being terribly culpable in Detroit’s Draft Day misses. There may be some pruning needed in the months ahead as new bosses settle in. But most of Detroit’s 16 full-time scouts, assigned to specific regions as they scope prep and college talent, are considered to be solid, as are the team’s scouting cross-checkers. For now, anyway.
  2. Where the Tigers have missed, in the view of these same competitors, is on ultimate decisions either Avila, or Pleis, or Chadd or those at the very top have largely made. They are yet being hammered by industry rivals for having taken in 2021 prep right-hander Jackson Jobe over shortstops Marcelo Mayer and Jordan Lawlar, a decision multiple scouts have said would not have been supported by 70% of other MLB clubs.
  3. Detroit’s insistence, often, on taking pitchers over hitters early in the draft is also believed to have been a trend that will cease with Harris, Metzler, and Conner in charge. Greene, Spencer Torkelson, and Jace Jung have been exceptions, but Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo, Beau Burrows, Jonathon Crawford, and others highlight a Tigers trait, which — to be fair — hasn’t always been a bad habit. A number of first-rounders did, in fact, make it or factored in big-gain Tigers trades: Rick Porcello, Andrew Miller, and Jacob Turner, among others. Mize, Manning, Faedo, Jobe — they could yet vindicate the guys who were let go.
  4. Metzler’s duties with the Rays were heavily administrative and not as personnel-centric as might be implied. He is regarded as a superb listener, a man who can process information and analytics, who can balance metrics and scouting input, and synthesize data to the benefit of scouts and development personnel. He can be trusted with hiring scouts, his cohorts say, as the Rays and their farm teams confirm.
  5. Conner is viewed as more of an old-school talent snoop, and a good one. He represents something of a trend on the part of some MLB clubs to not be analytics hostages and to trust the eyes of sage sleuths. Conner was demoted, of sorts, last year when he moved from scouting director to Padres special assistant. But the move probably paid off, as Conner was more involved with the development side. He is considered by colleagues to be a potential home-run hire by Metzler and Harris.
  6. It is telling that Pleis essentially is being replaced by two people. The Tigers are viewed by rivals as having been late to the party on analytics, late on upgrading development efforts, and late on incorporating metrics, science and data into development, as well as in the team’s draft decisions. Harris plainly has opted for upgrades there, even after Avila, to his credit, brought the Tigers into the 21st century. Last week’s hiring of Robin Lund as an assistant pitching coach, with concentrations on science and biomechanics, was consistent with Harris’ plan to add luster there.
  7. Metzler has official oversight over the Latin American market, a talent bin that has not exactly been bountiful for the Tigers. Still, no major changes are expected there for one reason: The International Draft, which could be a godsend for the Tigers and for other MLB clubs who are weary of the seamy way in which Latin teens are courted and signed, is probably five years away. That means current, quiet arrangements with pre-16-year-old prospects are binding and teams like the Tigers will be loath to risk relationships now in place.

How these hires and changes in philosophy unfurl in 2023 are, today, as much a mystery as any aspect of the Scott Harris administration. How, too, this plays out in team construction is largely unknown ahead of this week’s 40-man decisions, and next month’s Winter Meetings, not to mention three overall months of offseason roster assembly.

Especially interesting will be the 2023 MLB Draft and Detroit’s choices and tendencies there.

Prepare in that context for a bit of Winter Meetings drama.

MLB has gone to a lottery draft system, opting for an arrangement similar to the one used by its friends in the NBA and NHL. Draft order will be determined Dec. 6 at the Winter Meetings in San Diego.

Under traditional Draft rules, the Tigers would be picking sixth, befitting their sixth-worst MLB record in 2022.

That’s not likely to be their slot. They have a 7.5% chance of winning the first-overall choice and a 24% shot at selecting among the first three clubs. It’s a 28.5% bet they’ll finish as distant as eighth.

To take this further, it’s 98.8% a probability the Tigers will pick in the draft’s top nine, and just north of 50% they will land somewhere in the top six.

While it’s mathematically possible they could wind up as deep as 12th, those are sadistic odds not even a pro-sports town as star-crossed as Detroit should consider in play.

About that 2023 draft …

It’s heavy in college hitters, which is what today’s wager would be on Detroit’s first choice, wherever it might fall.

It can also be expected that the Tigers will go hard on bats in the Draft’s early phases. This would fulfill wishes and affirm squawks from the Tigers’ draft critics who in years past demanded that Detroit hunt hitters early and focus on pitchers late.

In fact, that was the direction in which Pleis’ gang shifted in 2022. There was even a noticeable move toward heavy on-base percentages among those hitters the Tigers plucked, which had ranked as another area of neglect for a few too many decades.

It seems to have come too late for the men in charge, not that they lacked conviction for drafting in the manner they did in earlier years. And, in their defense, those earlier drafts included some genuine hits, a few of which soon could be arriving at Comerica Park.

But the over-arching reason Harris is in charge today also is why he made scouting and drafts his first major personnel moves.

The Tigers have come up short, so very short, for too many years. They have missed the playoffs for too many seasons, owing mostly to a lack of farm-raised, big-league talent.

Chris Ilitch, Tigers chairman and CEO, decided a new leader must be in charge. Harris, in turn, decided new lieutenants were needed. Those men now factor directly in shaping and delivering the most important element in an MLB team’s construction — and dreams.

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

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