Tigers draft stock watch: Big Three cement status on College World Series stage

Detroit News
Lynn Henning |  Special to The Detroit News

Tigers scouts this week were dealing with a bit less privacy.

No longer were Dylan Crews, and Paul Skenes, and Wyatt Langford their exclusive show, their captive performers, as teams get ready for the 2023 MLB Draft, which runs July 9-11.

That’s because the College World Series has showcased all of the above, particularly as the University of Florida and Louisiana State tangled in a best two-of-three showdown that Monday evening was to deliver a national champion.

In fact, a record ESPN audience for the CWS, 2 million, watched Sunday’s game that saw Florida unleash its Langford-led weaponry to the tune of 24 runs and send the Gators into Monday night’s grand finale, with each team having won a game apiece. A much bigger TV crowd was destined to see Monday night’s drama.

This was in keeping with what everyone across the MLB Draft terrain knew Monday, and has known for months, all of it affirmed and sealed during the Gators-LSU tussles in Omaha, Nebraska.

The Big Three remain the Big Three: Crews, Langford, Skenes.

And the Tigers, enjoying their part in this amazing 2023 college baseball story, have the third-overall turn when the draft’s first round blasts off on the evening of July 9.

It has been something of a shell game for four months, with Crews, Skenes, and Langford moving from pod to pod in a draft order that has constantly shifted.

The latest intelligence, which might or might not have been influenced by the past week’s commotion at Omaha, appeared Monday to tell Tigers followers this:

NUMBER ONE IS STILL IN FLUX: Crews has been the steady occupant at one-one, as the first-overall slot is known, because of his extraordinary ability to put the thick part of a bat on even the best pitches. That he can also play a standout center field has likewise made this year’s Golden Spikes Award winner (baseball’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy) seem a mandate to be picked first.

Except …

MONEY MIGHT INFLUENCE THAT FIRST PICK: Crews is a Scott Boras pledge, and Boras doesn’t take discounts. The Pirates have been known to sign a first-round pick knowing they can offer less than the maximum “slot” money that MLB prescribes for each team in each round. It is known that Langford has a different “adviser” (the Wasserman team) and that he might be amenable to less money, providing it’s more than, say, the maximum amount of cash the third-overall slot is obliged by MLB to observe.

With that extra money, a team such as the Pirates can sweeten a deal to a later-round pick and perhaps induce a prep star headed for college to wave off his scholarship and turn pro.

Suddenly, under such a scenario, Crews would be out at No. 1 and Langford — or even Skenes — could be in.

SKENES MIGHT GO ANYWHERE FROM FIRST TO THIRD — OR EVEN LATER: That’s because Skenes is a pitcher and even a pitcher this majestic — by all accounts, a right-handed giant so powerful you see his likes every decade or two — can tumble for the simple reason pitchers are fragile. They get hurt. They can be headed sooner or later for Tommy John surgery. They lose their arm-slot or their command or their slider or whatever. They are risks, definitely they are risks, more so than hitters are considered to be, even if hitters prove all the time that their great hitting in college or on the high-school sandlots didn’t quite transfer to professional baseball, wood bats, high heat, and all the various enemies waiting to thwart former college and prep hitting machines.

LANGFORD AND CREWS COULD BOTH BE GONE AFTER TWO PICKS: Langford didn’t hurt himself Sunday: 5-for-5, including another 450-foot home run, plus a walk. He, too, plays center field, which means at the very least he will be a very good and very high-acreage defender should he shift to left field in his MLB years.

Crews, it is difficult to believe, will last past the first or second turn.

That means the Tigers, as long has been discussed, would be left to consider Skenes vs. whoever might rank as an alternative choice: Walker Jenkins or Max Clark, the superstar prep outfielders? Or, perhaps, University of Virginia catcher Kyle Teel?

The Tigers want a bat, definitely, as all the conscious world understands. They also know what often happens to pitchers.

They happen to understand also that a guy named Justin Verlander was grabbed two-overall in 2004 and turned out to be pretty good. Another first-round pitcher, Max Scherzer, had a nice career that is still going alongside Verlander’s.

What it means is that a team can so scare itself thinking about dark-drama outcomes that it misses a pitching superstar at the point it opted to take a calculated risk with a prep hitter or a college catcher.

All of these talents, all of these potential draft selections and scenarios, converged this past week at Omaha.

The Tigers scouts were watching.

So was the rest of the baseball world, now aware just how good three exceptional talents really are.

Detroit News ranking of the top 10 amateur baseball talents as they currently sit leading into the 2023 MLB Draft, set for July 9-11.

1. Dylan Crews, Louisiana State University, outfielder, 6-foot-1, 203 pounds, right-handed batter: He has such a remarkable ability to do the most vexing thing in sport — hit a high-speed, fast-veering baseball — and, at the same time, own the skills that should keep him in center field in the big leagues. Still the top position talent in America. Last week’s ranking: 1

2. Paul Skenes, Louisiana State, RH starter, 6-6, 240: Scouts who knew Skenes was a brand of pitcher you see every eon or so had all their notes and adjectives reinforced the past week at Omaha, Neb. Skenes’ fire in the College World Series, coupled with his past work and extreme size, could yet make him the pick at No. 1 overall over Crews. Last week’s ranking: 3

3. Wyatt Langford, OF, University of Florida, 6-1, 225, RH batter: He torches good pitching. He hits 450-foot home runs. He can draw a walk. He can play center field, or if it comes that left field is more his bailiwick in the big leagues, he can be the epitome of the distinguished two-way All-Star standout. Someone is going to get a gem here, and it might yet be Detroit. Last week’s ranking: 2

4. Walker Jenkins, CF, 6-3, 205, South Brunswick High, Southport, North Carolina, LH batter: He’s the quiet one out there — waiting, waiting, but knowing he will be a top-five scoop by some MLB team that sees his bat and athleticism as talents that need only be nurtured by a patient big-league club. Last week’s ranking: 4

5. Max Clark, OF, Franklin (Indiana) Community High School, 6-1, 190, LH batter: Still a wild-card possibility at No. 1 overall. When you’re this athletic, and perhaps are open to a reasonable slot-dollar signing, the combination could be too much (see: Pirates in some past drafts). Last week’s ranking: 5

6. Jacob Wilson, shortstop, Grand Canyon University, 6-3, 190, RH batter: Not a ton of power. Not an immense ceiling. Still a likely top-10 option. But if he slips, that power category, coupled with the fact he saw lesser pitching in college, could drop Wilson deeper into the first round. Last week’s ranking: 6

7. Rhett Lowder, RH starter, Wake Forest, 6-2, 200: It’s difficult to see Lowder going later than No. 7. Of course, he’s a pitcher. Of course, pitchers are risks. But look at his junior season and his flash-and-fury at Omaha and this is a guy headed for meaningful MLB work. Last week’s ranking: 7

8. Matt Shaw, IF, University of Maryland, 5-11, 182, RH batter: You wonder if Shaw could be a surprise either way. Because of his power, is he a left-side infielder who could supplant, say, Wilson as a first infield pick? Or, because he likely can play only third base in the bigs, and because he didn’t see quite the pitching prowess in better baseball conferences, is he destined for a drop? The guess here: Power wins. Last week’s ranking: 8

9. Kyle Teel, C, University of Virginia, 6-1, 190, LH batter: Keel often is mentioned as a Tigers long shot at No. 3. That’s probably way too early, and probably a bad bet when any of the Big Three will be there for the Tigers, no matter how the order shakes out. But Keel might be the least appreciated top-shelf talent in this year’s draft. Last week’s ranking: 9

10. Jacob Gonzalez, SS, University of Mississippi, 6-2, 200, LH batter: A bit like Wilson in that he doesn’t create a lot of voltage — he’s what you could call a “nice” player. But consider position, and a left-handed bat with some muscle, and Gonzalez sticks as a top-tenner. Last week’s ranking: 10

Knocking at the door

Colin Houck, SS, Parkview High, Lilburn, Georgia, 6-2, 193, RH batter: If we’re talking surprises, ponder Houck as one who could crack the top 10.

Arjun Nimmala, SS, Strawberry Crest High (Dover, Florida), 6-1, 170, RH batter: Simply too skilled, and with a ceiling as high as your next commercial flight, for risk-taking MLB clubs to bypass.

Noble Meyer, RH starter, Jesuit High, West Linn, Oregon, 6-5, 200: Another name who could shake up that somewhat sleepy pack that has been sitting in its top slots for most of 2023. Prep pitcher? Meyer is a prepster in chronology, only. Big kid, with big promise.

Chase Dollander, RH starter, University of Tennessee, 6-2, 210: Lots of teams and scouts are stubborn when it comes to Dollander. They close their eyes to his bumpy spring and focus instead on the talent a pitcher otherwise holds and hasn’t quite harnessed in 2023.

Jack Hurley, CF, Virginia Tech, 6-foot, 185, LH hitter: Say the Tigers are left with Skenes at No. 3 and happily decide they have no choice but to take a Panzer tank of a pitcher. They could hope Hurley drops far enough for them to strike with their next choice, at No. 37. Improbable? Of course. But his stock is such that a player, probably underrated this spring, could be there.

Hurston Waldrep, RH starter, University of Florida, 6-1, 210: So many ups, and so many distracting downs during his past season with the Gators, that it can be forgotten this is a tremendous right-handed arm who is waiting for coaching and agent-politics and all the stuff that has hindered him in 2023 to disappear so he can begin crushing professional hitters.

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

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