Top 2 Detroit Tigers picks no strangers, thanks to lessons learned on Team USA

Detroit Free Press

The photo is so cool when you look at it now, through the lens of hindsight, after everything that happened in the 2023 MLB draft.

Two of the Detroit Tigers‘ 2023 picks standing side by side, wearing red, white and blue.

Max Clark, the Tigers’ first-round pick on Sunday night, is grinning for the camera while biting on a gold medal after Team USA’s 5-1 victory over Chinese Taipei in the title game of the under-18 Baseball World Cup in Sarasota, Florida, on Sept. 18, 2022.

Eye black smeared down his left cheek. A tuft of blonde hair sticking out the side of his Team USA hat.

Next to Clark? Kevin McGonigle, the Tigers’ second pick on Sunday, also biting on a gold medal, with his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses.

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Clark and McGonigle are in the middle of the frame, holding the trophy together, as if sharing it.

Team USA teammates. World champions.

And now, less than a year later, united again as Tigers prospects.

How freakin’ cool.

If everything goes as planned, these two 18-year-olds will climb through the Tigers’ minor-league system together. Just like Tram and Lou. Tork and Greene. I mean, if everything goes perfectly.

“They have a relationship, they have a history together, and it’s a winning history,” said Denny Hocking, the former Minnesota Twin who coached that Team USA squad. “They’ll probably be at the same place (in the Tigers minor league system) together. They’ll probably be roommates — all of those things. They’ll probably bat back-to-back in the order. I’m pretty sure that the Detroit Tigers will make them a part of one another’s lives just to create a little bit more comfortability with each other.”

Even though they already have experience as teammates, they couldn’t be more different.

Clark, a center fielder from Franklin, Indiana, is brash and outgoing — extremely comfortable in front of a camera, building his brand.

McGonigle, a middle infielder from the outskirts of Philadelphia, is far quieter and more reserved — a bring your lunchpail to work kind of guy.

Yin and yang, in that respect.

And maybe that’s a good thing.

“I’m sure that some of Max will rub off on Kevin,” Hocking said. “And some of Kevin will rub off on Max.”

‘Can you lead?’

Hocking met Clark last summer on opening night of the Prospect Development Pipeline League at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, North Carolina — the first step to making the national team.

“He came up and introduced himself to me and I remember the conversation,” Hocking said. “He put his hand out and said: ‘Coach, I really want to introduce myself. My name is Max Clark.’”

“Max, I know who you are,” Hocking said, shaking his hand.

Everybody knew who Clark was. He was the top-ranked high schooler in the country.

“I know what you are,” Hocking continued. “But more importantly, I’m here to watch how you can lead and see how many people are going to follow you.”

Clark had a strange look on his face.

“I don’t think anybody has ever told him that,” Hocking said. “I think everybody challenged him to be the best. I was challenging him to be something more than the best. And that was becoming a USA player and what that entails. It’s much more about the team and the country than it is yourself.”

Clark made the team, which was a significant personal achievement — a sign of how much he had improved — after getting cut from the national team when he was 15.

“Max is definitely self-driven, motivated young man and he had a turning point in his career when he was denied an opportunity early on to be on the Team USA national team,” Hocking said. “From that point, he really dedicated himself. After all that work, he put himself in a position to where he was ranked as the best high school player for the past three years.”

Of course, he made the team.

Clark started eight games for the United States, hit .280 and had a clutch tying homer against Canada.

During the tournament, McGonigle started all nine games and batted .240 for Team USA.

“Incredible, intense player,” Hocking said of McGonigle. “He’s the kind of kid that makes people around him better. Players gravitate towards him because of the respect he commands through work ethic and skill set.”

Hocking hit McGonigle first or second on a team that featured eight players who would go on to be drafted in Sunday’s first day of the MLB draft.

“He was a dependable bat,” Hocking said. “He has the ability to do things in high pressure situations. It’s an advanced approach at the plate, understands what the pitcher’s arsenal is and how the pitcher is gonna try to attack him. How he’s gonna try to stick with his strengths.”

Yes, that sounds exactly what the Tigers are looking for under Scott Harris, the Tigers’ president of baseball operations.

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Sound of a true teammate

During the tournament, Hocking had a verbal sign for his base runners.

He’d yell: “Roll Tide!”

That would prompt McGonigle, an Auburn commit, to yell back: “War Eagle!”

Then, something funny, and maybe a little telling, happened.

In the championship game, Bryce Eldridge hit a three-run homer that basically sealed the win. Eldridge — this year’s No. 16 pick — was an Alabama commit.

“Can I get a Roll Tide?” Hocking said to McGonigle in the dugout.

That was like asking an MSU commit to scream “Go Blue!” for a teammate.

“He kind of looks at me and bites his lip and just kind of shakes his head and goes: ‘Roll Tide!’ ” Hocking said. “I think it speaks volumes to what Kevin is like as a teammate. Everybody that’s in his uniform, he’s gonna do anything and everything to support them and to elevate them. That was probably my favorite Kevin McGonigle moment.”

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During that tournament, there was somebody important in the stands, watching, taking notes, making judgments, and getting amazing access to the team and meeting the guys.

Rob Metzler, then Tampa Bay’s senior director of amateur scouting, was learning all about this ridiculously talented group of youngsters.

“I got to see the team play a lot down there, so it was great,” Metzler said. “Seeing those players in that competitive environment is really a great scouting opportunity.”

About a month later, he was hired by the Tigers as their assistant general manager. And he played a critical role in this draft as the Tigers took Clark with the third overall pick.

As the draft went on and McGonigle was waiting to be taken, Hocking sent him a text.

“Be patient,” Hocking texted. “And take some names.”

The names of teams who passed on him.

“He said, ‘You bet I’m taking names,’ ” Hocking said.

The Tigers took him with the 37th overall pick.

“I think he’s gonna play with a chip on his shoulder and that’ll be an advantage to him,” Hocking said.

Don’t the great ones always do that? Find some slight? Find some source of motivation?

Fascinating.

Turns out, the two kids in that photo have a heck of a story.

A story that is just beginning, really.

Man, it’s gonna be fun to watch these two climb through the Tigers system.

Contact Jeff Seidel at jseidel@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

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