Tigers draft class arrives, and there’s no letdown

Detroit News

In his second at-bat as a professional baseball player, Saturday, on the back fields at TigerTown in Lakeland, Florida, Max Clark ripped a two-run triple for the Tigers in a Florida Complex League game against the Yankees.

Nice debut for an 18-year-old center fielder the Tigers grabbed first (No. 3 overall) in last month’s MLB Draft and quickly signed to a $7.7 million contract.

In his second at-bat in a Tigers uniform, second-round pick Max Anderson last Wednesday lashed a double for the low-A Lakeland Flying Tigers. He later added a single.

Bennett Lee? A catcher and sixth-rounder from Wake Forest, Lee was 3-for-5 Saturday in his first professional game, also for Lakeland.

Gradually, they are settling in, these 19 players the Tigers snagged in last month’s MLB Draft.

Each new recruit must be added to a minor-league team’s roster within two weeks of signing. Generally, that means the FCL for high-school signees, with the FCL as well as low-A Lakeland common first stops for college players

“I think we try and set everybody up for the best start possible,” said Ryan Garko, who heads Tigers player-development. “We try to balance playing time with players from their own draft-class or at one of the affiliates.

“It’s a little bit of a jigsaw puzzle trying to make sure everybody gets at-bats, especially when there are players already at Lakeland or in the FCL. We should be fine. We want all the drafted guys to play so we can build a plan for the offseason. They’re all pretty close and all except Cerkownyk (Brady Cerkownyk, catcher and 15th-round pick whose Canadian citizenship has led to a slight delay) should play this week.”

As much as early assessments can be made about a draft class, this 2023 group has about it a different look and construct. In particular, the hitters taken in those first three slots — Clark, Anderson, and Pennsylvania prep second baseman Kevin McGonigle — are of such compelling talent and performance this could be the most substantive group the Tigers have drafted since they loaded-up in the 1970s with the framework for their last championship club.

The Tigers’ draft chiefs — Scott Harris, Rob Metzler, and Mark Conner — have been asked to talk in detail but aren’t yet discussing their overall strategies or financial manipulations in hammering together a 2023 draft class that last week was finalized.

The three offered early thoughts on players drafted, but they haven’t gotten into any deep analysis of how they gyrated their draft-board and finances to spend $16,477,500 on bonuses that exceeded by 4.6% the $15,747,200 that MLB’s office in New York allocated the Tigers in 2023 Mark Conner the second-most money of any MLB team apart from the Pirates ($16,185,700).

Those allowances are determined by a formula that includes the previous year’s win-loss record, market size, etc., and MLB expects those allocations to be minded, with just a skosh of wiggle-room.

A team can spend up to 5% more than it is handed for a particular year’s draft. But any money over budget is taxed at 75%. Exceed your draft spending by more than 5% and you’re looking at a forfeiture of the next year’s first-round pick, which is why no team has overshot 5% since the new rules were put into place in 2012.

Back to the Tigers, who employed some delicate give-and-take in making this a distinctly different Detroit talent-hunt.

They took Clark third overall, which MLB determined was worth maximum pay of $8,341,700. The Tigers got Clark to accept fourth-slot money ($7.7 million).

This benefited both parties. Clark was guaranteed No. 4 cash when it was possible he might have fallen to fifth or even deeper in the first round.

With the $660,000 savings, the Tigers were able to chase McGonigle with their next pick (37th overall — a compensation bonus selection) and get him to bite on a $2.8 million package and thus forgo his Auburn scholarship. The slot at 37 otherwise was $2.3 million.

Again, two parties prospered.

Same story in the second round when the Tigers decided Anderson had hitting skills that justified taking him with the 45th overall turn. The trick: They needed Anderson to chomp on a $1.4 million deal when the slot called for a maximum of $1.9 million.

Anderson’s incentive, as with Clark, was to lock in guaranteed money that might not have been as hefty had Anderson and his agent gambled and fallen deeper in the draft with its correspondingly weaker pay.

The Tigers parlayed their Anderson discount into signing a third-round choice: Oregon prep pitcher Paul Wilson, who got $1.7 million as opposed to the $945,000 MLB otherwise “suggested” for Detroit’s third round.

Wilson was able to say yes to $1.7 million and say goodbye to his Oregon State commitment. Had the pot not been sweetened to that vicinity — as the Tigers knew from conversations with him and his “adviser” — there would have been no gamble on selecting Wilson.

This pattern continued throughout Detroit’s 20 rounds, with them failing only to sign 17th and 18th-rounders (prep pitcher Bradley Stewart and prep third baseman Ethan Farris). Left unsaid by the Tigers was that draft picks this deep often are taken as insurance against earlier draftees not signing, which is the way it works for most MLB teams in most drafts.

This practice of saving money here, spending it there, is hardly unique to the Tigers nor to any MLB club. It’s a routine part of calibrating drafts and budgets.

But never, in all the years following this annual sweepstakes, have the Tigers waltzed through their first 20 picks with the dexterity they showed this year when the 2023 draft was considered to be particularly deep and rich.

Garko and his staff have been watching as the new troops have been descending on those scalding-hot fields at TigerTown.

“I’ll just say the early returns and the early feedback has been strong,” Garko said Sunday. “You do see a ton of potential in this group. They’re athletic, with good moves, and there’s a good variety of pitchers with different arm angles and stuff.

“Just watching them move around, we’ve been really impressed by the athleticism, the speed, and the potential.”

It’s always that way with drafts, of course, in any sport. Potential tends to exceed probabilities.

But mark this class down, even this summer, as the trigger to what should be better rosters in the years ahead and the first sign that talent-procurement for the Tigers has become more than a vision.

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

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