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Tigers know No. 1 Draft pick a game changer

MLB.com @beckjason

DETROIT -- Tigers players hadn't yet officially reported to Spring Training when the biggest meetings in Tigertown were taking place. A couple of weeks before workouts began, general manager Al Avila had gathered scouts together. Ilitch Holdings CEO Christopher Ilitch was there, too, having asked to take part.

One big topic was the MLB Draft.

DETROIT -- Tigers players hadn't yet officially reported to Spring Training when the biggest meetings in Tigertown were taking place. A couple of weeks before workouts began, general manager Al Avila had gathered scouts together. Ilitch Holdings CEO Christopher Ilitch was there, too, having asked to take part.

One big topic was the MLB Draft.

"As far as I'm concerned, our scouting staff, our player development staff, have the very most important work in the entire organization," Ilitch said earlier this month.

Flash forward to the final days of Spring Training, as bags were being packed in the clubhouse, and Avila was asked about the role the Tigers' recently expanded analytics department is playing in the team's decisions.

"I would say 80 percent of their time, they're spending on the amateur Draft," Avila said earlier this week.

It's also about to occupy a good chunk of Avila's time, as the former scouting director and college coach makes plans to travel and see top prospects firsthand.

"We have the first pick," Avila said, "so it's not like I'll have to see 25 guys. I might have to just see five guys."

Assistant GM David Chadd, who served as the Tigers' scouting director for years, chuckled as he listened.

"Five or 45," Chadd said.

"Maybe a few more than that," Avila said with a smile.

Those two scenes demonstrate how critical the Tigers view the upcoming Draft to be -- as well as the first overall selection they hold. As the team's rebuilding effort moves ahead, the Draft is arguably the most important part. Unlike the Tigers' trade talks over the past eight months, their only limitations are the Draft pool.

But that could present the Tigers with a conundrum.

The top three players in MLB Pipeline's Draft rankings are pitchers. University of Florida right-hander Brady Singer was a teammate of last year's Tigers top pick, Alex Faedo, on the Gators' College World Series championship team. He tops the list, followed by high schoolers Ethan Hankins and Matthew Liberatore. Two other college pitchers, Auburn's Casey Mize and South Florida's Shane McClanahan, are on the rise.

The top three position players in the rankings are all high school infielders, with Arizona slugger Nolan Gorman (fourth) and shortstops Nander De Sedas (sixth) and Brice Turang (seventh). The top college position player ranked is Oregon State middle infielder Nick Madrigal at 11th, whose 5-foot-7 frame has drawn comparisons to Jose Altuve.

The Tigers already have a stockpile of pitching in their system. Their top four prospects in MLB Pipeline's rankings are starting pitchers, and all four landed in Pipeline's rankings of Top 100 Prospects across baseball.

Detroit doesn't have a hitter in the Top 100, and while it has potential impact hitters in its system, it doesn't have an elite position player. The Tigers could desperately use the type of position player that has topped Drafts in other years. So far, though, that doesn't seem to be there. Don't expect Detroit to make a reach for a lower-ranked prospect to try to get that. The Tigers, under Avila and his former boss Dave Dombrowski since 2002, have always drafted for the best player available rather than areas of need. That philosophy will continue, Avila said.

"You put the names on the board and you rank them, and you basically have the pick of what the best player is on the board that's next," Avila said. "Sometimes it's a pitcher, sometimes it's a position player. I will say that generally speaking, all things being equal, in most cases you would take a position player over a pitcher. In Draft history, that's usually what people want to do. But the thing is, if you've ever been in a Draft room -- and I can guarantee you all 30 Draft rooms would look similar -- the majority of the names on the board are pitchers, and the majority of them are right-handed pitchers."

That's based on history, and the Tigers have invested heavily to learn lessons from it, including years of data and storage capacity to stockpile it.

"We've invested in years and years of video scouting information, statistical information of NCAA, summer baseball, postseason," Avila said. "We have years and years of history that we've purchased as far as statistics, reports, video, that's going into this new system. That in itself is a tremendous advance that we've never had before."

The Tigers have also invested in technology for their scouts, equipping them with tablets to input reports and get up-to-the-minute information on lineups and pitching assignments, including who's pitching where on a given day so they can adjust their travel itineraries.

They have a lot of travel ahead.

"I can't say we've narrowed anything down," Avila said, "but we have a running list. It's really still early. There still might be guys that come into the picture a little bit later. But right now, I would say there's probably two or three guys out there that have caught our eye, but certainly there's a long list there, and we'll have to see how it all pans out in the next two months."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook.

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