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Top-pick Tigers poring over video for MLB Draft

@beckjason
April 21, 2020

DETROIT -- The Tigers are still on the clock with the first pick in the 2020 MLB Draft. That isn’t changing. The baseball landscape all around it has. “It's going to be different,” general manager Al Avila said on a Tuesday morning conference call. “We just have to adapt to

DETROIT -- The Tigers are still on the clock with the first pick in the 2020 MLB Draft. That isn’t changing. The baseball landscape all around it has.

“It's going to be different,” general manager Al Avila said on a Tuesday morning conference call. “We just have to adapt to it.”

Right about now would’ve been the time for Avila to be spotted at Phoenix Municipal Stadium for a first-hand look at Arizona State slugger Spencer Torkelson, or in Nashville to check out Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin, or maybe sneaking around somewhere to spot a dark horse candidate for the top pick. Team chairman/CEO Christopher Ilitch might have been by his side, looking at their potential investment like he did with Casey Mize at Auburn a couple years ago.

That’s not happening. Nor are area scouts, the grinders of the MLB Draft prep work, traversing the country to watch games in search of potential breakout prospects. With the coronavirus pandemic halting baseball schedules everywhere, there are no amateur games to scout.

Instead, there are web conferences bringing Tigers scouts together, comparing notes on players who haven’t played since at least mid-March. There are phone calls, text messages and FaceTime calls between scouts and players, their families, and maybe even advisors. There are daily logs into Caesar, the Tigers’ now-burgeoning database.

And there’s video -- lots and lots of video.

“We're going over a lot of video,” scouting director Scott Pleis said. “We realize nothing can replace seeing them [in person] and watching when you're at the game, but the video is very good now and gets better every day.”

Thus, Pleis said, the Draft work goes on, even as the shape of the Draft remains to be seen. As part of Major League Baseball’s agreement with the MLB Players Association last month, MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand noted, the MLB Draft can be reduced to as few as five rounds or could go as many as 40, or somewhere between. MLB also has the right to delay this year’s Draft past its currently scheduled start date of June 10, but no later than July 20. MLB also has the right to hold a combine for amateur players if it makes sense.

The Tigers have four of the top 74 picks, including a competitive-balance pick near the end of the second round.

“We're going to have enough players [scouted] and prepare for any situation, however long it goes, and not guess on what we think might happen,” Pleis said. “Really, we’re doing everything but going to the games right now. We're getting to know the players. We're evaluating as far as going over reports. Were going over video and doing everything we can.”

Video for top-pick candidates isn’t hard to find. Nearly all of Torkelson’s games at Arizona State were broadcast somewhere, whether on MLB Network or through the Pac 12 Networks’ online system. His monster home run against Cal State-Fullerton last month became a highlight thanks to a Fullerton online telecast. Other footage is available in-house, and Vanderbilt baseball isn’t much different. Between early-season work and previous seasons, the Tigers have all the information they need on those two.

“There will be statistical analysis on the numbers that would've been from mid-March all the way through the season that won't get analyzed. That's significant,” Avila said. “But at the end of the day, we have to do the best with the information we've got, which is good information. We're going to use the information we have to make the best decision possible.”

And no, the Tigers aren’t tipping their hand on who they’re leaning toward taking. Detroit clearly needs an impact offensive prospect, but Pleis is scouting in a vacuum and letting his bosses decide.

“There are some good bats. There's some really good arms up top, too,” Pleis said. “In my position, I have to give Al the best talent. Obviously, there's been a lot of talk about the need for a bat, and we have a lot of good arms.

“It's a tough thing when you're talking about these guys, because if you start thinking more [about organizational] need than anything else, you're going to pass on a guy who might be quite a bit better. My job is to give the Tigers the best player and the best impact we can get. That's No. 1, and then hopefully it falls into your needs also, and then everybody's happy.”

The tougher challenge in this environment is evaluating the smaller-college and high school prospects who could go in the ensuing rounds. The Tigers have information from summer leagues and showcase events last year, but for players in the north, unless teams made a trip in February to warmer climates for an event, there might be little information from this year.

“When college baseball and high school stopped in mid-March, some guys didn't get to play,” Avila said. “You don’t get the benefit of following the games.”

Said Pleis: “The high school [kids], really it's kind of tough on those guys because we need to see them more. We have way more information on the college players. We’ve seen them more often. They're way more predictable. The high school guys, you're still figuring them out. You wish you had a little more time with those guys.”

Add in the decisions facing high school players about college versus pro ball, as well as college players weighing whether to stay in school and use their potential extra eligibility if they’re not picked early, and the conversations with players and families become even more important, particularly if the Draft is shorter.

“A lot of non-drafted free agents, we'll already have them ranked as far as reports,” Avila said. “We'll probably have a group of guys we're going to want to go after and try to sign. Now the difference is, because they're undrafted free agents, they can sign with any team they want.”

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