For the second time in three years, the Tigers own the No. 1 overall pick in the Draft. The goal remains the same, to select the most talented player, but the process is entirely different than it was when they selected right-hander Casey Mize in 2018.
With the coronavirus ending baseball games at all levels in mid-March, Detroit lost two-plus months of time that it expected to have to continue to evaluate prospects. Scouting director Scott Pleis says his club is focusing on what it can accomplish rather than what it can't.
"We're trying to make sure we're doing the right things and exhausting the process," Pleis said. "With a year like this year, when it gets shut down, you just have to go out and scout it differently. We don't get to go back and reassure ourselves or sway our decision because we don't get extra looks.
"We have to go on the history of what we've seen, the analytics, the data, the makeup. It’s the same process but cut short. We played just enough before it got shut down that I got to see a lot of the guys. We were on these guys last year and some of them since high school in a lot of cases."
Like every other team, the Tigers have had to adapt to a new reality this spring. They're doing more video scouting, having more virtual conferences with their staff and are getting to know players via Zoom meetings.
Detroit won't have to make an official decision until June 10, when it's scheduled to exercise the No. 1 overall choice at 7:11 pm ET. Pleis said the Tigers' braintrust has narrowed down the field and will further discuss its options this week.
"We continue to talk," Pleis said. "We have five or six guys we're beating up pretty hard. We feel good about it. We just want to do everything we can to make sure we know everything we need to know."
While Pleis didn't specifically identify the finalists, sources believe they consist of Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson, Vanderbilt outfielder/third baseman Austin Martin, Texas A&M left-hander Asa Lacy, Georgia right-hander Emerson Hancock and New Mexico State middle infielder Nick Gonzales -- the top five-rated players on MLB Pipeline's Draft Top 200. Officials with other clubs would be surprised if Detroit doesn't take Torkelson No. 1. Lacy and Martin are believed to be the next contenders, with Gonzales and Hancock more on the back burner.
Torkelson offers a rare combination of pop, hitting ability and plate discipline, and he may be the best offensive prospect to come out of the Draft since Mark Teixeira in 2001. He broke Barry Bonds' Arizona State freshman record with 25 homers in 2018, led the Pac-12 Conference for the second straight year with 23 in 2019 and fell just two shy of breaking Bob Horner's school career mark of 56 despite losing most of his junior season.
The best pure hitter in the Draft, Martin topped the Southeastern Conference in hitting (.392) and on-base percentage (.486) last season while helping Vanderbilt win the College World Series. He has solid speed and twitchy athleticism, though concerns about his throwing leave his defensive home uncertain, with most scouts thinking he'll wind up at second base or in center field.
Lacy has established himself as the top pitching prospect in his class thanks to a fastball, slider and changeup that all can grade as well above average at their best. He ranked third in NCAA Division I in opponent average (.162) and eighth in strikeout rate (13.2 per nine innings) as a sophomore, and posted even better numbers (.111 and 17.3) this spring.
After entering 2020 as MLB Pipeline's No. 1-rated Draft prospect, Hancock wasn't quite as sharp as usual during the truncated season. But he still has the best combination of stuff and polish in this Draft, having hit 99 mph with riding life on his fastball and showing three secondary pitches that can earn at least plus grades when they're on.
Though Gonzales moved to shortstop this year, he profiles better as an offensive second baseman in the mold of Keston Hiura. He led NCAA Division I in batting (.432) as a sophomore and in home runs (12 in 16 games), runs (28), RBIs (36) and total bases (67) this spring, sandwiched around winning Cape Cod League MVP honors last summer.
The Tigers' system is much stronger in pitching than hitting, with Mize, fellow first-round right-handers Matt Manning and Alex Faedo and dominating lefty Tarik Skubal headlining one of the most impressive groups of pitching prospects in the game. Pleis said need won't factor into the No. 1 choice, however.
"At 1-1, you have to take the best guy," Pleis said. "If you start playing games by need, you potentially pass on some very good players. You definitely take the best player, and it's really nice if it falls into what you need and it works out. But if I let the best guy slip through our fingers because we need something, that's not good."