The last time the Tigers struggled through as rough of a season as they did last year, they used their first-round Draft pick the following summer to jump-start their turnaround. Justin Verlander’s arrival was the hope Tigers fans needed following a 119-loss season in 2003.
There’s no guarantee the Tigers, holding the first overall pick this year, will get that kind of karma after last year’s 114-loss season. But with every home run highlight of Arizona State's Spencer Torkelson that went viral on Twitter in February and early March or every radar gun reading on Texas A&M left-hander Asa Lacy or every scouting report comparing Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin to a current big league hitter, the hope rose that the top pick could change the franchise.
“We do have some good college bats,” scouting director Scott Pleis said earlier this spring.
No matter what happens with baseball in 2020, Tigers fans likely will remember this year for whomever the team selects in next week’s MLB Draft, much like they remember 2018 for top overall pick Casey Mize (OK, for the Rally Goose, too). And with potentially elite college hitters at the top of most Draft rankings, this is Detroit’s chance to get a much-needed offensive star to go with the star-studded crop of pitching prospects who wowed fans in Spring Training.
The Tigers haven’t had an All-Star hitter come out of their Draft since 2009, when Curtis Granderson (2002 third-round pick) and Brandon Inge (1998 second-round pick) were on the American League squad. James McCann, Detroit’s second-round pick in 2011, made last year’s Midsummer Classic, but with the White Sox. With chairman/CEO Christopher Ilitch and general manager Al Avila focused on building a contender from within the system, the importance of changing that trend is obvious.
"There's no doubt about it, I think fans want to see stars, even better when they're homegrown stars," Ilitch said in Spring Training, as rumors of Detroit's interest in Torkelson and Martin were building. "If we can see some of our young prospects develop into stars, it's going to be very, very exciting."
Just two Tigers Draft picks, Christin Stewart and Grayson Greiner, are projected to be part of the lineup this year. The club’s first-round pick last year, Riley Greene, has star potential, rising to full-season Class A West Michigan shortly after his selection last summer. Torkelson and Martin, by most accounts, have the potential to get to the big leagues in a hurry.
Day 1 of the 2020 Draft airs tonight on MLB Network and ESPN at 7 p.m. ET and includes the first 37 picks. Day 2 begins at 5 p.m. ET on Thursday on MLB Network and ESPN2 and spans the remainder of the 160 picks.
• MLB Network channel locator
Comprehensive coverage will be available on MLB.com and MLB Pipeline, which will simulcast MLB Network’s broadcast. Go to MLB.com/Draft to see when teams pick, the Top 200 Prospects list, mock drafts from analysts Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo, scouting video and more. And follow @MLBDraft and @MLBDraftTracker on Twitter to see what Draft hopefuls, clubs and experts are saying and to get each pick as it’s made.
Here’s how the Draft is shaping up for the Tigers, who own the first overall pick for the second time in three years:
State of the system
The Tigers’ system has steadily improved over the past couple of years, placing fifth in MLB Pipeline’s organizational rankings released in March and landing four prospects in the top half of MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Prospects. Much of that rise comes from pitching, but the selection of Greene last year added a potentially elite hitter.
What they’re saying
“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 need than anything else, you're going to pass 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.” -- scouting director Scott Pleis
Whom might they take?
Barring a negotiating snafu, Detroit is expected to use the top pick on Torkelson, having scouted him heavily before the coronavirus pandemic ended the college season in early March. Lacy could be Plan B, according to Callis, but the Tigers clearly have an abundance of pitching, even after one acknowledges the inherent injury risk among pitching prospects. Martin is another option, but while he’s regarded by many as the best pure hitter in the Draft, he doesn’t have the power of Torkelson.
Though there has been some speculation the Tigers could sign Lacy or New Mexico shortstop Nick Gonzales for less than slot value and use the extra pool money for later picks, the Tigers do not have a history of that strategy. They consistently have taken a best-player-available approach to the Draft.
Under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, each team gets an allotted bonus pool equal to the sum of the values of that club's selections in the first 10 rounds of the Draft. The more picks a team has, and the earlier it picks, the larger the pool. This year, with a five-round Draft, all signing bonuses will apply toward the bonus pool total.
For 2020, there is a $20,000 limit on bonuses for non-drafted free agents. There is no limit to the number of undrafted players teams may sign, but they cannot go over $20,000 per player. These bonuses do not count toward the pool total.
This year, the Tigers have a pool of $13,325,700 to spend, including $8,415,300 to spend on their first selection.
The Tigers feel like they have the foundation of their next great rotation in the upper levels of the farm system. They could always use pitching depth, especially if they eventually trade one or more of those top prospects. More than anything, though, they need more hitting, even after using their top six picks in last year’s Draft and three of their top four picks in 2018 on position players. Their shortstop depth is iffy behind starter Niko Goodrum and prospect Willi Castro, though Wenceel Perez and Adinso Reyes provide potential in the lower levels.
The Tigers have also used picks in recent years on college relief prospects who could move quickly through the system, such as former University of Miami closer Bryan Garcia in 2016 and LSU’s Zack Hess last year.
Greene’s selection last year ended a streak of four consecutive years in which the Tigers used their top pick on a pitcher. Aside from Stewart, a 2015 comp pick out of the University of Tennessee, Detroit hasn’t used a first-round selection on a college hitter since USC slugger Eric Munson in 1999.
The recent top picks
2019: Riley Greene, OF
2018: Casey Mize, RHP
2017: Alex Faedo, RHP
2016: Matt Manning, RHP
2015: Beau Burrows, RHP
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.