The Tigers in 2006 selected Andrew Miller in the first round of the draft, ahead of future Tiger Max Scherzer. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
They liked Andrew Miller more that day in June 2006. And, truth be told — and for diplomatic reasons it can’t — they probably were closer to grabbing Tim Lincecum than that right-handed starter from Missouri, Max Scherzer, as the first round of the 2006 draft unfurled.
The Tigers, though, never forgot about Scherzer. They have an organizational ardor for hard throwers with sturdy bodies. And so it was no wonder Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers front-office chief, after consulting with his battery of scouts, made Scherzer the centerpiece of a whopping, team-changing trade in December 2009 that brought a possible 2013 Cy Young Award winner to the Tigers.
“Yeah, and it’s also one of those things I don’t think I want to share at this point,” Dombrowski said this week, stamping top-secret on the precise conversations he had with his sleuths ahead of the 2009 winter meetings’ most dramatic deal. “It was more of a situation where our people did a tremendous job scouting and recommending. Our people who saw him really liked him.”
The three-team blockbuster deal announced that evening in Indianapolis had enormous implications for the Tigers as they began in 2011 a string of consecutive division titles.
The deal involved seven players heading in different directions: Curtis Granderson went to the Yankees, with then-Tigers starter Edwin Jackson moving to the Diamondbacks. Ian Kennedy was shipped from the Yankees to the Diamondbacks.
Scherzer, Austin Jackson, Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth were Detroit-bound. The Tigers had a top-of-the-rotation arm and a new center fielder and leadoff batter as the heavyweight trade chips culled from a powerhouse transaction.
At the time, Scherzer was appreciated but was no big deal. He was 25 and had put together a decent package of 30 starts to the tune of: 4.12 ERA, 1.34 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning), and workload of 1701⁄3 innings in which he struck out 174, walked 63 and allowed 166 hits.
But he was 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, and could throw a lightning fastball. With the physical frame Dombrowski’s administration loves in a starting pitcher, and with a red-meat fastball the Tigers also insist upon, the imperfect aspects of Scherzer’s game were but dings and dents to Tigers scouts or to Dombrowski.
They thought he would get better. Much better. Even with that funky, horizontal-hitch delivery he was then featuring in somewhat rougher fashion, the Tigers saw in Scherzer a pitcher who could team with Justin Verlander to produce fireball starts that tend to make days and nights uncomfortable for opposing hitters.
They would not necessarily have foreseen 2013. Scherzer has a 21-3 record, a 2.90 ERA, and a league-leading starters’ WHIP of 0.97. He has 240 strikeouts in 2141⁄3 innings. He has walked 52 and allowed 152 hits. He has put together a 31-6 record since mid-June 2012. And he could very well win the 2013 Cy Young Award.
“We had a lot of scouts in Arizona then,” said Dombrowski, revealing at least a glimpse into the Tigers war room. “Scott Reid, Scott Bream, Dick Egan. David Chadd (vice president of amateur scouting) and his scouts had really liked him coming out of school. Our guys did a good job.”
Chadd isn’t about to say why the Tigers went for Miller, then a North Carolina hotshot, ahead of Scherzer, except that left-handers with the size and brand of pitches Miller was throwing in 2006 tend to make scouts smile.
He won’t say why the Tigers liked Miller (sixth overall) ahead of Clayton Kershaw, who was taken by the Dodgers seventh, although college arms are considered a safer path than investing in high school blue chips. He can’t explain why Miller was chosen over the long-haired right-hander from the Washington, Lincecum, whom the Giants grabbed at No. 10. Nor, can he say — although it was understood to be maximum talent for minimum dollars — why the Royals made Luke Hochevar the first overall selection in 2006.
Scherzer lasted until No. 11 likely because of two factors: the hitch-and-go delivery some teams didn’t quite trust. And, to be sure, the fact Scott Boras was, and is, Scherzer’s agent. The price tag was going to be stiff (Scherzer later signed for $3 million).
Baseball America’s predraft scouting report on Scherzer said this:
“Expected to be the first right-hander selected in the 2006 draft. Scherzer has slipped a few notches this spring. He missed an early-season start after slamming a door on the middle finger of his pitching hand, and five more at midseason with biceps tendinitis.
“Since coming back from the tendinitis, he has only flashed the mid-to-upper 90s velocity he showed throughout 2005 with Missouri, and with Team USA during the summer. Scherzer has pitched more at 91-92 mph, often peaking at 95.
“While he has one of the best pure arms in the draft, he doesn’t consistently have a second plus-pitch. His slider is effective but usually rates as a 50 or 55 on the 20-80 scouting scale.
“He has added a wide-grip change-up and a two-seam fastball in the last year, and he’s still refining his secondary pitches. While he has toned down his delivery in college, he still throws with more effort than Joba Chamberlain or Hochevar. More than most of the top pitching prospects in this draft, Scherzer may be better-suited as a closer than as a frontline starter.
“Add that to his abbreviated spring, and his choice of advisers (Boras), and Scherzer could slide into the middle of the first round.”
The Tigers might have acknowledged all of that in 2009. But never for a moment did they dismiss Scherzer or his raw power. And as the scouts bird-dogged him during that summer, notes and reports eventually would make Scherzer part of Detroit’s roster.
“We all know his delivery is a little funky,” Dombrowski said. “It’s not your normal delivery. The analysis (scouts in 2006) would have been that he would be a successful at the big-league level and would be a hard worker, and that he would work through those things.”
He did. Baseball America released in August its 2013 list of Best Tools, as voted upon by big league managers. Scherzer was rated as having the American League’s best fastball and second-best slider (Chris Sale of the White Sox was first). Managers dubbed him the league’s best pitcher.
Always on the radar
All of this had been seen, to some degree, by Tigers scouts as they envisioned Scherzer refining his change-up and perhaps adding a fourth pitch, which he has managed with a curveball that finally arrived in useable fashion in 2013.
“He was always a hard thrower, he had a lot of qualities,” Dombrowski said of a man he clearly targeted ahead of the Yankees-Diamondbacks-Tigers trade thunder. “He was a strikeout kind of pitcher, a big tall guy. And he wasn’t just a one-year wonder. He was a guy who had a history.”
The Tigers are known in Dombrowski’s era for doing their homework on a player’s personal side. They knew Scherzer would have been off to a high-powered career in finance or business had he not decided to pitch for a living.
Cerebral, they say of Scherzer. Dombrowski only chuckles.
“Yes, no question about that,” he said as the Tigers prepare for Friday’s playoffs opener against the A’s. “But I guess everyone could scout him and determine that.”