June 7, 2014 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Prep outfielder Derek Hill was no consolation pick for Tigers

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, left, poses with outfielder Derek Hill at the MLB draft Thursday night. (Bill Kostroun / Associated Press)

You likely were among the tens of millions who watched last month’s NFL draft. Now, there’s a night of entertainment and drama. NFL teams can change their profile with a single pick. And considering elite rookies pretty much have a roster spot and starting assignment locked up, immediacy helps make the draft irresistible.

All of the above makes the NFL sweepstakes the opposite of big-league baseball’s flesh feast, which began Thursday evening, continued through Saturday, and spanned 40 rounds, the last 20 of which are a bit like thumbing through a phone book in terms of names and randomness and the chances they’ll ever see a big-league diamond.

First-rounders, though, tend to make it, something the Tigers wager will happen again with the California high school outfielder they snagged Thursday night, Derek Hill, an 18-year-old with skills every scouting bureau in America considers exceptional.

The Tigers grabbed Hill and wanted him at No. 23 overall more than the two players drafted just ahead of him that some of us — hand raised — thought they would have preferred: Casey Gillaspie, a switch-hitting first baseman from Wichita State who was nabbed by the Rays at No. 20, and South Carolina prep right-hander Grant Holmes, who was snatched by the Dodgers at No. 22 when it was believed the Dodgers were destined to pick Hill.

“When I saw Hill, he was by far my favorite player in the draft,” David Chadd, the Tigers director of amateur scouting, said during a Friday phone conversation. “The whole room (scouts and front-office personnel assembled) was ecstatic.

“A lot of people put in a lot of work seeing this kid.”

Tuning out the critics

Chadd was not whitewashing here.

He has leveled in the past about players the Tigers lost. He and his bird dogs liked the switch-hitting Gillaspie. But a man who plays first base and who some scouts outside of Detroit believe to be light on the power scale, was not a must-have prospect.

Holmes might be the best prep pitcher in America and the Tigers have less fear than most teams taking high school arms (Rick Porcello, Jacob Turner, Jake Thompson, etc.). But the toughest percentage to beat in baseball drafting is pushing a big, hard-throwing pitcher from high school fields to the big leagues.

Hill, the Tigers scouts concluded, had no such downside. He is the fastest player the Tigers have drafted in the past 10 years — “an extra gear,” Chadd said. He has the best outfield glove and range. He has a superb arm.

The Tigers worked him out last week at Comerica Park and loved even more what they saw. He sent two pitches over the left-field fence, one beyond the bullpens and into the seats.

“There’s not a long of swing and miss to him,” said Chadd, who doesn’t buy the “light-hitting” tag MLB Network’s John Hart and various outside scouts have stuck on Hill, whose dad, Orsino, played in the Dodgers system for years and now scouts for L.A.

“Super kid — super family,” said Chadd, who knows being nice and making your bed every day doesn’t have much to do with cracking a big-league lineup as the center fielder the Tigers imagine they drafted Thursday. What it tends to do is help stabilize kids as they deal with the pressures and grind of professional baseball, particularly during the tough early years.

Hill is 6-foot-1, 185 pounds. Teenage athletes tend to add size and muscle as they move into their 20s. Chadd submits the line-drive hitter scouts now see in Hill will morph into a man with reasonable power.

But that’s the challenge, always the challenge: hitting.

Switching things up

It’s the most difficult art in all of sports, making hard contact with a speeding, gyrating big-league pitch. So many prospects, good ones, fail.

The difference in Hill, as much as these talents can be measured, is that he has skill and sophistication more easily gauged in 2014 than in past years. The science has advanced dramatically with technology and metrics that help scouts whose seasoned eyes remain scouting’s great skill and secret.

The Tigers rarely take position players with their top pick. They did it with Cameron Maybin, who became part of the Miguel Cabrera trade, and who, injuries aside, was attractive enough to earn a nice five-year contract from the Padres. The Tigers drafted Nick Castellanos four years ago and are breaking in a rookie third baseman.

They took James McCann three years ago and have a decent big-league catching prospect growing at Triple A Toledo.

Hill, the Tigers staff acknowledges, has more multi-tool talent than any player they have drafted since a new administration arrived in Detroit.

And that was clear Thursday night for one historically transparent reason.

The Tigers are a pitching-first organization. To have steered them from an arm Thursday means the position player had to have been overwhelmingly appealing. Hill was just that, and now it’s up to him, and more important, his bat, to convince Tigers customers Chadd and Co. knew precisely what they were doing with that first-round pick in 2014.



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