Henning: Tigers spin the wheel in draft

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Beau Burrows

Apart from wondering how Pat Sajak manages to look like he did in 1985, "Wheel of Fortune" draws its mystifyingly loyal audience for a simple reason. People like to see other people have a crack at winning stuff.

There is something of a correlation here to baseball's annual June draft, but only in the sense that on Sajak's show a game of chance is determined by the randomness of a spinning wheel. As the Tigers will vouch, drafting baseball players is a more risky, and infinitely more expensive, gamble.

They made 40 picks in this month's big league talent hunt. To date they have signed 12 of their top 15 nominees and many of the remainder. One who hasn't yet signed ahead of the July 15 deadline is Louisiana State catcher Kade Scivicque, a fourth-round honoree, who is expected to formalize his Tigers agreement within a few days.

Scivicque's status is different from the situation with seventh-round Colorado prep shortstop Nick Shumpert, son of former big leaguer Terry Shumpert. Nick is a star talent whom the Tigers believed would forgo his University of Kentucky scholarship to accept slot money (a sum within the range of big league baseball's mandated amounts that can be spent on a particular draft pick) to become a Tigers farmhand.

That has not happened, much to Detroit's surprise, if not Shumpert's. Numbers were known by each party ahead of June's sweepstakes and the Tigers had every reason to believe, based on their meticulous homework, that Shumpert would bite on an offer as generous as Commissioner Rob Manfred's office permits for such a pick (in the neighborhood of $250,000-$500,000, depending on how the Tigers want to handle their draft bookkeeping).

The other Top 15 player who hasn't yet signed: A.J. Simcox, a 6-foot-3, junior shortstop from the University of Tennessee, whom the Tigers grabbed in the 14th round, even if he is a Scott Boras client who will want a check fat enough to pry him from his senior year at Knoxville.

Those are today's news updates from a 2015 Tigers draft that won't offer a fuller picture until the July 15 deadline for signing selected players arrives.

Pitching help

Otherwise, the Tigers probably got some future help, beginning with those early-round forays, which tend to provide a big league team with its heavier nutrition.

The Tigers got the first-round pitcher they hoped would be around at No. 23 overall, Texas prep right-hander Beau Burrows. As testimony to how much they wanted Burrows, notice they decided on him over two coveted college right-handers: Vanderbilt's Walker Buehler (No. 24 overall, Dodgers) and Louisville's Kyle Funkhouser (Dodgers, No. 35 overall), who was still heavy on Detroit's list even after he had a so-so spring that dropped his first-round stock.

David Chadd, the Tigers' director of amateur scouting, for months had been scoping out Burrows alongside area scout Chris Wimmer, as well as Tigers scouting cross-checkers. They decided Burrows has the size (pushing 6-foot-2), power arm, and sophisticated secondary quiver (curveball, change-up) to match a rattlesnake mound-temperament, all of which told them Burrows should rank no lower than a No. 2 starter in a big league rotation.

On the matter of Burrows, there was no debate. But the gambling, the wheel-spinning, soon began, as it does for every team in every draft.

The Tigers had another pick at No. 34 overall (ahead of the second round) as their consolation prize for losing Max Scherzer to free agency. They wanted a left-handed hitting outfielder from the University of Tennessee, Christin Stewart, but knew he would never last until their next pick, No. 65 overall, in the second round.

So they grabbed the power-hitting Stewart, and hoped either of two unnamed players they also would have loved in that Top 40-50 vicinity would be there at 65.

They weren't. And now you know why Chadd mentioned late on the draft's first evening that the Tigers "got their pockets picked" a couple of times through the draft's initial two rounds. He never elaborated. But somewhere between the selection of Stewart at No. 34 and Texas Christian left-hander Tyler Alexander at No. 65 the Tigers saw two impressive players disappear.

Not that they were snorting at their second-round decision: Alexander, whom they had been chasing since he was in high school.

Chadd and Co. see in Alexander much of what they liked about a second-round, left-hander they got in 2010 from the University of Arkansas, Drew Smyly.

Control. Command. "Pitchability," as they say. Alexander projects to be pushing for a big league job in a couple of seasons. And there began an early bid to help re-stock a Tigers farm system light on left-handers.

Tyler Alexander

More college arms

They stuck with pitching in the third round, this time going for a right-hander, Drew Smith, from Dallas Baptist. He has a fastball that can cruise at 95-96 mph and a curveball that nearly is as good as the sixth-round left-hander the Tigers grabbed from Missouri State, Matt Hall.

"He led the NCAA in strikeouts," Chadd said, speaking of Hall's past season, when he was a junior at Missouri State. "He doesn't have an electric fastball, but he's got a plus-plus curveball that he throws for strikes. He threw a one-hitter against Arkansas in the (NCAA) regional."

The Tigers, of course, had made Cam Gibson, son of Kirk Gibson, their fifth-round choice. He bats left-handed, plays the outfield, and essentially raises the devil on a baseball field, which is why Chadd thinks he'll crack the big leagues.

Finishing up their top 10, the Tigers took two more college right-handers — Dominic Moreno from Texas Tech and Trey Teakell from Texas Christian — as well as an outfielder, Cole Baumi, from Northern Kentucky.

Chadd, who has been busy in tandem with his scouts signing players, was quizzed Saturday about his 2015 haul and, not surprisingly, said he felt "real good" about youngsters who already are making their way to Lakeland, Fla., or to Norwich, Conn., as the short-season summer instruction and schedules begin.

"We got a high-school pitcher we really like," he said of Burrows, "with a lot of ability and a tremendous arm. We think Teakell will be a quick-mover. The kid, Moreno, is from Canada and we didn't know a lot about him, but he's already throwing 97 at GCL (rookie Gulf Coast League)."

The Tigers thus did earlier this month what 29 other clubs did when their turns arrived and 1,200 amateur players were, at various points in a 40-round draft, arbitrarily drafted for duty.

They gambled. They hoped. They trusted as much as scouts can ever trust that young baseball players might develop into that low-percentage crowd that someday makes it to the big leagues.