John Niyo and Lynn Henning talk about the MLB Draft, Casey Mize, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Nick Castellanos, Joe Jimenez and the wayward Canada goose. Detroit News
Detroit — The Tigers have done a decent job picking up the pieces and picking up the pace during their rebuild. Now comes the next big piece, the No. 1 selection in MLB’s Draft, and they can’t get this wrong,
The problem is, in baseball, it’s so, so hard to get it right, even at the top. Of the four major pro sports, baseball’s draft is the trickiest and riskiest, with its vast pool of high school and college players.
The Tigers’ choice Monday night probably won’t be a surprise, and probably won’t be an instant-impact guy. The pace of the rebuild will be set by decisions like this, and GM Al Avila didn’t exactly get the luck of the draw. There’s no surefire star sitting atop this year’s talent pile (not that anything is ever surefire), and the consensus top prospect is at the one position the Tigers’ farm system is stocked – starting pitching.
All indications are, Avila will stick with the prudent move and take the best player, Auburn right-handed pitcher Casey Mize. Avila swears he feels no more pressure than with any first-round pick, but admits he’d feel more comfortable if there was a ballyhooed hitting prospect waiting to be plucked.
“Obviously if you had that once-in-a-decade player out there, that would definitely make it a lot easier,” Avila said. “But in saying that, we still feel confident we’ll make a good pick. … I don’t know if there’s a can’t-miss guy. There’s been plenty of can’t-misses that have missed, as you all know in the history of the draft.”
Tigers fans painfully recall the only other time the team held the No. 1 pick. It was back in 1997 and the Tigers blew it, taking Rice pitcher Matt Anderson, who had an overpowering arm that translated into a brief, injury-marred career as a reliever.
Rolling the dice
Avila, assistant GM David Chadd and scouts reportedly zeroed in on their Mize prize a while ago, and barring last-minute misgivings, are expected to choose him over Florida pitcher Brady Singer, Georgia Tech catcher Joey Bart and others. It’s an important moment for the Tigers, although it’s not remotely on a level with the last No. 1 overall pick to come to a Detroit team, a quarterback by the name of Matthew Stafford in 2009.
In the short view, Mize and the second-round pick (44 overall) won’t have an immediate impact. In the long view, all these decisions stack up, and you see evidence of it at Comerica Park these days.
The Tigers were supposed to be one of the worst teams in baseball again, and instead are a respectable 28-31 under Ron Gardenhire. Everyone knows about the Rally Goose, which suffered its first defeat, 8-4 to the Blue Jays Sunday. It’s a symbol of the team’s feisty spirit, but in the grand scheme, the Tigers’ fate won’t be determined by fowl.
The long-term hope is to build a pitching staff with a potential golden goose, or two, or three. Five of the Tigers’ top six minor-league prospects are right-handed pitchers, with Franklin Perez, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo and Beau Burrows the top four. Faedo, Manning and Burrows are the team’s last three first-round picks, and Perez was the key piece in the Justin Verlander trade.
Would the Tigers love to stock up on big bats and position players, which they’re lacking in the minors? Of course.
Will Avila try to outsmart convention by grabbing a need instead of the best player? Highly doubtful.
“No no, you can only draft what the opportunity brings to you,” Avila said. “So if we feel the player we like the best on that board is a pitcher, and we have a lot of pitchers, we take a pitcher. Same thing if you have a lot of catchers. If it’s a catcher, you take the catcher. Talent is what we’re looking for, the best talent available.”
Since the amateur draft began in 1965, only 17 of the 53 No. 1 picks have been pitchers, and they’ve delivered decidedly mixed results. Analysts laud the 6-3 Mize, 21, for his polished game and four-pitch arsenal, but he’s not a 100-mph whiz like Verlander, whom the Tigers drafted No. 2 overall in 2004.
Mound of choices
Other pitchers taken No. 1 in the past decade have excelled, including David Price, Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole. And no one sees a generational position star like Bryce Harper in this year’s crop. In the absence of a game-changer, the Tigers likely will make the low-risk move, even though young pitchers bring enormous risk. That’s why teams can never have enough.
For comparison, here was Michael Fulmer against Toronto Sunday, back to dominance for a while before running into trouble in the seventh inning, trailing 2-1. The bullpen blew up after that, ruining a good effort by Fulmer and extending his frustration.
The Tigers’ 25-year-old ace had struggled his previous five starts, and called his last outing “embarrassing,” when he surrendered five runs in four innings against the Angels. This was a bounce-back game, but not a complete effort. Fulmer is 2-5 with a 4.73 ERA, and after offseason elbow surgery, he could be a cautionary tale for the fickle nature of pitching.
Fulmer said he felt fine, but was notably miffed about the outcome. Gardenhire was pleased with the effort, as Fulmer’s fastball regularly hit 96-97.
“I thought he did great,” Gardenhire said. “As we move forward, I think we’re gonna have just what we expected, one of those aces who matches up against the other ace.”
Aces change based on health and circumstance, although my guess is, Fulmer will rebound strongly. The point is, the Tigers are collecting ace candidates, and likely are about to add another.
The standard in Detroit will forever be Verlander, now off winning championships in Houston. Asked to compare Verlander as a prospect a decade ago with Mize, Avila was careful, but not bashful. Mize is touted for his control and his splitter, not necessarily for his mid-90s fastball.
“Obviously, Verlander was an elite pitcher, he threw 100 mph,” Avila said. “At this point, I feel Mize is a bit more advanced in that his secondary pitches are a bit more refined than Verlander’s at that time. But when Verlander got here, he moved up pretty quickly.”
There are no guarantees, not now, not even then with Verlander. But as risky as the draft can be, as fragile as pitching can be, you have to stockpile. There may be no can’t-misses, but the Tigers need to hit this one.