They messed all of this up, the Tigers did, by picking a lukewarm year to own baseball’s first overall draft pick.
They should have been lousy in 2009. They then could have snatched Bryce Harper the following June and thus have grabbed the franchise hitter they’ve been trying to land since 1953 when they signed a kid named Al Kaline.
Or they could have gummed up 2011 and the following June have gotten Carlos Correa as their consolation prize. Or, going way back, 1989 could have been trashed and the Tigers would have one of this year’s Hall of Fame honorees, Chipper Jones. Or, of course, there was 1992, when the Mariners were baseball’s lousiest team and were rewarded with the 1993 draft-day title to Alex Rodriguez.
The Tigers were in position to draft none of the above, including Ken Griffey, Jr., who was the unanimous prize in 1987, when the Tigers were still winning divisions and trying to add a second world championship to their Sparky Anderson era.
The Tigers have no such fortune from their 2017 misfortune that saw them tie the Giants for baseball’s worst record and earn, by way of a tie-breaker (the Tigers were worse than the Giants in 2016), this year’s first draft turn, which comes on June 4, four weeks away.
They will take Auburn right-handed starter Casey Mize, assuming the top of next month’s draft board remains as rigid as it has been for the past two months.
Mize is a prize, no doubt. Excellent pitching skills. Fabulous four-pitch repertoire. Uncanny strikeout-to-walk ratio (119 whiffs, seven walks, in 84 innings). He started last Friday against Vanderbilt, not exactly a cheap valise, and struck out 15 while walking zero. He threw nine innings. He was nicked for all of four hits.
The Tigers will take Mize and not act like the kid who didn’t get a thousand-dollar Christmas gift. They’ll appreciate having a pitcher as advanced as Mize when they know there have been draft years when not even a Mize-grade talent was available at No. 1 overall.
But they also wanted desperately this year to add a potential Hall of Fame bat — a Griffey, Jr., a Jones, an A-Rod, a Harper.
And it’s not there. Or so just about everyone believes, including the Tigers, who are sending multiple sleuths to take notes on all the high-profile hitters who probably will be scooped up within the draft’s first 10 or so picks: catcher Joey Bart from Georgia Tech, third baseman Alec Bohm from Wichita State, Oregon State second baseman Nick Madrigal, South Alabama outfielder Travis Swaggerty, Arizona prep muscleman Nolan Gorman, and Florida teen and outfielder Connor Scott.
The guy they probably want to take and could most regret not snatching is a lad from Waukesha (Wis.) West High, named Jarred Kelenic. He is a left-handed dynamo, 6-foot-1 and built like Mr. Universe, with skills to play center field and with an arm that will transport you to the Kaline days in Detroit.
The Tigers would love to nab him. Except …
He plays in the north. He plays in too few games because of Great Lakes snow and cold. He bats against pitching he overmatches, even as he plays for a local travel team after graduating in January. The Tigers, and plenty of other clubs, aren’t sure they can trust him with one of those early-early picks.
And, so, some team most likely drafting anywhere from 8 to 12 in that first round will gamble and perhaps make the best wager since a guy with an extra thousand to burn on the Las Vegas sportsbook last summer picked Philadelphia to win the Super Bowl.
Are the Tigers and others being too dismissive of Kelenic?
They might, down the line, be accused of having been overly negative. Those who know why Mike Trout (Millwood, N. J.) fell to the Angels with the 25th overall pick in 2009 are suspicious of teams that are skeptical of players who play baseball in the north.
But those clubs have experience and too many exhibits of evidence for why they so seldom can bank on kids from the Arctic, particularly with a draft pick you can’t afford to muff.
The Tigers will take Mize — unless health or the draft board’s seismology changes within the next 40 days. It’s difficult to see how they could ever rue adding a right-handed pitcher who is 6-foot-3, who has three plus-pitches including a fastball that can run 94-96, and who has pitched and dominated in a conference, the SEC, that comes as close as any to featuring big-league talent.
Think, for a moment, about this hypothetical rotation two or three years from now:
Mize, Franklin Perez, Alex Faedo, Beau Burrows, and Matt Manning.
One or more of the above by then probably will have, or have had, their Tommy John surgery layoff. And one or more of the above may in fact not pan out. But the talent is there, as are probabilities for that very brand of quintet — other names will emerge along the way, including a left-handed presence who might or might not be Matthew Boyd or Daniel Norris — giving a rebuilt team the bedrock rotation a contender requires.
The above, of course, presumes the Tigers by then will have traded Michael Fulmer for multiple prospect treasures, which probably will include a young starter. But the picture, in any event, will be configured somewhere along those lines. And that picture stands to be enhanced mightily by the kind of pitcher Mize today represents.
The Tigers are as busy sizing up their second pick, 44th overall, as they are taking last-minute notes on the people they’ll ponder at first overall.
It is known they were paying close attention last week to Georgia prep outfielder Parker Meadows, who probably won’t make it to 44. They will want, maybe exclusively, a bat with their second turn. But if they aren’t sold on a hitter there they could opt for Mississippi prep pitcher J.T. Ginn, who of course throws 100 mph and who fits the Tigers’ long-standing preference for pitchers who excite radar guns.
One thing to note about this year’s Tigers draft staff. It includes general manager Al Avila. This is a contrast from the Dave Dombrowski era.
Avila is a scout. He was in on Miguel Cabrera’s romancing by the Marlins when Cabrera was a teen. Avila decided, also, during a year (2000) when the draft had its parallels to this year’s talent pool, that the Marlins would take Adrian Gonzalez, even if Miami’s lower-level scouts, and most other clubs, weren’t buying Gonzalez at No. 1 overall.
Dombrowski was not a scout. He was a GM. He left it to his amateur snoops to do the inspecting and endorsing.
But the Gonzalez example is telling in that something about a California prep hitter lured Avila to decide this was the player the Marlins, wisely as it turned out, would settle on. It appears a pitcher from Auburn is moving the Tigers to make the same call, with more assurance today than Gonzalez offered then.
You can’t afford to miss on that first overall pick. It happens, plenty of times, but it isn’t likely to be the Tigers’ fate in 2018. Analytics have become so revealing and so integral to projecting players that the Tigers can be expected in four weeks to snag a player who factors enormously in that down-the-road contender a team theoretically is building.
Mize today is the safe pick. Kelenic is the guy some of us, and maybe even a Tigers front office, most believe could be the later steal.