Henning: Tigers forge different 2018 MLB draft with surprises, twists

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Quite a galaxy, the Tigers’ amateur scouting force.

There are 17 area scouts, four part-timers, six national cross-checkers, a director, a front office, an analytics staff that figured roundly in this year’s picks, as well as various administrators involved in the year-round hunt that spans three days in June.

Auburn pitcher Casey Mize, the Tigers' No. 1 draft pick, could reach Detroit as early as 2020.

It was no different of a story in 2018. Except for one distinction.

The Tigers chose first among 30 teams in picking the top college or prep player in the land. The stakes were consummately high.

Casey Mize was this year’s Mr. America. The Tigers finally settled Monday on Auburn’s ace as the man they believed had more franchise-boosting talent than any other pitcher or player.

The Tigers then got busy scooping up 39 more players, the majority of whom are expected to sign deals in the coming weeks. Three days of drafting. A year and more of labor. And it all led to a haul that differed to an important degree in athleticism and in that word baseball people so love to use — upside — throughout this year’s selections.

A look at some of the surprises, some of the possibilities, and some of the more intriguing elements from the Tigers’ 2018 star-search.

TIGERS’ MOST NECESSARY CHOICE: Deciding, ultimately, on Mize, who beginning late last winter had stood as the best of all bets. The Tigers had been aching for years to pick a so-called “impact bat.” But that bat wasn’t there in 2018, not in the view of most sage assessors, which meant Mize’s mastery was a cut above everyone else who might have been tabbed first overall. He has 151 strikeouts and 12 walks in 109 2/3 innings. Consider those dizzying numbers, factor in that Mize throws four top-notch pitches, and it’s easier to understand why Detroit went with a right-handed prodigy who is 6-foot-3, 220 pounds.

TIGERS’ CONCESSION TO NICK MADRIGAL’S FANS: Kody Clemens, the Texas Longhorns second baseman. So many Tigers disciples who study baseball’s draft were in love with Madrigal, the Oregon State munchkin (5-foot-7) who has a polished hitting stroke and who figures to be in the big leagues within a couple of years. He’ll be playing for the White Sox, by the way, who were thrilled to get Madrigal with the fourth overall pick. The Tigers backed away for one reason: They thought Madrigal’s long-ball projections were too light for second base and that he lacked the arm for shortstop. Clemens, mind you, bats left-handed, has 21 home runs playing in the Big 12 Conference, and owns a crazy .706 slugging percentage. There’s your down-the-road Tigers second-sacker. The Tigers are banking on Clemens’ pop — Roger’s bloodlines — and his pop, as well, at the plate.

Texas infielder Kody Clemens, the Tigers' third-round draft pick, is slugging .706 this season for the Longhorns.

BIGGEST POTENTIAL PITCHING PAYOFF: Getting a Pistons-sized starter, Hugh Smith, in the sixth round. Smith is 6-foot-10. He throws now as high as 97 and has reached 98. The Tigers believe that once he’s been introduced to the coaching maestros at their Lakeland, Fla., hatchery a pitcher who has been working for Whitworth University will get his delivery tweaked and probably crash the 100-mph barrier that makes fans giddy and hitters nervous.

BEST POTENTIAL OUTFIELD PICK: Parker Meadows figured to have been long gone by the time the Tigers settled in for Monday’s second round. He was unclaimed and the Tigers smothered a Georgia prep star who runs like a left-handed hitting JaCoby Jones. The Tigers aren’t forecasting, but it is known there are scouts who believe Meadows, a center fielder, can be a 30-home-run man who hits .270. He is 6-foot-4, plays against sophisticated pitching, and will be lured from his Clemson scholarship by an offer that probably exceeds, maybe by a lot, the $1.625 million suggested retail price for a second-round pick. The Tigers like him immensely.

ANALYZING THE ANALYTICS ANGLES: It was no coincidence that about an eighth of a second after Al Avila became general manager in 2015 he announced the Tigers were ramping up their analytics staff. It previously had been pretty much a one-man band when Mike Smith was in the front office. But it now has expanded by at least seven people and by several millions of dollars in software and technology.

It was involved in the 2018 draft in major ways, as Scott Pleis, the Tigers director of amateur scouting, conceded this week. In fact, the analytics snoops were at work months in advance, scoping out data on players, looking at historical profiles of similar players, building projections, etc. And if you noticed pick by pick the brand of players the Tigers were taking this week — size, speed, power, etc. — you could deduce the difference computers were making. It’s something to ponder as this group migrates through the farm.

California prep outfielder Kingston Liniak has professional baseball in his bloodlines, with his uncle having played in the majors and his father having played in the minors.

HOW ANALYTICS SHOWED UP, EARLY: Note the Tigers’ fourth-round pick, Kingston Liniak. He’s a prep center fielder from Mission Hills High in San Marcos, Calif. His uncle, Cole, played for the Cubs and his dad, Justin, was once in the Rockies system. Genetics count in these analytic profiles, not that they’re overlooked by scouts, who long have known DNA is important in any prospect’s portfolio.

Where the Tigers could get specific here was plugging in all their data and perhaps seeing in deep detail that an 18-year-old, right-handed hitter, 6-2 and 170, can add the necessary sinew to hit with power and thus become more than a fourth outfielder. These are the kinds of picks you didn’t always see in some past Tigers drafts, which invite from afar thoughts that the analytics printouts were very much at work.

MORE POSITION PUNCH: No shockers here. The Tigers farm last summer looked like a Sunday-night produce bin. Everything was gone. Note that they traded for infielders galore when they shopped J.D. Martinez, Justin Wilson, Alex Avila, etc. It’s because they were then writing the names of fumes into their farm-team lineups.

So, here they went in 2018. Twelve of their first 17 picks were, ta-da, position players. Four of their first five picks beginning at No. 20 were hitters.

This team was tired of staring at a pitching-heavy farm with a small handful of valid bats in its hoppers. No one knows how many of the incoming sticks will bear fruit. But the Tigers got serious about hitting potential and picked accordingly during the draft’s three days.

ONE AREA OF DE-EMPHASIS: It wasn’t strategic, necessarily, but the Tigers shied away from their past decade’s yen for catching, which followed a previous Tigers generation when catchers were only rumored to have a developmental presence on Detroit’s farm. They did take Chris Proctor of Duke in the 13th round, but other than spending their last pick, No. 40, on one Kevynn Arias of Montreat College, the Tigers decided they had enough depth at a place where, for now, they indeed have enough bodies compared with other areas of need.

QUICKEST TO SEE COMERICA PARK: Plan on Mize in 2020. He probably will follow last year’s first-round pick, Alex Faedo, in being given a summer to rest an arm that already has thrown 100-plus innings even before Auburn has finished its NCAA tournament run. He likely will start at Single-A Lakeland next spring and, presuming all goes happily and healthily, he could be Detroit-bound in two years.

On the position side, it could be Clemens. He is 22, has played advanced ball at Texas, and could be at Double A even by next year. The Tigers weren’t fooling around with this pick. They have a big hole at second and big plans for Clemens to fill that hole, or at least offer Dawel Lugo some necessary competition there.

It was quite a different year and draft, 2018, all set in motion by a Tigers team that got a prize it never really wanted: the first turn, owing to a last-place finish in 2017.

The Tigers won’t mind if they avoid any first-overall picks in the coming seasons. They hope only that a bunch of the players they tabbed this week will eventually put them on the other end of big-league baseball’s draft spectrum.