Henning: In big twist, Tigers go for big bats — and a better baseball rebuild

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Ah yes, a question from the audience. Can someone get her a mike, please?

(Voice clearing:) “Has there ever been a team that didn’t like its draft? And if the answer is no, then why should those who follow the Tigers believe 2020 is any different from any other year?” 

This would have been Thursday night’s most honest, most penetrating, most dead-accurate inquiry a Tigers follower might have asked as Major League Baseball finished up its five-round, Reader’s Digest version of the 2020 big-league draft.

And the answer to the audience member’s query, is no. No team in the history of civilized sports has ever been publicly disappointed, deflated, or, even stoic about the talent it took in a particular year’s talent show.

As a freshman in 2018, Spencer Torkelson was a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award, given to college baseball's top player.

Every team has had a good draft. A pleasing draft. A satisfying draft. That is, if said team hadn’t already used the word “exciting” and “excited” a hundred or so times in assessing the players it just selected in a bid to improve its fortunes, stave off firings, and please fans who tend to want either championship parades or a front-office scalp. 

Here might have been the difference Thursday for the Tigers.

They made choices they not only were delighted to make, they made picks that hardcore fans who pay attention to drafts and to personnel thought made sense. You could see as much on social media, where a team like the Tigers is typically bent, folded, spindled and mutilated following a particular year’s draft.

But not this year. Folks generally liked the picks. At least the big ones, the typical difference-makers, from the draft’s earliest rounds.

The Tigers began Wednesday night with a possible world-class trophy in Spencer Torkelson. He, quite conceivably, could be on the hitting side what Justin Verlander was on the pitching end the last time the Tigers forged a contender.

They followed up Thursday with the night’s first turn — and no one outside of the Tigers’ draft headquarters knew where this was going. 

They went for power and for a catcher in Dillon Dingler of Ohio State. Dingler is a bit of a risk in that scouts hadn’t seen a great deal of him in his three seasons at Columbus. He got hurt last year and couldn’t play summer ball, which makes it tough to showcase skills when the Buckeyes play baseball in Ohio and often must decide whether to practice baseball or toboggan.

Toss in a pandemic that shut down 2020’s baseball spring, and scouts were scrambling to sift notes and scope video on prospects everywhere, particularly from the short-season Midwest.

The difference, it seemed, in taking Dingler is that the Tigers haven’t exactly been Kenny Rogers when it comes to gambling. Drafting is often a risk-reward business and the Tigers have so many times tended to be poker players who played not to lose.

Their farm system has as a result been subdued, with pitching – the more dependable investment — leaving them rich in arms and with few bats.

This year was going to be different. With a first overall pick and with a chance to draft an impact bat, and with a hitter of Torkelson’s talent worthy of snagging at the top, the Tigers got a probable lineup centerpiece they can pair with last year’s first-round grab, Riley Greene.

It’s what happened Thursday, the night after Torkelson was hauled in, that made the 2020 draft so intriguing, at least from Detroit’s perspective.

The Tigers had looked ahead of Thursday’s opening bell as if they might go for a solid, line-drive-hitting outfielder from Louisiana State named Daniel Cabrera with the draft’s 38th overall pick.

They instead opted for Dingler. Most students of the Tigers draft would have seen the strategy here. Go for power. Find your outfielder elsewhere.

What wasn’t exactly in the cards is that Cabrera, a left-handed stick who smacks line drives rather than drives pitches into the seats, was still there when the Tigers took their next turn, at 63, overall.

They waited 10 more turns before wrapping up a possible Thursday night hat trick. The Tigers, who need help everywhere but at batboy, are particularly light on shortstops. They might have gotten a boost, if not a steal, in swooping up Trei Cruz, a 6-foot-2, switch-hitter from Rice University whose father and grandfather played years of big-league ball.

Next, in a move that probably had Torkelson dancing, the Tigers decided to take a shot with Gage Workman, who, ironically, was so good at third base at Arizona State he helped push Torkelson to first. At least until the Tigers drafted Torkelson and decided he is shifting to third. Don’t try and keep any of this straight.   

But do tap the calculator and note those numbers: 

Four draft turns in the first 73 and five in the first 101 netted five college position players. Five bats. Five players with enough big-stage spurs to believe some flesh, and some battle blood, might have been pumped into a farm system otherwise flush in good young arms.

For toppers, the Tigers took a Mississippi prep star, and a good one, Colt Keith. He has a slick left-handed bat and an arm so strong the Tigers had to decide if Keith was going to pitch or hit for him. They’ll take the bat, which probably is what Tracy Smith would like to take to the Tigers. Smith is head coach at Arizona State, Torkelson’s and Workman’s alma mater, and the school Keith was headed until the Tigers pulled their Thursday raid.

This is one of those upside picks, nabbing Keith, and a brand of down-the-road investing the Tigers haven’t often been able to pull off — not with hitters of this vintage.

“We got a little lucky,” said Scott Pleis, who heads amateur scouting for the Tigers, explaining that “those players have got to get to you.”

True enough. You take what you can get in a draft — what’s not been picked over. But there was too much focus on hitting, on power, on left-handed bats — or switch-hitters — not to have detected a clear Tigers mission from 2020. It was a blueprint the team was expected to follow.

The shortage of hitters in Detroit’s system and in the Tigers’ rebuild was obvious to anyone.

“I’m happy we got these hitters, for sure,” Pleis said, and then he mentioned that “pitching really didn’t fall right. It would have been hard for us to get the really, really top talent that way.

“It all sort of worked out.”

That’s the thought from afar.

Trei Cruz

These are picks that, at the very least, help a virus-weary, playoff-deprived, beaten-down baseball town believe with some credence that baseball in Detroit has a chance to get better. And relatively soon, at least once coronavirus has slipped into the world’s unhappiest annals.

Yes, of course: It’s absurd to believe all of the above will make it. Some, or even most, probably won’t. Not when baseball is the cruelest of all sports in granting big-league passes to minor-league dreamers.

But this draft as Thursday evening evolved had about it a different feel, a wholly distinct composition.

Remember this: The 1984 Tigers were built primarily on one big draft: 1976, which, not coincidentally, followed a brutal 1975 season that set up Detroit with the first picks in each round. They got Alan Trammell, Jack Morris, and Dan Petry in that ’76 draft. They even went for another shortstop, a kid named Ozzie Smith, who didn’t sign and who later set up shop with the Cardinals and who now has a plaque in Cooperstown.

You can’t with any sense of reason, with any understanding of baseball’s discriminating ways, say the Tigers built a winner with a few rounds of player-picking in 2020.

But you can say with more assurance that probably has been mustered in many a year that this group looks different. Now, it’s up to the kids to play differently.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.