Not since a guy on “The Price is Right” lost and then stole a Mercedes from the studio parking lot has there been a consolation prize so thrilling.
The Tigers will be asked to choose first in next June’s baseball draft.
Their catbird seat for the 2018 sweepstakes comes via the Tigers’ bruising 2017 season and their 64-98 record. It tied them with the Giants for worst record by any of the 30 big-league teams. But thanks to a tiebreaker (the Tigers were a half-game worse than the Giants in 2016), Detroit has first crack at next year’s amateur draft crop.
“You really don’t want to be in this situation — I’d love to be getting ready to watch our playoff game tonight or tomorrow,” said Scott Pleis, the Tigers’ director of amateur scouting. “But it’s still a tremendous opportunity. You’re always unsure who’s going to get to you in the draft. But in this case, obviously, that reality is eliminated. We get to evaluate and scout the best players in the country. And we get the first crack at the guy we want.”
It’s the first time the Tigers will have drafted first round, first pick, since 1997. That privilege came courtesy of an ugly 1996 season and a 59-103 record when Tigers pitchers were all but indicted for fraud.
Their answer the following June was to nab Matt Anderson, a 100-mph reliever from Rice University, whom the Tigers front office decided was better than any of the players later selected in the first round: J.D. Drew, Troy Glaus, Vernon Wells, Michael Cuddyer, Jon Garland, Lance Berkman, Jason Werth, and Adam Kennedy, among others.
Anderson never quite worked out. Not as a first-round talent, anyway. And, thus, the Tigers have a comparatively low bar to clear eight months from now.
There is a corps of players, college and high school, already viewed by various scouting outlets as people the Tigers could consider with that first pick, even when the list is almost sure to see additions and subtractions.
The heavy favorite today is University of Florida right-hander Brady Singer, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound junior who, if he were grabbed by the Tigers, would give them back-to-back Gators as their top draft prizes. Alex Faedo was taken in the first round last June and figures to be in Single A West Michigan’s rotation in April.
Given the Tigers’ past appreciation for pitchers, they might also decide on any of three college starters, all right-handers: Jackson Kowar, another of Florida’s rotation studs who was a Tigers pick out of high school in 2015; Casey Mize, Auburn; and Logan Gilbert, Stetson.
A pair of left-handers, Ryan Rolison (Ole Miss), and Shane McClanahan (University of South Florida), could also push for the top slot as the 2018 college season unfurls.
Prep pitchers rarely are snatched as a first overall pick — or one-one, as it’s known — but that could happen with Ethan Hankins, a 6-6 right-hander from Cumming, Ga., who will pitch at Vanderbilt should he not, as expected, take the millions that next June figure to come his way.
Tigers students who would appreciate a homegrown, franchise bat can focus on several potential options.
Nander De Sedas, a 6-1, 190-pound, switch-hitting shortstop from Montverde (Fla.) Academy, could easily find his way to one-one. So, too, could another prep shortstop, Brice Turang, a left-handed hitter from Corona, California.
If the Tigers shake off the normal industry hesitancy to take a prep player first overall, one teen star with corner-infield power is Nolan Gorman, a left-handed slugger who goes 6-1, 190, and plays at Sandra Day O’Connor High in Glendale, Ariz.
The outfield’s best bets include Griffin Conine, a left-handed hitting right-fielder (6-1, 190) from Duke, as well as prep blue-chipper Jarred Kelenic (6-1, 196), who also hits left-handed and who, unlike the rest of the crew, isn’t a Sunbelt standout. He’s from Waukesha, Wis.
Tigers historians who have monitored drafts since Justin Verlander was taken with the Tigers’ first pick (second overall) in 2004 will, of course, expect Detroit to stick with its favorite pastime, pitching, next June.
Pleis isn’t so sure. His focus, he says, will be on that old draft-day standby: picking the shopping aisles’ best player.
“We’re not going to draft by need,” he said. “We need to get the best player for the organization. We’ve always done that.”
Pleis is boss of 26 scouts and cross-checkers who already have significant files on pick-of-the-litter players and early beads on hundreds more.
They have worked the Perfect Game prep showcase events, as well as the Cape Cod League and Team USA matchups, where college baseball’s thoroughbreds tend to congregate each summer. Scouts also will get a look at various college prizes during scout-day sessions this autumn.
The college season formally begins in February and ends shortly after the big-league draft. Prep seasons run from late winter through spring.
“We’ve already identified the players we want to go back and see,” Pleis said. “And there’s going to be a lot of jockeying over these next months. You can’t foresee injuries and medicals and performances, so it’s going to change quite a bit.
“But I think our people have done a great job identifying players, getting to know guys, and getting to know what we want.”
Another dividend from that worst-record niche is dollars. Big-league teams are given allowances, as it were, to sign a given year’s draft crop. The poorer your finish, the richer your draft pool.
The Twins last June picked first and had a league-mandated signing budget of $14.1 million. The Tigers chose 22nd and could spend $6.5 million.
More dollars mean more flexibility for a team to get creative with its cash sweeteners. And that in turn can steer a choice prospect and deeper draft pick from, say, his college scholarship and spur him to sign and head for the farm.
It’s a different situation in 2018 for a Tigers team that, because of its past decade-long run, normally drafted back in the pack, or lost early picks because of free-agent signings.
“It’s always nice to have a lot of money to spend and a lot of picks to spend it on,” Pleis said. “There have been years when our pool was $3 million, so we’ve been on the other end of it, too. A nice pool should help us with those second, third, fourth, and fifth-round picks.
“It’s a good situation to be in,” Pleis said. “I just wish we were watching us in one of these playoff games.”
Cream of the crop
How the Tigers early top-five candidates might stack up ahead of Detroit’s overall first pick in the June 2018 draft:
1. Nander De Sedas, shortstop, Montverde (Florida) Academy: Tigers worshipers aching to draft a position player and hitter could easily see Detroit opt for De Sedas. He’s a switch-hitter, 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, with big power for a teenager. Not as athletic as Indians star Francisco Lindor. Not as gifted defensively. But the Tigers are watching him closely.
2. Brady Singer, RH starter, University of Florida: He looks like a composite of every big right-handed starter the Tigers have drafted in the first round since 2004. It’s all a matter of what the scouts see next spring. Lots of pitching options in 2018. Singer is, today, perhaps the best.
3. Jackson Kowar, RH starter, University of Florida: The Tigers grabbed him in the 40th round of the 2015 draft out of Charlotte (Nprth Carolina) Christian School. They often make a second bid (Dominic Ficociello, Alex Faedo) when a player’s college career is wrapping up and could decide Kowar is a better prospect than his Gators teammate, Singer.
4. Brice Turang, shortstop, Santiago High, Corona, California: Project a prep player’s potential growth over the next eight months and you could see Turang slip into that top spot. He’s 6-1, 165, comes from a hyper-athletic family, and figures to go very quickly next June.
5. Casey Mize, RH starter, Auburn: Big-league teams love those Southeastern Conference guys, and the Tigers are in line there. If some past arm issues clear up, Mize (6-3, 208) could be Detroit’s pick. He has a powerhouse, top-of-the-rotation repertoire. He struck out 109 batters in 83 2/3 innings in 2017 for Auburn and walked nine.