For Tigers scouts, the ideal scenario is for a superstar prep or college player to look next spring like something Cooperstown’s gods delivered. A few weeks later he will be knighted as First Overall Pick in the June, 2018, big-league draft.
Sometimes you get a franchise talent — Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, or Carlos Correa. You find in certain years a player so special he can spur a team’s reconstruction and maybe 25 years later win a Hall of Fame plaque.
A fair question in the view of fans, if not the Tigers, is whether their scouts will get it right in 2018, especially if a position player is the pick rather than a pitcher, where Detroit has tended to have better luck.
Not a lot of champagne flutes have been raised to Tigers hitters drafted the past 15 years. The best include Nicholas Castellanos, James McCann, Alex Avila (All-Star starter in 2012), and Matt Joyce (10-year career), as well as some youngsters now on the farm who could help in years ahead: Mike Gerber, Christin Stewart, Sam McMillan, etc.
There also have been misses, which puts Detroit in company with 29 other big-league clubs through the years who might as well have been playing blackjack as picking big-league bats.
There they are: Ronnie Bourquin. Wade Gaynor. Cale Iorg. Aaron Westlake. Austin Schotts. Daniel Fields, not to mention others (Derek Hill?) waiting on a jury verdict. Except for Fields, all were taken no later than the third round and none, other than Fields, who played one game for Detroit, and Hill, who is still working in the minors, saw or yet has seen a day in the big leagues.
Need some luck
The Tigers have their explanations, separate from a nasty baseball fact: Your chance of winning $50 on a randomly grabbed lottery ticket from the corner grocer is better than a drafted player’s likelihood of cracking the big leagues.
“We did a study on our drafts, and we actually have a great track record,” insisted Al Avila, the Tigers general manager whose amateur scouting director, Scott Pleis, decides what players are grabbed. “We haven’t had impact guys, no. But one of the things I emphasize is that usually the impact guys come at the top of the round. And for years, we haven‘t picked at the top of the round. It’s hard to get impact guys otherwise.”
Avila is on reasonably firm turf here.
From 2005 until this June, the Tigers through the draft’s first five rounds saw 47.3 percent of their picks hit the big leagues. The industry average was 37 percent.
The Tigers did this even though they were tied with the White Sox for 28th place among 30 teams for having the fewest picks available — the consequence of losing five first-rounders as compensation for signing marquee free agents.
They also were near rock-bottom in cumulative draft position, all because of seasons in which five times they made it to the playoffs, twice hit the World Series, and in another year (2009) were nipped by the Twins in a play-in game to decide the division champion.
Success on the field can make it tough on Draft Day. And vice versa. The Tigers lost 98 games in 2017 and now get acquainted with the flip side. They’ll decide next June whether a pitcher such as University of Florida ace Brady Singer, or maybe Florida prep shortstop Nander De Sedas, will earn best in show.
Raw needs say the Tigers should opt for a bat. Hitters have been so thin on the Tigers farm Avila grabbed eight position players, six of them middle infielders, in four July-August trades that brought 10 prospects to Detroit’s malnourished system.
The problem with making logic, or position math, part of next June’s equation is the Tigers can’t be certain a franchise bat will be there.
The naked truth is some years don’t feature a consensus dazzler. And that could easily be the case next June should one of the current litter-picks not distinguish himself as another A-Rod, Griffey Jr., Jones, or Correa.
A pitcher might be the safer choice, as when Justin Verlander was nabbed second overall, in 2004, one spot after the Padres blundered by taking prep shortstop Matt Bush. But that, too, is by no means certain, not when the early handicapping of 2018’s stars doesn’t yet promise a Verlander, a Stephen Strasburg, or a David Price.
Avila says what other big-league front offices long ago realized. Only rarely does the draft offer a consensus thoroughbred, as when the Nationals snagged Bryce Harper in 2010. Not many times is there a year like 1999 when Avila and former Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski were with the Marlins and watched as Josh Hamilton (1999) went to the Rangers one pick before Miami opted for a marvelous consolation prize: Josh Beckett, nabbed second overall.
“But not every year you get that,” Avila said.
Talent isn’t always there
In fact, 12 months later, in 2000, the Marlins were looking, as they say in the oil industry, at something of a dry hole. They had a first overall pick and weren’t sure amateur talent that year was, compared with earlier seasons, Top 10-grade or even Top 20.
Avila was then the Marlins’ draft captain. He followed his scouts everywhere and wasn’t wild about their short lists. He finally opted for one player, a prep infielder from California, whose bat seemed best suited to stardom: Adrian Gonzalez, a five-time All-Star who has a 14-year WAR of 42.7.
“Every draft is different,” said Avila, who can still look at that 2000 first round and see precious few who made it (Chase Utley, Rocco Baldelli, Adam Wainwright). “And obviously, pitching is easier to evaluate than hitting. Anyone will tell you that, and anyone who says hitting is easier is probably lying through their teeth. There are just so many intangibles to hitting.”
Deciding where hitters, or pitchers, fit in terms of skills and possible draft rounds begins in the Tigers’ case with 16 area scouts, all of which cover the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Another 11 scouts work in Latin America, with a separate hierarchy over them, while three more scouts cover the Pacific Rim.
Four part-time scouts work on the U.S./Puerto Rico side and are backed up, as are the 16 area sleuths, by six cross-checkers who offer a second, seasoned set of eyes. They in turn report to Pleis, who became the Tigers’ amateur scouting chief when David Chadd, now an assistant general manager, took on broader duties.
There is nowhere for an area scout to hide, no ability to shrug shoulders, remind bosses of how few players make it, and get on with another year of scoping high school fields, college ballparks, and summer leagues for next year’s cast of longshots.
There is heavy accountability. With stress to match.
The Tigers front office keeps score of where a particular scout had a particular player in his area slotted. Did the player get drafted? More important, was this person any good?
If the scout isn’t impressed with a hitter or pitcher, there is no reason to include that player on his list, even as a simple safeguard against another team drafting him. Defensive scouting won’t impress bosses savvy to what’s going on.
But neither will a scout score if a player from his locale is drafted by another club and flourishes. That can get a man fired. The Tigers quietly have made several changes during past years, including one this season, although Avila will not identify the person other than to say he was soon hired by another club.
Scouts not only must decide who can cut it as a genuine prospect, they also must build a trustworthy pecking order. If a scout decides Kid Pitcher is more of a 15th-round investment, and another club scoops him in the second round, the Tigers soon will ask serious questions.
Of benefit there, in one way or another, is the best talent aimed at early rounds is generally seen multiple times by the area scout’s cross-checker, and often by Pleis.
If you’re going to miss on a kid, it helps to have had overseers likewise miss.
Making the grade
When it comes to dispensing grades, scouts are judged ultimately by who they recommended, and where on the overall draft board they believed the player belonged. Too high? Too low? What became of that player? Trails are followed and scouts are ever in the crosshairs.
Another factor, less pivotal than it was a few years ago, is money. Teams don’t care to waste early draft picks on Prep Princes who snort at the dollars and march off to their college scholarship.
For that reason, beyond simple makeup and background concerns, scouts get to know a prospect and his family, what it might take in terms of cold cash to sign him and steer him from college ball, or from returning for his senior year in college.
Make a costly mistake there and a scout next year could be quizzing players on behalf of another big-league team.
Eventually, the scouts, cross-checkers, and generals meet a week before the draft to put in something of an order, from 1 to 1,500, the players they have seen and can recommend for Draft Day gambles.
Avila says the biggest surprise is the degree to which scouts and teams commonly rank players.
“I guarantee you, most clubs have similar draft boards, the same names, and you’re picking the next guy after that last guy was just taken,” he said. “There are going to be some differences, no doubt. But overall, the draft rooms of the 30 clubs are very similar. And whether you have 20 analytical guys crunching the numbers or not, you realize you can’t create a player.”
Analytics, though, have made an imprecise science at least less imprecise.
Avila says teams now have more of a data base on prospects — splits, specific numbers, history. They also can build prototypical or comparative models by which a prospect and his skills, size, etc., can be projected, all based on past examples.
The Tigers in earlier years were among clubs that subscribed to Inside Edge, a company that offered data, numbers, and scouting insights, much of it harvested from video.
But they have moved recently to build their own in-house analytics and scouting data.
“We’ve got guys watching hours and innings from games and breaking it down,” Avila said. “It’s time-consuming, but that’s why we hired them. And now we have all the technology to store it, which is why we bought a big database. And it’s very good.”
Still, the odds offered by baseball’s annual draft make you long for something comparatively safe and secure — like a casino floor.
The percentages are not with you. Not in baseball.
“It’s something, believe me,” Avila said. “The draft is a mystery to a lot of people. And it’s not an easy thing. It’s very hard.”
On to The Show
Here are Tigers draft picks of position players from the past 45 years who made the major leagues:
■ 1972 Dan Meyer, Leon Roberts, Mark Wagner, Dan Gonzalez, Art James
■ 1974 Lance Parrish
■ 1975 Lou Whitaker, Jason Thompson, Tom Brookens
■ 1976 Alan Trammell, Steve Kemp, Ozzie Smith (did not sign)
■ 1977 Ricky Peters
■ 1978 Kirk Gibson, Marty Castillo, Bruce Fields
■ 1979 Rick Leach, Howard Johnson
■ 1980 Glenn Wilson, Mike Laga, Dwight Lowry, Randy Hunt
■ 1981 Nelson Simmons, Scotty Earl, Mike Sharperson
■ 1982 Chris Pittaro
■ 1983 Jim Walewander
■ 1984 None
■ 1985 Doug Strange
■ 1986 Phil Clark, Milt Cuyler, Billy Bean, Chris Hoiles
■ 1987 Travis Fryman, Rob Richie, Torey Lovullo, Derek Lee
■ 1988 Rico Brogna, Scott Livingstone, Rich Rowland
■ 1989 None
■ 1990 Tony Clark
■ 1991 None
■ 1992 Bobby Higginson, Frank Catalanotto, Chris Gomez
■ 1993 None
■ 1994 Mike Darr, Bubba Trammell, Daryle Ward, Javier Cardona, Dave Roberts
■ 1995 Rob Fick, Jeremy Giambi, Gabe Kapler
■ 1996 Chris Wakeland, Mike Hessman
■ 1997 Maxim St. Pierre
■ 1998 Brandon Inge, Andres Torres
■ 1999 Eric Munson, Cody Ross
■ 2000 Nook Logan
■ 2001 Jack Hannahan, Mike Rabelo, Ryan Raburn, Don Kelly
■ 2002 Scott Moore, Brent Clevlen, Curtis Granderson
■ 2003 Tony Giarratano
■ 2004 Jeff Frazier, Brent Dlugach
■ 2005 Cameron Maybin, Chris Robinson, Jeff Larish, Clete Thomas, Matt Joyce, Casper Wells
■ 2006 Brennan Boesch, Scott Sizemore
■ 2007 Danny Worth, D.J. LeMahieu (did not sign)
■ 2008 Alex Avila, Andy Dirks
■ 2009 Daniel Fields
■ 2010 Nick Castellanos, Rob Brantly, Bryan Holaday
■ 2011 James McCann, Tyler Collins, Curt Casali
■ 2012 Devon Travis
■ 2013-17 None have yet advanced