Tigers draft watch: Nobody pushing aside Mize at No. 1

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
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Auburn pitcher Casey Mize

In professional sports, whether picking first or last, you take whatever treasures, or less thrilling knickknacks, Draft Day offers.

This year’s baseball sweepstakes has brought the Tigers one player who can in good conscience be nabbed first overall when the draft gets going at 7 p.m. on June 4.

He is Auburn pitcher Casey Mize.

Mize is looking unmistakably like Rob Manfred’s first man to be bear-hugged when the commissioner steps on stage at Secaucus, N.J., with MLB Network’s cameras at work.

Mize consistently has been the one pitcher, or player, whom those who appraise future big-league talent agree is the closest thing to a genuine first-overall talent.

That says lots about a lukewarm 2018 first round where many of the men who will have gravitated to first-turn picks would otherwise be second-rounders. It’s a decent draft overall, but lacking in premier talent, most scouts have acknowledged.

The Tigers’ consolation prize for finishing so poorly in 2017, as much as can be determined on May 23, is to settle on a right-handed pitcher, 21 years old, 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, with a 2.94 ERA, and who as Auburn’s ace in a high-powered Southeastern Conference has rolled up absurdly good numbers in 95 innings: 65 hits, 133 strikeouts and 10 walks.

Repeat: 133 strikeouts and 10 walks in 95 innings. He pitches in the closest thing to the big leagues you can find on the amateur plane, the SEC. Opposing hitters are batting .189 against him.

The Tigers have been breaking down every facet of every player considered for that pick at 1-1, as it’s known. Medically, psychologically, bio-mechanically — you wonder if in 2018 baseball’s due diligence exceeds any vetting done on national-ticket political candidates.

It’s that thorough.

The Tigers have wanted a hitter. Oh, they have wanted a hitter for a farm system, and eventually, for a big-league club that must uncover bats in the next few years, and preferably, months.

But there is not, from all conversations across the scouting ranks, a single clue the Tigers have found a batter whose skills can be defended with that initial pick. It’s nothing a team can afford to blow on a gamble when baseball is cruel and particularly hostile to teams that treat a 1-1 pick cavalierly, as if it were even more of a crapshoot than is notoriously true of big-league drafts.

And so, unless some alarming medicals are unearthed, or unless Mize somehow adopts a scary pitching persona these final 12 days, he should be Tigers property as soon as he and a new team that can spend as much as $8 million on his signature agree to unite.

There was noise last week from the scouting circles that the Tigers might be backing away from Mize after he appeared to have been the litter-pick since spring’s prep and college seasons began.

No one can say with certainty what might have been at work there. Medicals, or game performances, a team for whatever reason didn’t like? A bargaining ploy ahead of next month’s contract and money talks?

Something was up. But a bit more than a week before the draft it looks, from every signal, as if no one has pushed aside Mize in Detroit’s eyes.

Those rooting for another pick will be disappointed — if you buy today’s stock-price printouts on hitters the Tigers might also be pondering.

Nick Madrigal, the Oregon State second baseman, is a nice player who makes good contact, has speed, and who will crash the big leagues in prompt fashion. His issue is too little power and too little arm. He’ll need to play second base, a position where extra-base pop is now part of the profile.

Joey Bart, who catches at Georgia Tech, will play in the big leagues, scouts agree. What they aren’t sure about are swing-and-miss percentages. The Tigers aren’t apt to bite when Mize offers more security, or as much as you can bank on in baseball.

Jarred Kelenic, the Wisconsin prep power prodigy? He could be the one who got away. The Tigers might someday consider a deep dive from the Ambassador Bridge if Kelenic turns into the monster some are certain is evolving in Cheese Land. But nothing today appears to have sold the Tigers, or other early bidders, that he’s a smart pick at 1-1.

Alec Bohm, from Wichita State? No. Same for Travis Swaggerty at the University of South Alabama. Good hitters and position players, but not likely to lure Detroit into changing its minds on Mize.

Brady Singer is a starter the Tigers have been following for a year-plus. He’s another of the Florida Gator stars the Tigers have, in the past, slurped up, as they did a year ago when they snagged Alex Faedo.

Singer, though, has struck a good many national appraisers as a nice, mid-rotation guy who doesn’t match Mize in pitch-quality.

And so here the Tigers are, being reminded why baseball, unlike the NFL or NBA, is so harsh on its draft picks, even the best of the best.

It’s a merciless game in which to excel. It isn’t much kinder on scouts whose paychecks are tied to plotting when a kid with all kinds of physical and emotional growth ahead might someday become one of those rare survivors who makes it.

Anyone chasing better odds should consider a game friendlier than baseball’s draft. Say, a casino, where slots and blackjack tables won’t hurt you as badly or for as many years as betting on baseball prospects.

Tigers top 10 candidates

1. Casey Mize, RH starter, Auburn, 6-3, 220: Has had a couple of comparatively — comparatively — rough starts this month. But that’s relative, for sure. He’s thrown almost 100 innings in 2018 and is still firing four good pitches for strikes. No one has been as good as Mize in 2018. Not a pitcher, not a hitter. He’s still the easy pick. Last week: 1.

2. Joey Bart, C, Georgia Tech, 6-3, 225: High-shelf talent Bart possesses, defensively, and offensively. Bart’s batting .361 with 16 homers. He has a 1.113 OPS. He does everything well. Only one thing scares the scouts and analytics gurus: 54 strikeouts in 216 at-bats. That’s a bit heavy when the pitching Bart faces is only going to get tougher. Last week: 2.

3. Brady Singer, RH starter, University of Florida, 6-5, 210: Here’s the fallback should something chase the Tigers from Mize during these closing days. He will make some big-league team a pleasant, every fifth-day option. What teams want with a first overall pick is a pitcher with a high-horsepower pitch or profile. Singer is a safe, early first-rounder but lacks the steam to match Mize. Last week: 6.

4. Alec Bohm, 3B, Wichita State, 6-5, 220: He has the requisite big-league stripe teams insist on from a corner position player: power. That will be good enough for a player of his size and potential to hook on with one of the early-pickers. Last week: 3.

5. Nick Madrigal, 2B, Oregon State, 5-8, 165: Everyone says he’s another Jose Altuve. He will be — if he adds a full gear of power between now and his big-league debut. But it isn’t in the forecast, which is the only knock — other than a low-throttle arm — on a good hitter and deft glove man. Last week: 4.

6. Logan Gilbert, RH starter, Stetson University, 6-6, 225: Dandy size and talent. Fabulous numbers for the Hatters (what else would be Stetson’s nickname?) and a very handsome rotation addition for whichever team gobbles up Gilbert, probably early in the June 4 flesh feast. Last week: 7.

7. Travis Swaggerty, OF, University of South Alabama, 5-11, 180: This, remember, isn’t the SEC in which South Alabama plays. Neither is it the ACC. Swaggerty hasn’t seen pitching as good as the big-boy conferences wield and still he’s batting only .295 this season. He has power and speed and batting averages don’t reveal everything by any means. But it’s one reason teams aren’t likely to pounce super-early on Swaggerty. Last week: 5.

8. Nolan Gorman, 3B, Sandra Day O’Connor High, Glendale, Ariz., 6-1, 210: Power. There’s a man’s ticket in this game, even if he is in high school. No prospect, college or prep, has Gorman’s capacity to launch baseballs into the heavens. Teams aren’t sure he’ll stick at third base. First base is likely. And it’s tough plotting a teenager’s big-league path when so many bad things can happen in baseball. But he hits the ball a long way. Last week: 8.

9. Jarred Kelenic, OF, Waukesha (Wis.) West High, 6-1, 195: Don’t let this kid make you wince with every scalded ball he rips in ensuing seasons. He’s aching to show all who disrespected him that the problem is theirs, not his. The Tigers are aware. They like so much about Kelenic. But not at 1-1. Last week: 9.

10. Matt Liberatore, LH starter, Mountain Ridge High, Glendale, Ariz., 6-5, 190: Still the likely prize of all prep starters, at least if a vote today were taken. Teams are forever warned not to fall in love with prep pitchers who can be throwing 95 as seniors and 85 a few years later. But that’s not so much the fear with Liberatore, who will go rapidly on June 4. Last week: 10.



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