Of all the chores a rebuilding Tigers team faced after owner Mike Ilitch died 17 months ago, one mission, in particular, taunted a team from Detroit.
Adding quality hitters to the big-league roster, and even more to an emaciated farm system, was an emergency-room priority for general manager Al Avila.
The Tigers are 25th among 30 big-league teams in baseball’s most telling offensive statistic, OPS. They are next-to-last in home runs, with 75, five more than the dilapidated Royals. They have on their farmlands only a handful of likely big bats, as best as can be measured in 2018.
The Tigers were so starved a year ago for position talent anywhere in their system they made infielders the entire five-man trade return on two whopping July deadline deals for J.D. Martinez, Justin Wilson, and Alex Avila.
They made position players two-thirds of the take when a month later they sent Justin Verlander to the Astros.
In line with their quest to add lumber, the Tigers wanted a hitter with the first overall pick in June’s draft. But when they weren’t convinced a first-overall bat was there, the Tigers went with pitcher Casey Mize before grabbing hitters with their next three turns.
How this wipeout of Tigers bats materialized is a story with multiple answers:
The Tigers were caught during their 2006-14 playoff and World Series years with late draft spots. Too often they picked from players after much of the prime amateur fruit had been plucked.
The Tigers forfeited five early-round draft picks between 2010 and 2017 as penalties for signing celebrity free agents. The names of those players never will be known by Tigers fans since the players ended up, at some point, elsewhere. But draft percentages, and Tigers first-round scores during the past decade-plus, suggest Detroit lost some potentially big names, and probably a hitter or two, at least.
The Tigers fanned on too many early-round picks, a story that began decades ago when the Tigers too often drafted first-round disasters. Fates changed, particularly in the first round, after the Dave Dombrowski era arrived in late 2001 and the Tigers began hitting early: Justin Verlander, Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, Rick Porcello, Nick Castellanos, etc. Tigers drafts could still punish in the ways of a sport notoriously tough on scouts and front offices. Among players taken since 2005 in the first five rounds who never panned out: Ronnie Bourquin, Cale Iorg, Wade Gaynor, Jeff Larish, Austin Schotts, Daniel Fields, Aaron Westlake, with another first-rounder, Derek Hill, appearing as if he, too, might miss the big leagues.
Trades designed to help win the Tigers a World Series that never arrived robbed the Tigers of potential position help. Willy Adames, a shortstop who has a chance to become a top-tier talent with the Rays, was dealt four years ago in the Tigers’ bid for David Price. Eugenio Suarez, the Reds shortstop who just made the National League All-Star team, was Detroit’s offer for a lamentable one-year starter, Alfredo Simon. Devon Travis has been hurt almost annually with the Blue Jays, but he brandished a beautiful bat when healthy and could have been the Tigers’ answer at second base had he not been dealt four years ago for Anthony Gose. Avisail Garcia last year made the All-Star Game after he was shipped to the White Sox in 2013 for Jose Iglesias.
The Latin America market has been almost as tough on the Tigers during the past decade as their domestic draft. Adames, Suarez, Garcia, Hernan Perez — it’s an overall tight crop of Tigers position players who have cracked the big leagues. Again, the team’s playoff years hurt, not only because lower bonus pools were handed baseball’s better teams, but also because Detroit’s whopping big-league paychecks put a lid on what the team might have spent over its international limit. Other teams (Red Sox, Dodgers, etc.) some years ignored over-pay penalties and spent $40 million or more when the Tigers were following budget rules and spending $2 million.
Some equilibrium might have arrived by way of the last owners-players contract. The Tigers had almost $5 million to spend beginning this month on their 2018-19 international recruits, and they put it to work. They signed nine players, which included a pair of hitters, Jose de la Cruz and Adinso Reyes, who got deals Baseball America reported were worth a combined $3.2 million.
The new flesh meshes with what this season began shaping up as a better overall farm system. And in the turnaround, one of baseball’s old axioms was honored: The better your big-league team does, generally, the more the minor leagues tend to be lean. As a down-cycle arrives for the big-leaguers, a team’s farm almost always rebounds.
The Tigers are bouncing back, as their healthier farm teams attest. They have a left-handed slammer and outfielder in Christin Stewart who could be a call-up in September. They have outfielder Daz Cameron hitting at Double A Erie not 11 months after he was part of the Verlander trade.
Kody Clemens was the team’s third-round pick in June and, because of his age (21) and sophisticated college experience (University of Texas), a power-hitting second baseman could be playing in Detroit as early as 2020.
Parker Meadows, an immensely talented prep outfielder from Georgia, got a heavy bonus from the Tigers to forgo his Clemson scholarship and sign after Detroit scooped him in the second round.
Still, there is history for the Tigers to confront as a farm system that looked in some past years like the Sahara Desert is studied. And some of it amounts to a payback.
It might begin with the 2005 draft, when the Tigers took Maybin in the first round, two years before he was part of the Miguel Cabrera trade. The Tigers were minus a second-round pick in 2005 after signing free-agent reliever Troy Percival, who pitched in all of 26 games before a forearm injury ended his time in Detroit.
The Tigers had been looking hard in 2005 at a Miami infielder, Yunel Escobar, who went on to play 11 seasons in the big leagues with a 27.1 WAR. They could also have seized another infielder, Chase Headley. Both players were picked in a second round in which the Tigers were shut out because of their Percival penalty.
They lost a first-round pick in 2010 after signing Jose Valverde. They lost first-rounders in 2011 and 2012 as punishment for signing Victor Martinez and Prince Fielder. They lost two more early picks in 2016 after they brought aboard free agents Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton.
What people from front offices across baseball understand is that clubs hunting for impact bats need, almost any year, to be picking early, very early.
The Astros, for example, are World Series champions and have a lovely group of young hitters that includes Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and George Springer. They were taken by the Astros first, second, and 11th overall in the draft’s first rounds.
But you also need to score with some later first-round turns, as well as hit on the occasional gift from deeper in the draft.
The Yankees drafted Aaron Judge with their first choice, 31st overall, in 2010 — 12 picks after the Tigers took University of Florida pitcher Jonathan Crawford.
Albert Pujols famously was a 19th-round steal in 1999 by the Cardinals. Giancarlo Stanton didn’t go until the second round, 76th overall, to the Marlins in 2007. Mookie Betts in 2011 was snatched by the Red Sox in the fifth round.
And, of course, an outfielder named Mike Trout lasted until the 25th pick of the first round — one spot after the Angels made Randal Grichuk their initial first-round choice in 2009.
The Tigers have company — with 29 other big-league teams — when the “Could Have Drafted” game is played. Every team cringes, in most rounds from any year, at choices they didn’t make.
“When you look at any year’s draft board,” Avila said Tuesday, “the biggest and longest list of potential big-league players is right-hand pitchers. The least amount are position players that are impact bats.
“You might have five in the entire draft. If a guy comes out of the draft in those later rounds, that’s a surprise. And there have been surprises.”
Not a lot of them have come Detroit’s way, although it’s not a shutout.
Alex Avila was a fifth-round pick in 2008. In a 10-year-later, revisionist draft assembled in May by ESPN’s Keith Law, Avila became a 2008 first-round pick, 10th overall, thanks to his 14.4 WAR and position value as a catcher.
Matt Joyce, a 12th-round pick by the Tigers in 2005, is still playing in the big leagues and 10 years ago was traded for Edwin Jackson, who later became part of the three-way deal that for Detroit netted Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson and Phil Coke, among others.
The Tigers have also hit early, as they did with Castellanos in 2010. The qualifier is that different rules then in place allowed them to spend lavishly beyond slot for a prep player other teams had bypassed, mostly because of money.
The misses, too, have been bruising, as Iorg, Fields, Gaynor, Schotts, Westlake, Larish and perhaps Hill, among others, have piled up. For that cast, the resumes show zero, or very few, big-league games.
Different draft approach
The Tigers worked during June’s draft with a different approach. They went with higher-upside position players in 12 of the first 17 rounds.
They went hard a month later, mostly for position talent, with their $5-million budget allocated by Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office. The Tigers say the new rules (tight bonus pools spread more evenly) allow them freedom and competitive balance that will begin showing up on the Tigers farm — and soon.
They can’t be outbid as freely as in past years when teams like the Red Sox would pay $32 million to win a potential franchise talent in Yoan Moncada and not worry about paying tens of millions in tariffs to Manfred’s office.
“I can understand fans’ concerns about bats, because they’re hard to find anywhere,” said Tom Moore, the Tigers director of international operations. “But I would say starting five, six years from how, we’ll be having a different conversation.”
“We were not able to compete under the old bargaining CBA,” Avila said of the previous owners-players agreement. “Teams were way overspending on players, paying as much on taxes (penalties to Manfred’s office), and blowing us out of the water.
“That doesn’t exist anymore. Now, it’s a flat rate.”
The Tigers, though, insist they were collecting more Latin American talent during the past decade than some might recall. And that was due mostly to Ilitch, in 2006, allowing the Tigers to expand their Latin American scouting sphere.
Moore notes that eight Latin American position players were chosen for the 2018 All-Star game; one — Suarez — was signed originally by the Tigers.
“That means there are 22 clubs sitting around with no (Latin position representation),” Moore said, adding that in 2017 there were 10 Latin players picked as All-Stars, which included Garcia, whom the Tigers traded to the White Sox.
He remembers when a one-time Tigers hotshot prospect, Francisco Martinez, was part of a trade with the Mariners for Doug Fister. He knows that Javier Betancourt was dealt for Francisco Rodriguez.
Domingo Leyba, Danrys Vasquez, Juan Ramirez — the fact other teams sought Tigers prospects in various trades only proves, Moore said, that it wasn’t only the Tigers who saw potential in various players, including Adames and Suarez.
Now, he and Avila insist, the international crops should be healthier. And so should a Tigers farm system that is still several drafts and probably a couple of major trades from having the offense it ideally wants for a new long-term playoff contender.
“We’re starting to accumulate more prospects,” Avila said, speaking of new talent, from June’s, and July’s, national and international talent hunts.
“We’ve got a few more bats in the system than we had.”