Detroit — Four years ago, ESPN's Keith Law ranked the Tigers' farm system dead last among the 30 major-league teams.
It drew a strong rebuke from then-general manager Dave Dombrowski, who told The News at the time, "I'm not really sure what he's talking about."
Turns out, Law did know what he was talking about. The Tigers' playoff window closed after the 2014 season, Dombrowski was fired in 2015, big-spending owner Mike Ilitch died in February 2017, and the franchise's teardown and rebuild began that summer, leading to back-to-back 98-loss seasons with a 100-loss season possible in 2019.
The rebuild is moving at a pace many Tigers fans' consider glacial, not helped by now-GM Al Avila's blunt admission last week that the team is years from spending big again.
As for that farm system now? It's certainly better, Law says — the Tigers landed three players in his top-100 prospects list, released this week — but even that rebuild isn't exactly moving at a brisk pace.
"I would say they're making progress, but it's a bit slower than a lot of other rebuilds," Law said on a conference call Wednesday. "It's gonna take a couple more drafts for them, and they're going to have to hit on those drafts."
The Tigers in Law's latest top 100 include: right-handed pitcher Casey Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, at No. 15; right-handed pitcher Matt Manning, the No. 9 overall pick in 2016, at No. 65; and outfielder Daz Cameron, who was acquired from Houston in the 2017 Justin Verlander trade, at No. 68.
Mize's appearance on the list is no surprise. The 21-year-old, drafted out of Auburn, was the consensus No. 1 overall pick at the time of the draft, and Law said if you redrafted today, he'd still be the guy.
He pitched sparingly for the Tigers last summer, after a heavy college workload. He's considered major-league ready by many scouts, and Law agrees.
"If they were contending this year, he'd appear in the majors," Law said. "But they don't really have any incentive (to rush him).
"But he could help a major-league roster right now."
Law called Mize's splitter the best pitch in college last year, and reports velocity at 95-96, with a "plus" slider/cutter.
Manning's appearance on the list was a bit more of a surprise, given he was in Law's rankings in 2017, but then dropped out in 2018.
It's with Manning, 21, a former high school baseball and basketball star, where Law gives the Tigers' player-development department serious props. They significantly reworked his delivery, and it paid off big-time in 2018, especially at high Single-A Lakeland, where his WHIP was below 1.000.
Command, a huge problem in 2017, wasn't nearly as big of an issue in 2018.
"I saw him early in '17 and it was not good," said Law, who stopped himself short of using the word he wanted to, "mess," saying that was just a tad harsh. "His Double-A debut this past summer, against Harrisburg, I drove up mainly to see him ... and sure enough, he looks like a different guy.
"He was 92-95, and it plays; the breaking ball was better; he's throwing better strikes. ... I can also see the path where he continues to improve. This gives him a foundation to build off going forward."
Cameron, 22, the son of former major-league outfielder Mike Cameron, was the No. 37 overall pick by the Astros in 2015, and had a big year for the Tigers in 2018, especially at Double-A Erie, where he had an OPS of .837 and was a highlight reel on defense.
Law said he doesn't anticipate Cameron hitting for the same power as his father, though he does have gap power. He also has a good eye, which could lead to good on-base percentages, key given his speed.
Defensively, Law said, he is a "plus."
The three Tigers on Law's list represents quite a boost. In 2017 and 2018, two Tigers made it each year; they had one player each year from 2014-16.
Not on the list, were right-handers Franklin Perez and Alex Faedo. Perez was on last year's list, at No. 67, but had an injury-plagued 2018. Faedo, the No. 18 overall pick in the 2017 draft out of Florida, hasn't appeared in a Law top 100. Law considered that pick "risky" at the time, and still doesn't like it. Faedo's velocity has been down noticeably since he got out of college, and his slider isn't what it was, either.
"He's underperformed from even what I expected," Law said. "Every scout I asked about him said, 'Reliever.' Often you get some difference of opinion ... but everybody came back and said, 'Reliever.'"
Tigers pitching prospect Alex Faedo was in Detroit on Saturday, and touched on a number of topics related to his progression. The Detroit News
Law, who's been ESPN's top prospects guru for more than a decade after a stint in the Toronto Blue Jays front office, said the key moving forward for the Tigers is to not just hit on the early draft picks, but also in the subsequent rounds, too. He's only really high on Mize and second-round pick Parker Meadows, an outfielder, from the 2018 draft, even though players such as infielder Kody Clemens and outfielder Brock Deatherage showcased some impressive results early in their minor-league careers.
That's a big reason the Tigers will be in the bottom half of his farm-system rankings when those are released in the coming days, Law said.
Another key for the Tigers, Law said: International signings. They're way behind there.
"You can't punt on that," Law said. "You've gotta have more (big) international prospects in your system. The Tigers haven't for a while. I tried to go back and find out and I couldn't."