Tigers draft choices in recent years have included big hits and big busts

By Nolan Bianchi
Special to The Detroit News
Justin Verlander is a prime example of a high draft pick who met or exceeded expectations.

Of the four major professional sports leagues in the United States, Major League Baseball is the only one to hold its First-Year Player Draft during the season.

It’s unconventional, sure. But if you root for a bottom-dwelling team, it can be a moment of relief in what’s otherwise a very long summer.

That includes the Tigers, who are 4-13 in their last 17 games and, while it’s early, appear to be heading down a road that would put them in contention for the No. 1 overall pick for the second time in three years. In the meantime, general manager Al Avila and crew have their eyes on the 2019 draft, which takes place June 3-5 and can be viewed on MLB Network.

Like any franchise, the Tigers have had their fair share of hits and misses in the draft. From 2004-09, the Tigers drafted four right-handed pitchers in the first round.

Two of them, Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello, have combined for two Cy Young awards and an American League MVP.

The other two, Ryan Perry and Jacob Turner, went a collective 20-37 in the major leagues. Perry never made a start for the Tigers; Turner, who now plays for the Kia Tigers of the Korean Baseball Organization, made just four.

As for the name you can expect the Tigers to select with the fifth pick on Monday’s draft, we’ll save the speculation for another time. Below, we’ve compiled some of the biggest draft hits and misses for the Tigers in recent memory.

It’s worth noting that most of the players below are, naturally, selections of Dave Dombrowski. He served as the team’s general manager for 13 years, during which time the Tigers made two World Series appearances behind a handful of homegrown talent.

The selections of current general manager Al Avila haven’t had the chance to play out yet, and the job done by Randy Smith from 1996-2002 was so wholly ineffective that it didn’t even make sense to pay that era much attention, though a pair of top-3 picks from that time are singled out.

Let’s dig in.


Justin Verlander (No. 2 overall, 2004)

The Tigers were awarded with the No. 2 overall pick in 2004 after coming within one loss of tying a modern-era record the year before.

A since-defunct protocol that alternated the No. 1 overall pick between the American and National leagues wound up benefiting Detroit, as it avoided the headache that was 2003’s No. 1 overall pick, Matt Bush.

The San Diego Padres’ selection had his career put on hold by legal problems and didn’t make his major-league debut until 2016 as a pitcher for the Texas Rangers.

Meanwhile, Verlander went on to win AL Rookie of the Year in 2006, has collected seven All-Star selections, two no-hitters, a Cy Young and AL MVP award, and served as the face of Detroit’s franchise for more than a decade before being dealt to the Houston Astros at the 2017 trade deadline.

The right-hander finally got his ring in Houston later that year, and now at age 36, has yet to see any sort of decline in performance. While it’s still relatively early in the season, Verlander’s 2019 ERA of 2.38 tops any full-season clip throughout his 15-year career.

If you needed any proof that the draft is not an exact science, juxtaposing the career trajectories of Bush and Verlander is probably the place to start.

Andrew Miller (No. 6 overall, 2006)

Yes, the Tigers’ selection of Miller can still be considered a success, even if he was traded away long before he became a two-time All Star and earned an ALCS MVP.

The 6-foot-7 lefty was dealt to the Florida Marlins in 2007 as part of a haul — which also included Detroit’s first-round pick in 2005, Cameron Maybin — that returned eventual triple-crown winner Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis, who had been named to two All-Star teams and won NL Rookie of the Year at that point.

The latter member acquired by Detroit was mainly a disappointment — a knee injury limited Willis to 24 starts over three seasons for the Tigers — but the production of Cabrera from 2009-16, during which time his offensive-wins-above-replacement rating totaled 52.3, was not. And Tigers benefited from four consecutive division titles and a World Series appearance because of it.

Miller, meanwhile, never managed to catch on as a starter, but proved to be a reliable arm from the pen. He came into his own after becoming a reliever full-time with Boston in 2012 and had a monstrous run in the 2016 postseason, pitching 19 1/3 innings in 10 appearances for the Cleveland Indians while giving up just three runs.

All things considered, the pick was largely a victory. Miller’s potential helped the Tigers grab a generational talent at the plate, and his sustained success as a bullpen arm proves there was something to that No. 6 overall status.

Rick Porcello (No. 27 overall, 2007)

Porcello is the second consecutive former Tiger draft pick on this list to perform admirably during his time in Detroit before eventually finding even more success — and a World Series ring — elsewhere.

The Tigers selected the 18-year-old right-hander in 2007. By his 21st birthday, Porcello had already gone 14-9 with a 3.96 ERA in the major leagues, a 2009 rookie campaign that earned him a third-place finish in AL Rookie of the Year voting.

Still, Porcello made just two postseason starts in Detroit’s four-year run as AL Central champions from 2011-14. While it’s hard to discredit him for being the odd man out in playoff rotations that included Cy Young winners like Verlander, David Price and Max Scherzer, it would probably be fair to say that Porcello never reached his full potential in a Tigers uniform.

He’d go on to win an AL Cy Young of his own with the Boston Red Sox in 2016 and posted a 3.75 ERA in three starts and two relief appearances for Boston in the 2018 postseason.

Nicholas Castellanos (No. 44 overall, 2010)

While Dombrowski had some first-round hits from 2004-07, Castellanos is the lone bright spot of a pretty empty stretch that followed.

Castellanos’ stock rose over three full seasons in the minor leagues, and after the team made room for the young slugger by trading Prince Fielder to Texas and moving Cabrera back to first, he got the call up.

Now in his sixth full season with Detroit, Castellanos has put together an average of 84 RBIs, 20 home runs and a mark of .273/.322/.459 per 162 games over the course of his big-league career.

Curtis Granderson (No. 80 overall, 2002)

Granderson was — and maybe still is — one of the most beloved athletes to come through this city in a while. And honestly, what’s not to love?

The third-round pick out of Illinois-Chicago earned the job as Detroit’s starting center fielder the year the Tigers broke a 22-year AL Pennant drought and in 2009 made his first of three All-Star games. Granderson was eventually traded to the New York Yankees prior to the 2010 season and went on to win a Silver Slugger in 2011.

It’s likely that Granderson’s sterling reputation with fans will ultimately be his lasting legacy in Detroit — and that probably holds true for the six teams he’s played for since. “The Grandy Man” has won the Marvin Miller Man of the Year award three times and was bestowed the Roberto Clemente Award in 2016.


Matt Anderson (No. 1 overall, 1997)

All things considered, Anderson did appear to be a great use of the No. 1 overall pick after his rookie year.

But his career trajectory provides a cautionary tale of how expectations should be tempered for 2018’s first overall pick Casey Mize, who’s thrown a no-hitter and is a perfect 6-0 with a 1.40 ERA in Double-A Erie this season.

Matt Anderson was drafted No. 1 overall in 1997 by the Tigers.

Because while these numbers can — and should — inspire hope for the future of Detroit’s starting rotation, it’s probably best to hedge that excitement with a bit of skepticism.

Anderson was called up to the big leagues after just two minor-league appearances and went 5-1 with a 3.27 ERA in 42 appearances during his first year with Detroit, but was never really the same after that.

The Rice University product couldn’t make his way to the starting rotation, tore a muscle in his armpit in 2002, and his career in Detroit was over by 2003.

Eric Munson (No. 3 overall, 1999)

Generally speaking, when a player is drafted No. 3 overall, a good idea would be to play him at his natural position. Unfortunately for Munson, that’s not how the chips fell.

He drove in runs at will during minor-league campaigns in 2001-02, but with Brandon Inge and Matt Walbeck splitting time at catcher for the Tigers, was asked to transition to third base in order to play with the big-league club prior to the 2003 season.  

Munson put together subpar contact numbers in his only two full years with the Tigers and was pretty unreliable at third base, finishing his career with a .928 fielding percentage and 35 errors in 187 games at the position.

The former University of Southern California slugger saw very limited action with Tampa Bay, Houston and Oakland in the five years that followed his departure from Detroit and played his last game in 2009.

Kyle Sleeth (No. 3 overall, 2003)

Sleeth was Dombrowski’s first pick as general manager, and it’s probably one he'd have liked to have back.

Former Tiger Delmon Young and one-time All Star Rickie Weeks went No. 1 and 2, respectively, leaving the Tigers with the top pitcher in the draft, a right-hander out of Wake Forest with a lot of hype to his name.

Ultimately, Sleeth never advanced past Double-A ball, though it was hardly his fault. A dance with Tommy John surgery forced him to miss the entirety of his second season, and when Sleeth did finally return part-way through the 2006 campaign, the two consecutive years with an ERA over 8 that followed simply didn’t cut it. He retired from the game in 2008.

Ryan Perry (No. 21 overall, 2008)

After he was drafted, Baseball America placed Perry right behind Porcello, who was drafted a year prior, as the organization’s top two pitching prospects.

From there, the two set foot on opposite paths. While Porcello went on to become a Cy Young award winner, Perry struggled to gain footing in the major leagues. The Tucson native was solid out of the pen in his first two seasons with the Tigers, posting a collective ERA of 3.72 in 113 appearances.

But after his ERA dropped to 5.35 in 2011, the former first-rounder spent a chunk of the season in Triple-A Toledo. He was dealt to Washington in the offseason and struggled to earn a spot on the Nationals roster.

He made just seven big-league appearances in the four seasons that followed.

Jacob Turner (No. 9 overall, 2009)

Like Perry, Turner’s first-round selection and the ensuing attention he received from national media make the results of this pick a bit of a disappointment.

Baseball America listed Turner as the Tigers’ top prospect in 2010-11 and also touted his curveball and change-up as the best in all of Detroit’s minor leagues. The right-hander would go on to make just four starts over two stints with the Tigers and made 52 career starts with five other teams.

He appeared mostly as a reliever during the end of his career and was out of Major League Baseball after spending parts of the 2018 season with Detroit and Miami.

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.