Henning: Pandemic delivers a twofold blow to rebuilding Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

In his Miami, Fla., home, Al Avila has an office den brimming with laptops and video screens. This is where he has been working for the past month, since Major League Baseball’s clubs turned steam hoses and disinfectant nozzles on spring-camp clubhouses and headed for their COVID-19 refuges at home.

This is where the Tigers general manager has been holed up for the past four weeks, Skyping with scouts and lieutenants, eyeballing video, and preparing for a big-league season that might or might not arrive, as well as for a 2020 draft that definitely will take place.

General manager Al Avila said a reduced MLB Draft will hurt the Tigers more than other teams.

What we know late in April is this:

1. Although the boss is tipping no cards, Detroit will grab Spencer Torkelson first overall when the draft happens, in June or July. Torkelson has power that another extraordinary college hitter, Austin Martin, can’t match, which is reason enough to go with the hyper-talented Torkelson, especially when no one’s quite sure what position Martin will play in the big leagues. Only if Torkelson would develop some physical issue will the Tigers be dissuaded from snagging an Arizona State slugger of such prowess.

2. The pandemic probably could be tougher on the Tigers than on any other big-league club — for two primary reasons: That first-pick slot in each round is huge, especially in a 2020 draft that, until this coronavirus scourged the world, was shaping up as one of the deepest drafts in years. Also, the Tigers, with starting pitching as their developmental cornerstone, desperately needed those pitchers (Matt Manning, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, etc.) to get abundant competitive innings in 2020. Now, a key year could be lost, which, again, because of the Tigers’ unique situation and timeline, is a reconstructing team’s double whammy.

“We had this thing going right where we wanted to go,” Avila said during a Monday conversation. “Now, for so many guys — pitchers and hitters — you’ve got a lost year of development.”

Other issues also gouge the Tigers when baseball’s 2020 season appears to be, at best, delayed, if not wiped out.

The Tigers were poised to make at least one, and perhaps, two midseason trades. This gets back to their pitching. Matthew Boyd, if he were to follow with a spring consistent with his 2019 year, was almost certainly going to be hot inventory, all assuming he had shown during a follow-up season that his skills are for real. You can’t make assumptions here, but Boyd’s spring-camp work was one more sign that he was becoming one of baseball’s higher-octane starters.

Spencer Turnbull is another pitcher whose power arm and ample years before free agency could have made him gold in July.

Again, you never can be sure about pitchers, but there were clear reasons to believe at least one of these starters would have triggered a deal for a hitter or two who could help balance a rebuild heavy on pitching and light on bats.

Those potential swaps offered the Tigers another bonus: Their young starters, if they hadn’t maxed-out on innings during the summer, would have been ripe for call-up in September when rosters expand. Or rather, when they expand only slightly, which is now the case. New rules are in place. You can have only 28 players on September rosters. Trades at midseason, which would almost surely be for prospect bats, would perhaps have freed a couple of roster spots for Manning, Mize, and Skubal to dress-rehearse for 2021.

Nothing certain there, of course, but a plausible plan was in place.

The draft is another trapdoor waiting for a Tigers team that has been star-crossed in its rebuild, mostly because old trade dispositions toward veteran talent versus prospects have flipped since 2017 signaled a serious turnaround.

That first-overall slot, which the Tigers earned the hard way — 47-114 record — is a huge edge.

Think of it this way: A first overall pick in any round is essentially a late pick in the previous round, especially when, as an example, baseball has 30 teams versus the NFL’s 32. It’s a small distinction, but the up-front perch can be a difference-maker.

And, again, that’s especially true when 2020 was looking like a draft-year bumper crop.

This is why the Tigers absolutely need Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office to decide the 2020 draft goes at least 10 rounds. There has been discussion of a draft that could be as few as five rounds.

And if that’s the case, the Tigers could be wounded, maybe grievously. Any big-league team needs each year a 10-round shot at boosting its farm corps. The Tigers, especially because of their first-pick turns, need as many rounds as Manfred allows.

“I think for us it will hurt the most,” said Avila, who added that he will live happily with a draft that goes at least 10 rounds. “This thing (pandemic) makes it tough to evaluate, and where it really hurts is not having 40 rounds to pick from.

“And, obviously, a team picking higher (earlier) in the draft gets hurt more than a team picking lower.”

Because teams can’t study prep and college games through Memorial Day, the Tigers will be gambling with four exceptionally early picks (Nos. 1, 38, 63, and 74), one of which (63rd overall) arrived as a consolation prize. The Tigers finally were judged by Manfred’s office to be one of baseball’s truly needy clubs (market size, place in standings, etc.), which won them an extra, early turn.

The next question:

Does a team flush with pitching prospects and four or five hitters short of a quorum automatically go with hitting with those next three picks following, presumably, Torkelson?

Arizona State slugger Spencer Torkelson will likely be Detroit's top pick in the MLB Draft.

Not necessarily. The old best-player-available creed will apply, although in the event of any jump-balls, Avila said the Tigers likely would go with a hitter.

This is where the Torkelson pick becomes even more self-evident, although, to be clear, Avila steadfastly says nothing about Torkelson or any player with respect to name in talking about draft plans.

Asa Lacy, of Texas A&M, is the kind of pitcher who in many drafts would be a first-overall grab. He is 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, he is a left-hander, and he buries hitters with a fastball-breaking-ball combo that, as of March, was more devastating than the stuff being tossed by Georgia’s superb right-hander, Emerson Hancock.

But the Tigers need big bats. A bunch of them. And when a hitter who has the kind of franchise-talent skills Torkelson offers is in play, he wins the prize. For now, anyway.

That means the Orioles, who pick second, will have fun deciding between Lacy and Martin, whose power should rise enough to make him even more deadly at Camden Yards.

The Tigers, though, today would take Torkelson, even when anything remotely approaching the word “plans” in 2020 should be viewed advisedly.

“I stay in touch with (Tigers owner) Chris Ilitch weekly, sometimes multiple times daily,” Avila said. “We go over all the scenarios and possibilities. ‘If this happens, we’ll consider this, if this contingency comes our way, we’ll do this …’

“It’s all hypothetical, we don’t know. It’s quite a bit of work, and not the kind of work we want to be doing as opposed to be playing games.

“But it’s something important. And we’re going to get it done.”

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.