Detroit — The Tigers, for the second time in three years, have the first overall pick in the Major League Baseball amateur draft. In normal years that would mean they get the first pick in 40 rounds.
But with all levels of baseball being shut down going on six weeks now because of the coronavirus pandemic, nothing is normal this year. As both general manager Al Avila and director of amateur scouting Scott Pleis said in a teleconference Tuesday, there likely won’t be 40 rounds in this year’s draft. There probably won’t be more than 10 rounds.
Which means there will be 30 rounds worth of players thrown into a vast pool of undrafted free agents. Which means instead of getting the pick of that steadily shrinking litter of players 30 more times, the Tigers will have to compete with 29 other teams for the entire pool of players.
Which, in summary, is sub-optimal.
“Obviously, we will have a group of players that we will want after the draft is over, however many rounds it is,” Avila said. “The difference is, they can sign with any team they want. It’ll be different, but we will be prepared for it.”
Avila said he expects to get more information regarding the draft set-up from the commissioner’s office as early as next week. It is expected the draft will be pushed back into July and the Tigers are prepared to exchange their war room for a video conference using Microsoft Teams software.
“Whether it’s five or 10 rounds, it really doesn’t matter,” Pleis said. “We are preparing basically like it was going 40 rounds. We are going through all the names, ranking them like we’ve always ranked them and getting them in order.
“It never stops for us when the rounds end, even after 40 rounds. So it’s pretty much the same. We are prepared for any situation, however long it goes.”
Except it’s not the same. Actual eyes-on scouting ended in March. All the video the club has on prospects came in before March 27. The club’s data on college-aged players, especially the top-end guys, is mostly complete. It is much less so for high school prospects, many of whom didn’t even get to start their senior seasons.
“We have way more information on the college players,” Pleis said. “They're older. We’ve seen them more often, they're a little more predictable. The high school guys are just figuring it out. ...You wish you could have a little more time to really figure out what they are."
High school seniors are the ones most hurt by this. Not only might there be 30 fewer rounds in the MLB Draft, but the NCAA is allowing players who lost out on their spring seasons to return in 2021. That’s going to eat up scholarships which may force a lot of high school players to use JUCO programs or fall through the cracks.
“We are using all the tools we have available to us,” Pleis said. “Like Al has talked about, we’ve really beefed up our analytics and our video database and in this situation that has been very helpful. We realize nothing replaces being there and watching players play, but video is very good now and getting better every day.
“The way we’re set up now, it’s tremendous. Without it, it would be very difficult to do this. If this situation was ever going to happen, it happened at the right time for us.”
The irony is, of course, in a year where the draft might be trimmed by 30 rounds, the talent pool projects to be exceptionally deep.
“Yes, this year is a little deeper than last year and maybe a couple of years before that,” Pleis said. “The college arms, there’s more of them. There are some good high school players. And there are more (hitters) than usual.
“It’s a pretty good, well-rounded draft.”
Right-handed slugger Spencer Torkelson from Arizona State still projects to be the Tigers’ choice with the first overall pick, which would fill the team's pressing organizational need for hitting prospects.
“I know what our needs are, but it’s a tough thing if you start thinking more in terms of need than anything else,” Pleis said. “You are going to pass on a guy that might be quite a bit better. You have to be careful.
“My job is to give the Tigers the best player who can make the best impact and I want to give Al exactly what he needs.”
Torkelson may fit both categories.
“We will have all the information,” Pleis said. “We will have had all the conversations. It’s like Al said, the key word is — it’ll be different. But that’s all it will be. It’s going to present different challenges, probably, but it’s not going to affect the outcome.
“It’ll just be a different way at coming to that outcome.”