Double whammy? MLB's changes to draft, season could entangle Tigers' rebuild

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

They were big-league baseball’s most bashed and bruised team in 2019. But at least the Tigers stood to get dual breaks in 2020.

They would be picking first in each round of June’s draft, which before COVID-19 showed up as a world scourge promised pick-of-the-litter status for 40 rounds.

Chris Ilitch and Al Avila welcome Riley Greene after making him the Tigers' first-round pick in 2019.

Also, they and pretty much all their 29 big-league brethren agreed that the 2020 crop was deeper than any draft had offered in a decade.

The draft, of course, is the primary way bad pro sports teams get better. It is how future contenders are assembled. Take your lashes during a rebuild, as the Tigers did a year ago (47-114 record), then use those first-chair draft slots to scoop the best blue-chip bodies, reload the farm, and get busy constructing a contender.

Now it appears the Tigers will be getting double-whammied in 2020, and maybe again in 2021.

Major League Baseball and the Players Association reportedly are in accord on a five-round draft beginning on its original date, June 10.

Five rounds rather than 40. Five players, maximum, to fertilize a Tigers farm system that needed blanket applications of talented flesh.

It corresponds to what, at best, will be a restricted big-league season. National reports during the weekend suggest an 80-game schedule is being planned for a July start-up, with a second 2020 tune-up training camp set for June.

That is, if details can be finalized and, more critically, if the coronavirus contagion can be minimized to a point actual teams and rosters can function. Unless the pandemic eases in unexpected ways, there will no fans on hand and only television cameras following whatever happens in these games should they be played, which is still far from certain.

A canceled season will cost teams collective billions of dollars. A shortened season, especially with no fans in the seats, will recoup only a portion of those billions.

And with that kind of red ink drenching both leagues, teams aren’t keen on spending money they aren’t earning on deeper-drafted prospects they don’t believe they can pay.

No guarantees

The Tigers are busy with June 10 plans and appear not to have budged from the man they are expected to take first, overall: Spencer Torkelson, a dynamic hitter and first baseman from Arizona State who is seen as a potential franchise-grade megastar in Detroit.

Nor are the Tigers expected to pick blindly during the second through fifth rounds, even though college and prep schedules in 2020 were gutted when COVID-19 shredded the United States’ ways of life beginning in March.

The Tigers have significant data, video, scouting reports, and analytics on players they have been watching for months and even years.

Al Avila

Al Avila, the Tigers' general manager, said earlier this spring that his team was fine with whatever realities the 2020 draft brought.

“When you prepare for the draft, you don’t just start in February,” he said as the Tigers quickly broke camp in Florida, their 2020 dress-rehearsal crimped by the pandemic. “It starts the year before, and in some cases, even longer.

“We have over 600 reports for this year’s draft already. We have video on basically every player. We already have a list of one-through-hundreds, in preferential order.

“If the draft were tomorrow, we’d be ready to go.”

Avila wasn’t exaggerating. Not in 2020. Not the way big-league baseball’s scouts and nerve-centers now work.

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Even with competitive games being zapped four weeks into the college season, and with the prep season being virtually wiped out, the Tigers, as well as other clubs, have megabytes and gigabytes of information on players available in June.

And much of that data owes to the extraordinary number of hitters and pitchers available in 2020, especially on the college side.

The problem for Avila and the reconstituting Tigers is any shot at adding talent typically found in rounds 6-10, and beyond, is all but dead in 2020.

As proposed, teams will be allowed to sign players not taken in those first five rounds, but for no more than $20,000.

That is paltry cents on the dollar compared with typical slot prices during those sixth through 10th rounds and unlikely to coax prep or junior-eligible college players to sign.

What it portends for colleges and next year’s draft isn’t necessarily better or brighter.

College baseball teams have, on average, few scholarships to offer.

With so many college juniors (college players must be at least 21 the year they are to be drafted) missing out on those later rounds next month, they are expected to opt for a senior year, which means scholarships will be even more at a premium.

Those scholarships become more difficult to secure for an incoming freshman.

It is projected that waves of 18-year-old prep stars now will flee to their nearest junior college that offers baseball. Junior college players can be drafted after a single year of school. And that could cushion a legitimate prospect from having to settle on a $20,000 ration.

Also, a junior-college audition theoretically allows a talented teen a better shot at a full-ride tender down the road when college baseball presumably returns to regular schedules.

But there are no guarantees life will get markedly better in 2021. On the college, or big-league levels.

Trouble in 2021 too? 

Will the coronavirus still be trashing schedules and competition a year from now? Will college baseball teams, which depend upon football revenue that also is in peril in 2020, be in business in 2021, let alone offer old scholarship numbers?

As for the Tigers, they could get gashed again in 2021, maybe more than any team in baseball given the fact they’re trying frantically to resurrect a big-league roster as well as their farm system.

Tarik Skubal was selected by the Tigers in the ninth round, a round that is not likely to be included in this year's draft.

They stand to lose 35 draft slots next month and – should preliminary plans hold – another 20 draft picks in 2021.

While not often do rounds 20 through 40 produce great help, let alone an All-Star, it’s also true that a team picking first, or very early, in those rounds can get the occasional nugget.

And it’s especially evident that rounds 6 through 10 can and do pay off, sometimes handsomely, and even historically.

What isn’t clear is how those purported 20 rounds in 2021 will be arranged.

It’s logical that the same draft order will simply carry over to 2021 if there are no games in 2020. But say a shortened schedule is played. Say the Tigers play a bit over their heads in a season only fractionally as long as the normal 162-game test.

And say a truncated schedule, spiced by some pure luck, drops their draft order significantly in 2021. If this year’s won-loss record is the sole determinant for where they pick next year, the Tigers could be victims of something more or less aberrant.

It could be a double penalty for COVID-19 showing up in such extreme fashion in 2020, a likely pivotal year in the Tigers’ makeover.

It is also feasible, because anything at the moment is plausible, that should the season be limited, records from 2019 and 2020 will be combined in fixing 2021 draft positions.

Or, of course, coronavirus might yet prove to be so strong, so impervious to Major League Baseball’s best hopes, wishes, and plans, that even a reduced 2020 calendar will be impossible.

In which case the Tigers, presumably, would be looking at their same first-in-line status next year. That is, if “next year” and “baseball” can be terms intertwined as coronavirus introduces the world and MLB to uncharted terrain.

All of these scenarios were run past Avila this weekend. But with so much in flux, and with nothing final yet unveiled by Commissioner Rob Manfred, Avila believed he had no choice but to abstain.

He declined comment, other than to say by way of an email:

“We just have faith that we will be prepared to go forward under any circumstances, with no excuses.

“I have trust and conviction in my own ability. But most importantly, I have even more faith in the team of guys I built around me.”

'Activity stopped or limited'

One of those people is Tom Moore, director of international operations for the Tigers.

In years before the coronavirus, Moore would be seven weeks from harvesting contracts offered to players outside the U.S., with particular emphasis on Latin American teens.

It is customary for those players to begin signing deals on July 2. But because all of baseball has been upended, the new signing season for 16-year-old Latin talent – as well as other international targets – is now expected to begin no earlier than January.

The Tigers have been tied to two 16-year-olds regarded by either Baseball America or MLB Pipeline as Top 30 talent.

The players:

►Cristian Santana, shortstop, 6-foot, 175 pounds, and a right-handed batter from Azua, Dominican Republic. He is expected to get what could be an all-time high for a Latin teen signed by the Tigers, some $3 million.

Guzman is No. 6 on Baseball America’s list of top international talent, and No. 13 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 30.

►The Tigers likewise are paired with Abel Bastidas, a 6-2, 160-pound outfielder and switch-hitter from Carora, Venezuela. Bastidas is No. 26 on MLB Pipeline’s blue-chip cast.

Although everything now is fluid, the Tigers were to have more than $6 million slated for international signings in 2020, a rigid budget determined by Manfred’s office. The money included an extra $1 million, which stood as a potential big break for Avila and Moore.

The extra million was set to arrive courtesy of the Tigers’ bleak finish in 2020 and, more heavily, because of a competitive-balance designation the Tigers are to get not only in this year’s draft (an extra pick, 73rd overall) but in the amount of cash they can spend on international stars.

The dollars are significant when signing players to a seven-figure deal, or even $500,000, is heavy money generally paid to Latin America’s best teens.

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Moore had to be as careful as Avila in talking about plans that haven’t yet been finalized by Manfred. He said in an email response that there were “pros and cons to the different start dates” (July or January, depending on final verdicts).

He said “activity has been stopped or been extremely limited” in all areas of Latin America and abroad, “similarly to that of the domestic (draft) pool.”

It means some of the academies where top-shelf Latin teens currently are groomed for big-league contracts might, depending upon numbers and coronavirus variables, still be housing and polishing players.

But the typical routine has been shredded.

“As you can imagine,” Moore wrote, “the pandemic has impacted all countries where amateur baseball is played. Activity has been stopped or been extremely limited.

“There will be an increase in activity as individual countries relax quarantine restrictions, as seen in places like Taiwan and Korea.

“At this time, our scouts have been working on gathering information through home-to-home communication, as allowed by current MLB protocol.”

As for life on the Tigers’ farm in 2020, that, too, appears headed for trouble, if not trauma.

Reports have said a 2020 minor-league season is all but hopeless. A key reason: Should big-league teams salvage even a partial season, they likely will need deep backup teams, taxi squads as they’re known, made up heavily of minor-leaguers who can fill in on the big-league side if COVID-19 leads to disabled players or heavy quarantining.

It has also been reported by national outlets that MLB is almost sure to contract the minor leagues by as many as 40 teams – about 25 percent of the MLB farm inventory.

Those cuts are anticipated to come at the lower levels, such as the New York-Penn League, a “short-season” Class A grouping that has only a 10-week schedule and that acts as a short bridge between rookie hatcheries and next-rung Single A stops.

In the Tigers’ case, if the New York-Penn League were to vanish, the Tigers would lose their affiliate at Connecticut. But in keeping with other plans and preparations for 2020 and beyond, nothing has yet been announced formally by Manfred, nor by the Major League Players Association, which must sign off on all deals.

It leaves the Tigers for now gazing in the direction of June 10. And at a draft unlike any MLB ever has imagined.

That date remains of course only a target. But for now, it is as close to assured as any aspect of 2020 can be while a global virus mangles the traditional baseball year.