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For Tigers, MLB draft has yielded its share of productive players, pitfalls

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

On the plus side for the Tigers these past 20 years, there are names, good names, culled from the early rounds of June’s drafts:

Justin Verlander. Curtis Granderson. Rick Porcello. Cameron Maybin. Andrew Miller. Nick Castellanos. Drew Smyly — even James McCann. There are others (Matt Manning, Casey Mize, Alex Faedo, and Riley Greene among them) who look as if they’ll please or even thrill the Tigers in years ahead.

Kyle Sleeth was the Tigers' No. 1 draft pick in 2003 (No. 3 overall), but never reached the majors.

And then, as with all big-league clubs spinning the draft-day roulette wheel, there are too many names who resemble characters from a sad Hallmark movie. Those players were quality talents who got hurt, or, to some scouts’ eternal remorse, were flat-out misreads:

Matt Wheatland. Kenny Baugh. Kyle Sleeth. Jonathon Crawford. Ryan Perry.

No quibbles if you care to toss into that latter group Ronnie Bourquin, Mike Woods, Wade Gaynor, Cale Iorg, Aaron Westlake, Daniel Fields, Austin Schotts, Derek Hill, Reynaldo Rivera, Eric Beattie, Brandon Hamilton, Jay Sborz, Cody Satterwhite, or Casey Crosby, some of whom (Satterwhite, in particular) were pitchers and who too often because they were pitchers saw big-league promise disintegrate when their arms blew out.

Which, to repeat, means the Tigers have been right there, in step with 29 other clubs, who so often have learned the hard way — that the MLB draft is an accident waiting to happen.

The Tigers will join their friends for another game of Draft Day Roulette, which is expected to begin June 10. The Tigers will have four of the first 73 picks in a five-round draft crimped by this year’s coronavirus mayhem.

Percentages say the Tigers will deliver to the majors, at most, two or three from those four early picks and five overall rounds.

As far as a front office and Detroit’s fans are concerned, this is no year for the Tigers to be slapped with cruel percentages. They need to score, and score above draft norms, even when COVID-19 will force clubs to pick players whose 2020 schedules were all but wiped out. It has meant past data, video, and scouting notes are the basis on which to make decisions that even in the best of years carry all the guarantees of a crapshoot.

And yet the Tigers need badly to pick winners in 2020. Their farm teams and their big-league roster rebuild beg for a heavy shot of vitamin B, particularly on the offensive end where bats and position talent are thin.

Not a happy task when hitters in any year’s draft are about as plentiful and predictable as expecting payoffs from lottery tickets.

People tend to think this is uniquely a Tigers problem, a draft’s generally rotten luck.

It isn’t.

Go ahead. Pick a random club, beginning with today’s best playoff teams, or up-and-comers like Atlanta. Take a gander at their last 20 years.

Astros: Remember these dandies from the past two decades? Robert Stiehl, Derick Grigsby, Maxwell Sapp, Jio Mier. First-rounders, all of them. None played a day in the big leagues. On the happier side, in that same span — owing mostly to some miserable years that preceded Houston’s recent run — the Astros nabbed Hunter Pence, George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman

Braves: You probably didn’t have these guys in your annual fantasy draft: Cody Johnson, Brett DeVall, Matt Lipka. That’s because they disappeared into the crevasse known as First-Round Mistakes. The Braves did a bit better with Adam Wainwright (before he was dealt to the Cardinals) and Jason Heyward, but busts tend to rule most drafts most years, and the Braves have been there to confirm it.

Yankees: They have built no Bronx outfield monuments to Dave Parrish, Brandon Weeden, Eric Duncan, CJ Henry, Cito Culver, Ty Hensley, or Eric Jagielo. All were first picks by the Yankees, and only Weeden was as low as second round. The Yanks did better with Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Aaron Judge, and Gerrit Cole, who was a first-round draft choice who didn’t sign as an amateur, and who later did sign with New York, as a free agent for a tidy $324 million

The Dodgers would appreciate mulligans for the first-rounders, or first turns, they wish they had viewed differently these past two decades: Aaron Miller, Chris Anderson, and Grant Holmes, as well as their first pick in 2001, a second-round venture named Brian Pilkington.

On the flip side, in a condensed grouping of first-rounders who have helped either the Dodgers or another club, you find James Loney, Chad Billingsley, Corey Seager, Walker Buehler, and Gavin Lux.

These teams are mentioned only as typical examples of draft life in a game in which single-digit percentages of players signed ever see a big-league clubhouse.

A deep perspective on MLB drafts was computed last June by USA Today. It extended from 1996 into 2019 and put the Tigers’ farm issues into wicked relief:

► The Tigers total WAR (wins above replacement) from those years was 345.5, which was 26th among 30 teams.

► Their number of impact players, as defined by WAR of 10 or more, was 11. It tied for 25th.

► Astonishingly, their most recent impact player drafted was Alex Avila, a fifth-rounder in 2008, who is now with the Twins. He had a career WAR last June of 15.2.

Justin Verlander was the Tigers' top pick in 2004, pitching 12-plus seasons in Detroit.

► Their biggest contributors to their 345.5 WAR came, not surprisingly, from Justin Verlander (65.9), who was their top prize in 2004, and from Curtis Granderson who was a third-round choice in 2002 and who retired this year with a 47.0 WAR.

► A rather telling number there: One-third of the Tigers’ WAR from the past 24 seasons came from two players taken nearly 20 years ago.

A couple of qualifiers both acquit and indict the Tigers for not scoring higher during the previous 20 drafts:

1.   Detroit lost five early-round picks, and three first-rounders, after signing free agents who got whopper contracts: Jose Valverde, Victor Martinez, Prince Fielder, Jordan Zimmermann, and Justin Upton. It’s impossible to project beyond standard odds what the Tigers lost precisely, but it’s reasonable to believe at least a couple of stars would have sprouted.

2.   Keep in mind, also, that the Tigers were basically a playoff team from 2006-14. Their five years in the playoffs and two World Series tickets accounted for some typically late draft slots. Most of the best talent had by that time been picked over.

The Tigers, as any study reveals, have had better luck plucking pitchers than hitters. That’s generally true for all teams, given the lack of impact bats drafts typically offer, but the Tigers have proven it to quite the extreme.

Granderson was an exception, for sure, and among the best work done by long-ago Tigers draft director Greg Smith. It was Smith who also decided in 2004, after the Padres picked Matt Bush first overall, to put a bear-hug on Verlander when Detroit chose second.

A year later, the Tigers hired a new draft general, David Chadd. His first picks, in order, were: Maybin, Miller, Porcello, Perry, Jacob Turner, Castellanos, and McCann (second round). On balance, good work with those initial grabs. And good work by late owner Mike Ilitch and general manager Dave Dombrowski in deciding, despite heat from then-commissioner Bud Selig, to pay some of those picks heavily beyond their slot ceilings.

It was in 2010 that the Tigers began jail sentences for courting billboard free agents.

The Tigers lost a top-20 pick in 2010 after signing Valverde, although they caught a break at 44th overall when they got Castellanos for money far beyond slot price (slot limits have since toughened, dramatically).

A year later, Martinez cost a top-15 turn, while in 2012, after Martinez got hurt and the Tigers were forced to hunt Fielder as a replacement, they lost a third straight first-chance pick as the penalty for Prince.

Detroit has also had its occasional bargain-aisle surprise.

Tarik Skubal could be a ninth-round gem for the Tigers.

Tarik Skubal, a left-handed starter who is one of the Tigers’ three best farm arms, was thieved in the ninth round of the 2018 draft. It is early, yes, but he has a chance to be a historic later-round star.

The Tigers got Matt Joyce in the 12th round in 2005. Joyce last year wrapped up his 12th season in the big leagues and will join the Marlins for No. 13 if and when 2020’s schedule resurrects.

It was an intriguing draft, that 2005 sweepstakes, Chadd’s first as Tigers draft general. The Tigers saw a stunning 13 players from that 2005 haul hit the big leagues, albeit some of them for not longer than an afternoon nap. Those 13 promotions are all the more impressive when the Tigers, because of signing Troy Percival the previous year, were without a second-round pick.

Other deeper-round help during the past 20 years has periodically shown up.

Smith drafted Ryan Raburn in the fifth round in 2001 and Raburn played 12 big-league seasons. Tyler Collins (sixth round, 2011) had four years in the big leagues. The downside: he had a negative-0.4 career WAR.

Andy Dirks (eighth round, 2008) played three seasons worth 3.7 WAR.

Devon Travis was looking like a brazen 13th-round (2012) draft theft after he left the Tigers in a 2014 trade for Anthony Gose. But Travis’ health became an issue with the Blue Jays and he spent last year on the shelf before deciding free agency was better than a minor-league roster spot with the Jays.

Scott Sizemore (fifth round, 2006) suited up for five big-league seasons and a 0.7 WAR. Clete Thomas (sixth round) was part of that heavy 2005 Tigers crop. Thomas lasted six seasons (1.7 WAR), while another from the 2005 dragnet, Will Rhymes (27th round), scratched his way to three big-league seasons.

Rob Brantly’s distinction isn’t that a light-hitting catcher has survived five years in the bigs (negative-1.7 WAR) after the Tigers nabbed him with their third pick in 2010. It’s that he and Turner were part of the 2012 mid-year trade that lured Anibal Sanchez from the Marlins to Detroit.

You could, likewise, hand the Tigers at least a blue star for a catcher snared in the 10th round in 2011: Curt Casali. He has stitched together six years in the majors and still has a roster seat with the Reds.

For those fascinated by old drafts, the ’01 shopping, headed by Smith, is worth a look.

Ryan Raburn was the Tigers' fifth-round pick in 2001 who played 12 major-league seasons.

It was the year of Raburn, in the fifth round, but also Jack Hannahan in the third (eight seasons, 6.3 WAR). Mike Rabelo, famed for his part in the 2007 deal for Miguel Cabrera, was a fourth-rounder who played three big-league years.

And then there was that eighth-rounder from 2001 who played 10 big-league seasons — one Don Kelly. He became quite the adjustable wrench with his ability to fit anywhere on a field or in a lineup. And the kinship forged with Tigers fans remains one of those subtexts from Detroit’s playoff heyday.

But why, exactly, the Tigers have been so vexed finding hitters these past 20 years is more than the simple reality hitting is tough to find any year, in any draft.

They haven’t been great at identifying bats. It means next month’s talent show stands as way more than critical.

Spencer Torkelson of Arizona State should be the best of all answers when the Tigers take that first overall draft turn. In the same fashion that they almost certainly scored last June on a middle-lineup prize in Riley Greene, Torkelson looms as right-handed-hitting TNT.

In the meantime, it would help Detroit’s remodeling if a handful of slashers taken in the first five rounds of the past two drafts would someday play meaningful baseball in Detroit: Parker Meadows, Kody Clemens, and Bryant Packard. And if last year’s second-rounder, Nick Quintana, cares to compensate for his ugly 2019 debut, that would make his employers doubly delighted.

Either way, this year’s pared-down draft is, paradoxically, a draft the Tigers’ most need to ace.

 They require bats. A bunch of them. They’ll be there, in limited supply next month. The Tigers, hope — and need — to grab them with something close to absolute accuracy.

10 Tigers draft triumphs from 2000-19

(Achieved significant big-league careers) 

1.  Justin Verlander (2004)

2.  Curtis Granderson (2002)

3.  Rick Porcello (2007)

4.  Andrew Miller (2006)

5.  Nick Castellanos (2010)

6.  Cameron Maybin (2005)

7.  Alex Avila (2008)

8.  Drew Smyly (2010)

9.  Matt Joyce (2005)

10. Ryan Raburn (2001)

10 Tigers draft disappointments from 2000-19

(Failed to make the big leagues because of injury or performance)

1.  Matt Wheatland (2000)

2.  Kenny Baugh (2001)

3.  Kyle Sleeth (2003)

4.  Jonathon Crawford (2013)

5.  Ronnie Bourquin (2006)

6.  Cale Iorg (2007)

7.  Brandon Hamilton (2007)

8.  Cody Satterwhite (2008)

9.  Eric Beattie (2004)

10. Mike Woods (2001)

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