GM Al Avila sees 2020 draft as another big step out of the darkness for Tigers

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Al Avila’s office at TigerTown in Lakeland, Florida, looks like a television studio these days. It’s decked out with a microphone, multiple cameras, a 65-inch television monitor, multiple computers with Zoom video communication capability.

Welcome to the virtual draft war room.

General manager Al Avila and the Tigers will have six picks in the Major League Baseball draft.

Instead of being holed up in a hotel suite or the boardroom in Lakeland, Avlia, the Tigers’ general manager will be conducting business from his office Wednesday and Thursday. Scott Pleis, the club’s director of amateur scouting, will be Zooming in from his home in St. Louis. Both with be digitally plugged in to Major League Baseball’s draft headquarters, as well.

The Tigers crosscheckers and regional scouts, and analytics personnel will also be participating via Zoom.

“It’s all virtual now,” said Avila in a teleconference Tuesday. “It will be similar to the NFL draft in that way.”

The Tigers, of course, will pick first on Wednesday, their second first-overall pick in three years, and they will pick first in rounds 2-5 on Thursday. They also have one compensatory pick, which will come at the end of Round 2.

Had it not been for the pandemic, though, the Tigers would have had the first pick in 40 rounds, not just five.

“You can only go with what you are given,” Avila said. “Obviously for us, even 10 rounds would’ve been better. But you do the best you can with the picks you’ve got. We’re not going to cry over that. Just do the best we can with the five rounds we have.”

What this draft, as short as it is, represents for the Tigers, as Avila said, is another big step out of the darkness. The rebuilding process, which began in earnest after the 2016 season and has begotten ugly seasons of 98, 98 and 114 losses, is starting to yield some real hope.

“We are a lot closer now to putting a winning team on the field,” Avila said. “We feel we have some exciting players in the minor leagues right now and we’re excited to add more in this draft that will get us closer to where we want to be.  

“This is an exciting time to be a Detroit Tiger.”

In the last three years, the Tigers have rebuilt and modernized their infrastructure in terms of technology and analytics. They’ve beefed up both amateur and pro scouting departments, sunk millions of dollars into player development and recently, begun adding and grooming elite-level prospects, like first-round picks Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo and Riley Greene, as well as a ninth-round steal in Tarik Skubal.

And on Wednesday and Thursday, they are in a prime spot to add more impact talent.

“We’re getting to the point where we’ve got a lot of great talent,” Avila said. “Hopefully we’ll get some homegrown star players emerge that are going to take us to the promised land. We’ve put ourselves in a financial situation where we are going to be in a real good position.”

Of course, the shutdown has been a speedbump to the process — three months already lost and no certainty of playing a season of any substantial length, plus the likelihood of no minor-league baseball all puts a serious crimp in organizational and player development timelines.

“Yeah, unfortunately the coronavirus has thrown a monkey wrench into the plans,” Avila said. “It is a little bit of a setback and we will see how it’s going to affect us in the years to come.”

The top prospects, like Mize, Manning and Skubal, were expected to spend most of the 2020 season at Triple-A Toledo. Now, with the prospect of a truncated season of 48 or 76 games, Avila said there has been internal discussions of keeping those players at least on the big-league taxi squad.

“There’s been no final decision on that,” Avila said. “But with no minor league baseball and the probability of carrying a taxi squad – I mean, it’s a work in progress, but there is a possibility of some of those guys being around.

“But to say that I’m going to put a kid in jeopardy, a kid who hasn’t pitched much with a season of maybe 50 games — it’s a little reckless to say that. We will be very methodical and careful about them.”

After the Tigers make their six picks, they and every other team can sign as many undrafted players as they want for $20,000.

“We will have a list of players that we have interest in and we will have them in preferential order, just like we would in a 40-round draft,” Avila said. “It’ll be a group of players and it will be a pretty good-sized list. But there’s no guarantee you will get the guys at the top of your list.

“There’s no set maximum number or no set minimum number.”

After a 48-hour dead period immediately after the final pick Thursday, Avila and the Tigers will, in essence, turn into college football coaches in recruiting season, trying to entice players to join their organization.

“We have a recruiting tool,” Avila said, not willing to be specific. “We have a message, and our message is that we feel we’ve built this infrastructure here with the best technology, the best analytics, best instructors and we have a good track record of developing players.

“And, we have opportunity.”

 This is uncharted water, all of it. From having to pull scouts off the road in March to prospects not finishing their final years at high school or college, with no summer ball or showcases; from virtual war rooms and a five-round draft — this is a brave new world.

But, the goal is the same. Infuse the organization with fresh talent.

“It is a good draft and there are some impact players in it,” Pleis said. “And we’re going to be able to tap into that.”

Major League Baseball draft

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday (first round); 5 p.m. Thursday (Rounds 2-5)

TV: Wednesday — MLB Network, ESPN; Thursday — MLB Network, ESPN2

Notable: The Tigers own the No. 1 overall pick for the second time in three years.

Twitter: @cmccosky