Tigers 'super-happy' to snag Texas Tech slugging infielder Jace Jung in MLB Draft
They were hoping for something seismic Sunday evening — for a temblor or two that might alter the Tigers’ options in the 2022 MLB Draft’s first round.
They got their shake-up.
A couple of early and surprising pitching picks preserved a host of hitters, including Jace Jung, a left-handed slugger and second baseman whom the Tigers scooped up with the 12th overall pick.
He was one of two college infielders selected Sunday by the Tigers, later joined by Oklahoma shortstop Peyton Graham, taken in the second round (No. 51 overall).
Jung was a Tigers target throughout their spring scouting safaris. But they couldn’t count on his bat being available when hitters Sunday were expected to be plucked early.
That changed when pitchers began tumbling early from the draft board — Kumar Rocker, in a shocker, going third overall to the Texas Rangers; Cade Horton, from the University of Oklahoma to the Cubs at No. 7. Then, Gabriel Hughes, at 10, to the Rockies.
Jung (pronounced: Young) is 6-foot, 205 pounds, turns 22 in October, and is the younger brother of Josh Jung, who three years ago was the draft’s eighth overall pick by the Rangers. He played at MacArthur High in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, before joining the Red Raiders.
"We were a little bit worried that he’d go before us and were super-happy that he got to us,” said Scott Pleis, who directs amateur scouting for the Tigers. “He’s a guy we’ve been talking about a long time.
“The obvious stuff is his ability — his power from the left-hand side.
“We got lucky.”
Jung this season in 61 games batted .335 for the Red Raiders, with a .481 on-base percentage, lusty .612 slugging average, which was good for a 1.093 OPS.
He hit 14 homers, with 18 doubles, and a triple, all while striking out 42 times that was bested by a stat the Tigers definitely liked: 59 walks.
For his three-year Texas Tech career, Jung’s numbers were: 136 games, .328 average, .468/.647/1.115, with 39 HRs, 126 walks, and 102 strikeouts.
Jung had a bruised hip this spring that hurt his work on the basepaths, and his range at second base. But his left-handed swing — a flatter, on-plane stroke than one typically sees — thrilled the Tigers and scouts, in general.
There have been scouting concerns galore about Jung’s defense and ability to stick at second base.
The Tigers disagree.
“He’s going to be a good second baseman,” Pleis said. “You can see his emotion and competitiveness on the field, and how he wants to win. He’s a gritty guy, his teammates love him, too.
“He’s got a lot of good traits to be a championship player.”
Scouts who have critiqued Jung believe he will need to develop more pull-power, which they say is inevitable, and which could make him particularly lethal at Comerica Park.
Jung is a Scott Boras client, but the Tigers have a long relationship with Boras and a signing figure no doubt was solidified before Detroit struck Sunday.
Graham, 21, is a right-handed swinger, 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, who in 67 games this season for the Sooners hit .335, with 20 home runs, a .417 on-base percentage and 1.058 OPS.
Dan O'Dowd, the former MLB general manager who was a draft commentator Sunday on MLB Network, said Graham had above-average, across-the-board skills and was a surprise presence so deep into the second round.
“Super-toolsy guy — had a great year,” Pleis said, acknowledging that a player 6-3, and significantly below 200 pounds, is probably headed for some protein commitment, as well as time in the weight room.
“I know everybody looks at the body and wouldn’t project power, but the guy’s got freaky power for his build.
“Plus, he can stay at short. He’s got the tools, the quickness, the agility, the hands, the arm-strength.
“He’s a super-competitive guy, and it’s going to be fun watching those guys (Jung and Graham) play up the middle.”
Jung was, of course, pleased to join the Tigers, who will be paying him somewhere in the vicinity of $4.6 million — the amount MLB has “recommended” for the 11th overall pick.
Just as the Mets were selecting Parada at 11-overall, Jung said he got a call from his advisor (Boras), who said, “Hey, the Tigers want you.”
A scream followed, Jung said, shared with his family.
“I’m just super-excited and couldn’t be more happy to be a Detroit Tiger.”
Jung was, of course, aware the Tigers were chasing him. They had met this month in a bid to get acquainted.
“Great talk,” Jung said. “I called my dad and said, ‘This is one of the best meetings I’ve ever had — with the Detroit Tigers.’
“It was an awesome experience.”
Jung also spoke of a 10th-grade teacher at MacArthur High, Frank Filipone, a serious Tigers fan who had told him nearly daily that a day would come when Jung would play for Detroit.
“I called him after the draft,” Jung said. “He was screaming.”
Jung’s availability Sunday came courtesy of tumult some thought was brewing — and the Tigers prayed would deliver them a prize. It was triggered when Rocker rocked all the predictors and went third-overall to Texas.
Rocker was returned-to-sender in last year’s draft when the Mets backed away from medicals after taking him in the draft’s first round. But the Vanderbilt star, a right-hander who threw some of the best power pitches in college baseball a year ago, turned his off-year into a renewal. Any physical issues were vanquished and Rocker jumped to the draft’s third slot, far ahead of where forecasters had him pegged.
That moved down a peg a hitter the Tigers might have expected to be long gone in the initial 11 turns.
Pleis was careful in offering any thoughts there.
“I think there were a few that went off the board a little early,” he said, “and some were there a little longer.”
The draft’s first-round disorder was due mostly to Rocker’s surprise surge. It otherwise followed a reasonable script:
Jackson Holliday, son of ex-MLB slugger Matt Holliday, was Baltimore’s choice at No. 1 overall. Druw Jones, another son of a premier former big-leaguer, was the draft’s second pick, by Arizona.
Hotshot infielder Termarr Johnson was the Pirates’ pick at No. 4 overall. The Nationals then jumped on IMG Academy superstar, Elijah Green, just before the Marlins hopped on LSU switch-hitter Jacob Berry.
A second surprise, and a second present to the Tigers, came when the Cubs opted for a pitcher — Horton — with the draft’s seventh turn.
The Twins followed with a Twins-style pick — Cal-Poly infielder Brooks Lee, a switch-hitter who avoids strikeouts and who can be counted on, in the tradition of Twins stalwarts, to torment for years a team from Detroit.
That left the Royals at No. 9 to pluck a left-handed hitter who the Tigers might have craved — Gavin Cross, a fleet center-fielder and power hitter who could be headed for annual All-Star duty.
Next with a draft early-stunner were the Rockies, taking Gonzaga right-hander Gabriel Hughes at 10-overall.
Left alive were a handful of hitters the Tigers no doubt would have been happy to ponder, with Georgia Tech catcher Kevin Parada, a possible top-five dandy, still unclaimed — through 10 picks.
Parada qualified as an early semi-shocker, in terms of hitters — in this case, one ignored — until the Mets pounced on Parada at No. 11.
That brought on stage the Tigers’ pick, and the anointing of Jung as some potential high-octane hitting for a team, and an organization overall, crying for offense and run-production that might arrive soon.
The MLB Draft’s first two rounds wrapped up Sunday evening, with rounds 3-10 set for Monday and the remaining 10 rounds Tuesday.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.