Can Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal End Detroit’s Long Draft Drought?
The hapless Tigers began a new era on Monday, calling up their top three prospects in the hopes of finally producing some major-league talent.
For the Detroit Tigers — baseball’s worst franchise — the future has arrived.
Al Avila needs it to be a bright one.
The Tigers general manager rolled the dice on Monday, calling up three of the franchise’s top prospects, including a pair of pitchers ranked in MLB’s top 100. Third baseman Isaac Paredes made his major-league debut that night in a loss to the White Sox and 51st-rated Tarik Skubal started on Tuesday, giving up four runs on seven hits and a walk in two innings.
Wednesday, though, is the day Tigers fans have been waiting a long time to see — the debut of Casey Mize. Ranked #8 by MLB.com, Mize is expected to be the anchor of the next great Detroit rotation, joining prospects like Skubal, Matt Manning (#26 overall), and Alex Faedo.
If one of the four hits it big or 27-year-old Spencer Turnbull continues to take steps forward, they could finally end an embarrassing run of draft flops in Detroit.
It has been 16 years since the Tigers drafted a player who produced 20 WAR and 13 years since they picked a pitcher who made it to double digits. They haven’t picked any player who produced 10 WAR since 2010.
Avila joined the Tigers in 2002 when new team president Dave Dombrowski fired GM Randy Smith and manager Buddy Bell after a 0–6 start. Dombrowski took over as general manager with Avila as his top assistant.
That June, after the Royals took Zack Greinke with the sixth pick and the Brewers grabbed Prince Fielder at № 7, Dombrowski and Avila grabbed high-school infielder Scott Moore.
Moore never played a game for the Tigers and finished his 152-game major league career with -0.8 WAR. As it turned out, it was a sign of things to come.
Dombrowski remained the general manager for 13 years, leading the Tigers to two American League pennants, but was fired after trading David Price, Yoenis Cespedes, and Joakim Soria at the 2015 deadline. Avila replaced him, finishing out a 74–87 before putting together a roster that went 86–75 for Brad Ausmus in 2016.
That, though, was merely the last whimper of a dying era. Detroit went 64–98 in 2017, ending Ausmus’s managerial tenure, then repeated the record in Ron Gardenhire’s first season.
Last year, the bottom fell out. The Tigers lost 114 games, including a scarcely believable 22–59 at home. In the year of the home run, they hit 149 and gave up 250.
The problem was obvious. Gardenhire had been brought in to help the Tigers rebuild after they couldn’t quite win a World Series for Jim Leyland, but he’s never been given any talent to teach. In his first two years, no player reached four WAR and the 2020 team has lost seven straight after some early wins over the Reds, Royals, and Pirates.
How bad has the drafting been? Let’s take a year-by-year look at the 19 drafts Dombrowski and Avila have run.
First Round: As already discussed, Moore was a bust.
High Picks: The Tigers had six picks in the first five rounds and only picked up one player who finished his career with a positive WAR total. However, that was third-round pick Curtis Granderson, who ended up with 47.0 in a 2,057-game career and finished as a beloved figure in Detroit and around baseball.
First Round: After losing 106 games in 2002, the Tigers had the third overall pick. It wasn’t a deep first round, but Nick Markakis could have helped Detroit’s first 21st-century rebuild. Kyle Sleeth got a $3.3 million bonus and never made it to Triple-A.
Sleepers: In the 48th round, the Tigers picked C Dusty Ryan. He didn’t have much of a career, finishing with 0.1 WAR in 27 career games, but he was the only signed draft pick to break zero.
First Round: After losing an American League record 119 games in 2003, the Tigers only got the second overall pick. The leagues were still alternating years, so San Diego got #1 as the worst NL team. They picked Matt Bush. The Tigers settled for Justin Verlander.
High Picks: None of Detroit’s other signed draft picks played 10 major-league games.
Sleepers: The Tigers drafted RHP Chris Carpenter in the seventh round, but he didn’t sign. He wasn’t the right Chris Carpenter anyway. They drafted Chris Martin in the 18th round, but he didn’t sign and couldn’t sing.
First Round: The Tigers took Cameron Maybin with the 10th pick, traded him for Miguel Cabrera, brought him back in 2016, watched him win a ring with Verlander in 2017, then brought him back again this year. His 13.9 career WAR isn’t spectacular, but no one is complaining about this pick.
High Picks: No second-round pick and no one breaking 0.0 WAR in the first five rounds.
Sleepers: Matt Joyce (15.7 WAR) was great value in the 12th round. It’s the only time Dombrowski and Avila drafted two 10-WAR players in the same year. Actually, they drafted three, but one didn’t sign. More on him in a couple of years.
First Round: Magglio Ordonez walked off the A’s in the ALCS and the Tigers went to the World Series three years after losing 119 games. Dombrowski could have drafted me in the first round and no one would have held it against him. Instead, picking sixth, he grabbed Andrew Miller and traded him for Miguel Cabrera. Surprisingly, he only has 8.5 career WAR, but the 0.95 ERA in 38 postseason innings adds some value.
Sleepers: Duane Below (19th) pitched in South Korea, Japan, the Dominican Winter League, and is now a long reliever in the Atlantic League.
First Round: The defending AL champs had two first-round picks — №27 and №60 — and picked a pair of high-school pitchers. Rick Porcello has 19.8 WAR, a Cy Young, and a World Series ring. Brandon Hamilton never reached High-A.
Sleepers: The Tigers gave a local high-school kid a thrill by picking him in the 41st round, even though he was heading to LSU. Three All-Star games, three Gold Gloves, and a batting title later, DJ LeMahieu probably made the right decision.
First Round: The Tigers took RHP Ryan Perry with the 21st pick and he was a replacement-level bullpen arm for a few years. Developing pitching prospects is tough.
High Picks: Remember the 10-WAR player the Tigers didn’t sign in 2005? Despite Avila’s protests, they took him again in the fifth round. Far from being ridiculed as a nepotism choice, Alex Avila (16.1 WAR) became a fan favorite in two stints with the Tigers and represented the team in the 2011 All-Star Game. He’ll be a manager in the majors after his retirement.
Sleepers: Andy Dirks (8th) had a massive neck and a decent career.
First Round: №8 Jacob Turner was supposed to be the next Tigers ace. It didn’t work out, but in a recurring theme, Dombrowski traded him to the Marlins. This time he got Anibal Sanchez.
High Picks: Andy Oliver (2nd) didn’t end up joining Turner as the anchors of a young rotation. He went 0–5 with a 7.11 ERA in seven career starts.
Sleepers: Giovanni Soto (21st) finished his career with 0.2 WAR in six games. He was the only 2009 pick to get into positive territory — the rest of the draft class combined for -4.1 WAR.
First Round: The Tigers didn’t pick until the supplemental part of the first round, but grabbed born DH Nicholas Castellanos at №44. Thanks to his horrific infield and outfield defense and refusal to play 1B, it took him eight seasons to finally reach 10 WAR, but he got there this season.
High Picks: Drew Smyly (2nd) is still trying to give Dombrowski a second draft with two 10-WAR picks. He’s up to 9.8, but he’s on the IL with a finger injury.
Sleepers: Kyle Ryan (12th) has been a decent reliever, putting up 1.2 WAR last year with the Cubs.
First Round: Lost the pick to the Red Sox after signing Victor Martinez.
High Picks: James McCann (2nd) never lived up to expectations in Detroit, then put up 3.7 WAR in an All-Star 2019 season for the White Sox.
Sleepers: Curt Casali (10th) has turned into a useful backup catcher for the Rays and Reds.
First Round: Lost the pick to the Brewers after signing Prince Fielder to replace an injured Victor Martinez.
High Picks: Drew VerHagen (4th) never lived up to expectations in Detroit, but is having some success as a long reliever with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan.
Sleepers: At age 25, 2B Devon Travis (13th) had an .811 OPS over two seasons with the Blue Jays. He injured his knee in the 2016 postseason and played his last major-league game at age 27.
First Round: The defending AL champions took RHP Jonathan Crawford at №20. He never reached Double-A, but that was Cincinnati’s problem, as Crawford was traded to the Reds in 2014 for Alfredo Simon. Crawford for Simon straight up would have been a decent trade for the Tigers, but they also included Eugenio Suarez.
The Tigers also had the 39th pick in the supplemental portion of the first round and took Corey Knebel. He was an All-Star for Milwaukee in 2017 but has struggled to stay healthy in subsequent seasons.
High Picks: The Tigers took college RHPs with their first seven picks and got a replacement-level reliever in Buck Farmer (5th).
Sleepers: Chad Green (11th) was yet another college RHP and has been a good reliever for the Yankees since 2016.
First Round: The Tigers took Derek Hill at №23 and have patiently waited for him to stay healthy. Last year, he played a career-high 120 games for Double-A Erie but hit just .243/.311/.394. He’s got a big-league glove but losing a year of development isn’t going to help fix his bat.
High Picks: Turnbull (2nd) went 3–17 for the 114-loss Tigers in 2019, but finished with 2.4 WAR thanks to a 3.99 FIP. He’s been Detroit’s best starting pitcher in 2020, but that’s a low bar in a horrific rotation.
Sleepers: Mike Gerber (15th) has gotten major-league shots in 2018 and 2019. In 73 plate appearances with the Tigers and Giants, he’s slashed .076/.151/.106 — acceptable for a pitcher, but not for a corner outfielder.
First Round: The Tigers selected high-school RHP Beau Burrows at №22. He was a top-100 prospect going into the 2018 season but posted a 4.10 ERA with 3.8 BB/9, then had a 5.51 ERA with a 4.4 BB/9 in 15 Triple-A starts last year.
At №34, the Tigers used a supplemental pick on OF Christin Stewart. In five minor-league seasons, he’s put up a .501 slugging percentage but it hasn’t transferred to the big leagues. In 535 plate appearances, the 26-year-old has a .696 OPS and a minus arm in LF.
High Picks: Tyler Alexander (2nd) produced 1.0 WAR as a long reliever/opener for the 2019 Tigers. That’s not terrible, but he’s allowed four homers in 13.2 innings this season.
Sleepers: No player selected after the 3rd round has registered a positive WAR.
First Round: This was Avila’s first draft as general manager and he was left with the №9 pick. He took Manning, who posted a 2.56 ERA and a 0.980 WHIP in 24 Double-A starts last season. He’s only 22, so the Tigers are giving him a little more time at the alternate training site before bringing him up to join Mize and Skrubal.
High Picks: Kyle Funkhouser (4th) was once considered a top pitching prospect, but he’s had two shots at Triple-A and ended up with an 8.25 ERA in 20 starts. He started 2020 as part of Detroit’s expanded pitching staff but had a 10.57 ERA in six relief outings.
Sleepers: Michigander John Schrieber (15th) was given a $6,000 signing bonus but earned big-league relief innings last year and has been an important part of the Tigers bullpen in 2020.
First Round: The Tigers took Faedo with the 18th pick in their never-ending quest to find pitching prospects who could survive the maturation process. He’s been a good-but-not-dominant starter in 34 Double-A starts, but he doesn’t turn 25 until November.
High Picks: Detroit’s other picks in the first five rounds have all struggled badly as pros and are now losing a key season of development.
Sleepers: None yet.
First Round: Casey Mize is where we started this article. He was the first overall pick and his 2019 season showed why Tigers fans are as excited about his arrival as any pitcher since Verlander. He started the year in High-A before being promoted with a 0.88 ERA in six starts. In his first Double-A start, he threw a no-hitter. Now he’s in the majors.
High Picks: The Tigers were very high on OF Parker Meadows (2nd) and that hasn’t changed despite a .607 OPS last season in the Midwest League. At age 20, though, he really needed a year of development.
Sleepers: Skubal was a ninth-round pick and is already in the majors. OF Brock Deatherage (10th) has an 80-grade name and high-end speed.
First Round: By June, it was obvious the Tigers had a historically bad offense — they finished with an 80 OPS+ — and no high-level hitting prospects. Avila went after that hard, taking position players in each of the first six rounds. OF Riley Greene was the first one, going №5. He posted a .749 OPS in 57 games at three levels and no one knows what he might become in the next five years. Again, playing in 2020 would have helped.
High Picks: OF Bryant Packard (5th) hit .296 with an .815 OPS in 39 games after being drafted. That’s not bad.
Sleepers: After six weeks of professional baseball, there’s no way to know.
First Round: After losing 114 games, the Tigers got the first overall pick for the second time in three years. They used it on Arizona State slugger Spencer Torkelson, who is now working out at the team’s alternate training facility. In three college seasons and two years in the Cape Cod Summer League, he had a 1.198 OPS and 63 homers in 159 games. That’s a decent resume.
High Picks: The Tigers had five picks in the next (and last) four rounds and used all of them on hitters — four from college and Colt Keith (5th) from Biloxi High School. They all had shortened 2020 seasons and no pro ball, so anything else would be a guess.
Sleepers: No late-round surprises in a draft with no late rounds.