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The Tigers don’t draft or develop well

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The narrative goes ‘the Tigers don’t develop any players internally’. Turns out, it’s spot on.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Boston Red Sox
Its all your fault
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Monday morning, a rather bombastic column came out wherein the author lamented the failures of Francisco Rodriguez, and the Tigers inability to develop a relief corps, or even a handful of players, internally though drafting a their own player development. The column also stated that even the players that were traded away in an effort to put the team on top of the division, and stay there, have failed to pan out.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard THAT story before. The Tigers don’t draft well and they don’t develop anyone. Instead they rely on trading for their talent or handing out large sums of money to free agents in a gamble that doesn’t always work out. But this is surely just the same old exaggerated narrative, right? It’s internal bias from an impassioned fan that has seen too many years gone by that start so hopeful and end up in bitter tears of sadness. Plus, the current front office has had just one draft under their belt to change from a wheeling and dealing style of management to one that actually tries to develop from within. Lets pump the brakes on this narrative. The Tigers can’t really have been all THAT bad, right?

Well...

Thanks to the work of the folks at The Baseball Gage, you can pull up a breakdown of player WAR for any year, and they break it down by how that team came to construct their roster for that season, amateur draft, trade, free agency, et cetera. Below is a chart that looks at the collective team WAR for all 30 major league teams from 2006 through 2016.

Organization WAR by procurement: 2006-1016

Team Draft WAR Trade WAR FA WAR Original WAR
Team Draft WAR Trade WAR FA WAR Original WAR
ARI 134.9 116.3 33.9 416.4
ATL 175.2 112.5 25.2 491.8
BAL 132.8 122.9 46.1 264.4
BOS 207.3 118.5 164.5 496.3
CHC 63.2 130.3 96.6 326.5
CHW 93.4 156.5 68.8 307.5
CIN 138.5 90.4 13.6 266.2
CLE 90 227.2 27.8 380.2
COL 176.6 93.3 21.3 376.9
DET 124.6 214.6 89.6 305.8
HOU 109.5 73 25.3 327.4
KCR 155.2 75.5 57.3 338.1
LAA 195.2 88.7 88.1 433.8
LAD 160.3 89.5 140.5 510.4
MIA 116.8 122.8 18.6 327.2
MIL 170.7 83.6 57.9 336.9
MIN 194.8 75.5 44.4 328
NYM 128.6 78.1 99.8 367.2
NYY 108.9 110.2 189.4 446.5
OAK 94.8 195.8 83.2 314.8
PHI 177 58.8 61.6 393.6
PIT 135.8 78.2 36.8 363.4
SDP 81.6 159.6 44 225.5
SEA 63.5 54 138.4 510.1
SFG 193.5 59.7 87.3 294.1
STL 207.1 110.2 94 385.3
TBR 198.9 168.4 60.6 334.4
TEX 97.1 148.3 137.9 452.6
TOR 156.8 187.7 90.4 366
WAS 149.2 114 58.6 385.6
Sum of the breakdown of each team bWAR procurement from 2006 to 2016 Baseball Reference via The Baseball Gage

The results here speak for themselves. In terms of drafted WAR, the Tigers rank 20th. They do extremely well in trades (second overall), and they do better than average in free agent signings (ninth overall). When you combine free agent signings and trades over this span the Tigers actually come out on top. But the real black mark here is Original WAR. This tracks the total WAR of a player over this time frame, including the years they may no longer be with their original organization. The Tigers rank 26th in Major League Baseball. This shows that the players the Tigers drafted do not fare any better once they leave the organization, even the premium prospects that left through trades. It underscores the point that even the players that were traded away to bring in the top talent that made the Tigers so successful didn’t amount to much with their new teams on the whole.

To be fair, the Tigers did have a period from 2010 to 2013 where they were without a first round pick due to the signings of several high profile free agents. It’s been well documented that the first round is immensely important in getting a player that will one day reach the big leagues. The chart below from Fangraphs illustrates this point rather well.

Total WAR/# of MLBers Per Round
Paul Kastava

If the Tigers had managed to snag a really good player in those years or a couple of average ones, things would look a bit better — but still not great. An extra 20-30 WAR from a player or two in those years would only bring the Tigers up to, at best, 17th in the majors. The point still remains: the Tigers have not drafted well for a while. If Al Avila and company really want to get this team leaner and more efficient and to build from within, they’ll need a big shift in drafting strategy and a huge boost in player development.

Former Tigers’ General Manager Dave Dombrowski may have focused his drafting efforts with the Tigers on getting safer, fast-moving players to use as trade chips, but Avila needs to focus more on players with bigger upsides, then whip his player development staff into shape to get the most out of these prospects. We may have seen the beginnings of such a change, when the Tigers took Matt Manning and Kyle Funhouser (two pitchers with risky upside but huge potential if things work out) as their top two picks in the 2016 draft.

The Tigers need to continue this trend and find a way to maximize this talent as much as possible if they want to reach their goal of fielding a perennial contender built on a homegrown core of players. But as it stands, history is not on the Tigers’ side.