The front offices of MLB clubs are filled with men who like things a certain way. Each organization has a style, a modus operandi, if you will. In few places is a team’s philosophy more evident than in the war rooms of the MLB amateur draft. The Texas Rangers love to draft players with a high ceiling, banking on their potential to outweigh the risk. The Mariners go the other way, opting for high-floor college players. The Dodgers are good at finding solid players with well-rounded profiles that slip through the cracks, and their farm has flourished as a result.
The Detroit Tigers have as predictable a strategy as they come. While the 2017 draft saw them deviate a bit, there is still a firm track record that sees them favor safe picks after their first selection. Often that means collegiate arms, but a few prep prospects and position players have worked their way in as well. A system full of hard throwers and defense-first catchers doesn’t happen by accident. With that in mind, here’s a few players the Tigers could be targeting after they make the first overall selection.
Hugh Smith, RHP, Whitworth
The best prospect in Division III baseball this season is Hugh Smith, a righthander who didn’t have any offers to play college baseball before a pitching coach from Whitworth saw him pitch by chance and persuaded him to transfer from the University of Washington. Smith’s fastball perked up as a college pitcher, adding 12 miles per hour, and with it have improved his chances of playing baseball as a professional.
The heater is the core of Smith’s repertoire, earning plus grades. It ranges from 92-95 mph with regularity and he can reach back for more when he needs it. It moves enough to be deceptive but he can blow guys away with it as well. Baseball America notes that he crowds righties with the pitch, throwing it up and in on their hands. There are no questions about his athleticism or agility and he has no issues controlling the motions of his long limbs.
Opinions are split as to the quality of his offspeed pitches. Baseball America likes his breaking ball best and claims it has a chance to be plus. Whitworth’s pitching coach cites “a really good feel for his changeup.” MLB.com is bearish on both, saying they merely flash average and project to be below average long-term. No matter who is correct, Smith with be a project for whoever drafts him, with a move to the bullpen as a fallback option if he can’t crack a rotation.
Steven Gingery, LHP, Texas Tech
Gingery entered the 2018 season as a high-floor arm with the potential to sneak into the back of the first round with a good year, but those dreams were dashed when he blew out his elbow in his first start of the season. He went under the knife and was his season ended. Still draft-eligible, a team who thinks they can rehab him and bring back his best stuff will take a chance.
The draw to Gingery is simple. He doesn’t light up the radar gun, but his changeup is of a rare variety. A cloak-and-dagger approach is one that has worked for plenty of guys in the past and gives evaluators visions of a nearly surefire backend starter.
He isn’t of the fireballing variety that the Tigers are often drawn to, but they have taken similar players relatively early and could try to get cute with slot money and save money on Gingrey’s signing bonus. He offers a solid floor and the surgery is more likely a speed bump than a death knell.
Tim Cate, LHP, UConn
Cate isn’t the biggest guy in the world, standing at only 6’ with narrow shoulders and hips. Despite that, he still shows an average fastball that sits in the low 90s. He manages average life on the pitch and is willing to use it on either side of the strike zone. The appeal to this lefty is his breaking ball. Steve Givarz of 2080 Baseball saw him pitch and came away impressed.
His curveball was as good as advertised, coming in from 80-to-83 mph with true 12-to-6 shape and plus action. He showed extreme confidence in the pitch, using it in all counts, spotting for strikes, and burying when going for the punchout. What stands out about his curveball is how it mirrors his fastball out of the hand for the first 20 feet before breaking as it arrives to the plate. It’s easily a plus pitch, and one that can grade higher if he shows improved command and consistency.
Cate’s role in a professional pitching corps will be determined by his durability and the development of a third pitch. The concerns about whether he can stay on the mound with regularity are valid — he’s got a troubling injury history and was off the mound for about half of his season. He has never really used his changeup with regularity, and it is rather firm, so the team that drafts him will need to have faith in his ability to refine it into a usable pitch. If everything breaks right, it’s easy to envision a backend starter.
Nick Meyer, C, Cal Poly
In 2015, the Tigers drafted Kade Scivicque. In 2017, they drafted Joey Morgan. Shortly afterward, they traded for Jake Rogers. Put simply, Detroit likes defense-first backstops — bats are optional. There’s almost no catcher for teams to select this June that fits that profile better than Meyer.
Ranking him the 186th player in the class, Baseball America describes Meyer’s skills well, saying this: “He excels at stealing strikes at the bottom of the zone in particular, and guides his pitchers expertly through jams. His arm strength is consistently above-average and flashes plus, and he excels at back-picking runners off first base.” There is absolutely no doubt that he will be a catcher long-term.
The bat is what concerns evaluators. Meyer has avoided the strikeout plague, and is posting a career best line of .343/.404/.430. That said, he has no track record as a good contact hitter and the big average is backed by little power. Even a relatively empty average could turn Meyer into a glove-first regular, but he needs to prove he can continue hitting first.
Ryley Gilliam, RHP, Clemson
Clemson’s closer, Gilliam hasn’t been linked to the Tigers but fits the bill as a power reliever. He has a plus fastball that reaches 96 mph with regularity and backs it up with a hook that works effectively as a strikeout pitch. He also has an effective changeup that he doesn’t use all too much out of the ‘pen, but it is there if he needs a third pitch.
Despite the fact that Gilliam isn’t overly tall, standing at only 5’10”, there aren’t too many concerns about his durability as a reliever. He utilizes a funky delivery that comes quickly over the top, but it isn’t violent. Moreover, he’s an athletic guy and shouldn’t have problems with his body. The Tigers have no qualms about drafting collegiate relievers, and it would be no surprise to see them pick up another arm in that vein.
Extra Credit: FanGraphs linked the Tigers with toolsy prep OF Mike Siani. He has plus wheels, defends well, and has more raw power that is only barred by his hit tool. They could also be in play for Clemson 1B Seth Beer, who is a sure-fire DH but has enough of a bat to float the profile. The Tigers may be also be interested in prep C Will Banfield and C Jacob Campbell. Banfield has a rocket arm and is more than adequate behind the plate, showing plenty of pop but struggles with contact at times. Campbell is reminiscent of Sam McMillan, well rounded and defensively ahead of the curve. General manager Al Avila has personally scouted the raw but exciting prep OF Parker Meadows. Duke slugger OF Griffin Conine has seen his stock nosedive out of the first and could take a slightly over-slot deal to sign in a later round. The colossal RHP Bryce Montes de Oca has a blazing fastball and a chance to start but battles command issues.
There are a number of other guys that deserve a line here, but I’m out of space. Feel free to ask draft related questions in the comments section — we’ll be around to answer as many of them as we can throughout the next few days.