The Tigers drubbed an NAIA team on Friday, which signaled that baseball has really, truly returned. In fewer than five weeks, Opening Day will arrive. Then, roughly two months after that comes the MLB draft. Given Detroit’s possession of a top-five pick and its current rebuilding mindset, that’s something to look forward to.
This rings especially true in light of what general manager Al Avila said last month, when he told reporters the team is still at least a couple years away from spending competitively. Here’s his quote, as reported by Chris McCosky of the Detroit News:
“Is 2021 the time to, OK, start spending some money? I don’t know. I do know that we will have some money by 2021 to start going out there. I’ve talked to Chris Ilitch and I know that whether it be 2021, 2022, at that point, we will be at a place from a payroll perspective where I want to be at, where I’m comfortable where financially I know we’re in a good place.”
With that in mind, the way the Tigers draft in these lean years should be of even greater interest. That got me thinking about the last time Detroit tore things down and built back up — how did they draft? And what insight might that provide for this time around? Sometimes, when you stumble down a Baseball Reference rabbit hole, you have to see where it goes.
Let’s lay out some parameters first. For starters, when was the Tigers’ last rebuild? They missed the playoffs four straight years after the 2006 World Series run, but they only finished sub-.500 once in that span. So that doesn’t count.
Before the magical ’06 team, however, they had a five-season stretch in which they averaged 100.4 losses per year. And there we have our five-year rebuild window, which aligns well with what the Tigers project to be working through in present day.
That time frame, from 2001 to 2005, included the end of Randy Smith’s tenure as GM and the beginning of the Dave Dombrowski era. It was Dombrowski who fired Smith six games into the 2002 season, Dombrowski’s first as team president, and assumed GM duties from there. The scouting director in that time was Greg Smith (later the Pirates’ scouting director) up until 2004, and then David Chadd (now Detroit’s vice president and assistant GM).
There are numerous ways to examine the success of a draft class, certainly none of which are perfect. But for the sake of simplicity, I chose to evaluate each class by adding up the total career bWAR (Wins Above Replacement as assigned by Baseball Reference) of the signed draftees that year. The draftees who didn’t sign — even if they went on to successful careers after being drafted by someone else — don’t count.
(A quick example: Detroit picked locally raised D.J. LeMahieu in the 41st round of the 2007 draft, but did not sign him. They, and many others, passed him over twice in the 2009 draft before the Cubs scooped him late in the second round. The two players Detroit took ahead of LeMahieu in ’09, pitchers Jacob Turner and Andy Oliver, have netted a combined -3.5 bWAR. LeMahieu’s career bWAR is 17.6.)
Now, here we go.
2001: Five of 35 signees reached the majors (14.3 percent), accumulating 9.4 bWAR. Long-time Tigers Ryan Raburn and Don Kelly came from this draft. The 11th overall pick, pitcher Kenny Baugh, never surpassed Triple-A.
2002: Six of 31 signees reached the majors (19.4 percent), accumulating 53.4 bWAR. That sounds pretty great, and it is, but 47.7 of that is courtesy of Curtis Granderson. Joel Zumaya chipped in a bit, too.
2003: Six of 35 signees reached the majors (17.1 percent), accumulating -2.3 bWAR. Oof. The third overall pick, pitcher Kyle Sleeth, never surpassed Double-A.
2004: Four of 34 signees reached the majors (11.8 percent), accumulating 63.4 bWAR. It just so happens that Justin Verlander has accumulated 63.4 bWAR. But hey, sometimes hitting on one pick is enough to call it a successful draft.
2005: Eleven of 27 signees reached the majors (40.7 percent), accumulating 35.1 bWAR. Clearly this is better than 2004 from the perspective of depth, but also it took 11 guys to collet just over half the bWAR that Verlander has by himself.
The final tally of those five drafts looks like this: 32 of 162 signees reached the majors (19.8 percent), accumulating 159.0 bWAR. That’s an average of 5.0 bWAR per player, which sounds okay, unless you remove the heavyweights Verlander and Granderson (111.1 bWAR), in which case the remainders averaged only 1.6 bWAR for their careers. For context, consider the 2006 Tigers. They had 11 players on their roster who amassed more than 1.6 bWAR in that season alone.
So from that perspective, it seems like the Tigers caught a couple big fish in five years and missed almost the entire rest of the time. But it’s very easy for me, with my zero years of experience drafting baseball players, to opine on the missteps of a franchise that certainly wanted to make the best picks it could. The reality is that the mass of draft-eligible North American players, from all levels of high school and college ball, make for a crapshoot of a selection process.
Let’s look at another rebuild to see how the 2001-05 Tigers stack up. I picked the 2009-13 Houston Astros, who averaged 99.6 losses in that span, because they’re a modern example of what the Tigers are currently trying to achieve. Keep in mind that the Astros’ career bWAR values are less important because many of their picks are still relatively young. And, although Houston was still really bad in 2014, I thought comparing five-year time frames would be tidier.
2009: Four of 35 signees (11.4 percent) reached the majors, accumulating 45.4 bWAR. Dallas Keuchel, a Cy Young winner and one of the many mysterious free agents this offseason, was among this crop. As was a random 20th-rounder named J.D. Martinez, though Detroit deserves quite a bit more credit for his career-to-date value than Houston does (Martinez has 20.4 bWAR. He collected -1.3 bWAR in three seasons with the Astros).
2010: Four of 35 signees (11.4 percent) reached the majors, accumulating 13.2 bWAR. Oddly enough, the four major leaguers have only spent a combined three MLB seasons with the Astros. Their eighth-overall pick, Delino DeShields, was chosen in the 2014 Rule 5 Draft by the Rangers and has played regularly for them ever since.
2011: Four of 35 signees (11.4 percent) reached the majors, accumulating 20.5 bWAR. Almost all of this value comes from the 11th-overall pick, World Series MVP George Springer (18.7 bWAR). He leads that draft class with 121 career home runs.
2012: Nine of 31 signees (29 percent) reached the majors, accumulating 18.5 bWAR. Again, practically all the value is wrapped up in one player. This time it’s former Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa (18.3 bWAR), who was chosen first overall for a reason.
2013: Three of 32 signees (9.3 percent) reached the majors, accumulating 2.0 bWAR. What hurt in this draft was using the first overall pick on Mark Appel, who is now out of baseball. Still, two serviceable players in Tony Kemp and Tyler White were plucked from this draft.
Now, for the final tally: 24 of 168 signees (14.3 percent) reached the majors, accumulating 99.6 bWAR. That’s about 4.2 bWAR per player, with several of those players either currently in their prime or soon to be entering it.
Correa, Springer and Keuchel were all critical pieces of the 2017 World Series team. Keuchel was the Astros’ most valuable pitcher that year in terms of bWAR — but if you want to debate Verlander’s impact, you can, I suppose. Correa and Springer, along with Alex Bregman (picked second-overall in 2015), were three of the six most valued hitters.
Detroit’s runner-up team in 2006 received some critical help from homegrown talent, including Verlander, Granderson and Zumaya. Of course, no championship-caliber team is complete without the right mix of trade acquisitions (Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco and Nate Robertson) and free agent pick-ups (Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez and Kenny Rogers).
Relying on draft success can only bring the Tigers — or anyone, for that matter — so far. In their recent reign among the league’s best, from 2011 to 2014, it was free agent spending and some big-time trades that made most of the difference (in terms of bWAR, the top seven hitters and four of the top five pitchers on the 2013 team came from a trade or free agency). International free agent signings can make a significant impact too, as evidenced by Jose Altuve in Houston among many others around the league.
The window for Detroit to make significant splashes in the market is still years away, which makes its current drafting efforts all the more important. With Avila as GM and Scott Pleis as the scouting director, it’s difficult to say how closely this rebuild’s draft crop will resemble the last one.
But one thing is known for sure — fans will hope that players like Casey Mize and Matt Manning end up more like Justin Verlander than Kyle Sleeth.