The Detroit Tigers love taking talented pitchers at the top of the MLB draft (and also in later rounds, for that matter). But with one of the weakest classes of arms in recent years on deck for the 2019 draft, it appears that Detroit’s four-year streak of taking a pitcher in the first round is in serious jeopardy. Not one of the several mock drafts published at MLB Pipeline, FanGraphs, or Baseball America this spring has projected the Tigers to take a pitcher, instead focusing on a sextet of talented hitting prospects expected to go in the top six picks.
But would it really surprise anyone if the Tigers took a pitcher? They would get their pick of any arm in the draft class — something that may appeal to Detroit’s brass, given their previous predilection for taking pitchers early and often on draft day — and might convince one to sign an under-slot deal in the process. The Tigers were previously linked, albeit briefly, with righthander Alek Manoah, a giant of a pitcher at West Virginia who checks every box in the “typical Tigers pitching prospect” profile.
But why take him when you can get the best of the bunch? TCU lefthander Nick Lodolo has moved ahead of the pack as the consensus top pitcher in this year’s class, and is the No. 7 pick on most draft boards at this point, following the aforementioned top six prospects in the class. He has had a dominant season with the Horned Frogs, posting a 2.18 ERA while striking out over 11 batters per nine innings, and could have as many as three plus pitches if everything works out.
Would the Tigers move away from the top bats in the class and take him? I have my doubts, but you can never be sure what will happen on draft night. With that in mind, let’s take a deeper look at what Lodolo offers.
Draft day age: 21
MLB Pipeline draft prospect rank: 8
Previously drafted: 2016, 1st round (comp.)
MLB Pipeline Scouting Grades: LHP Nick Lodolo
Lodolo has a lanky, projectable frame that helps him deliver his low-to-mid 90s fastball “on a steep downhill plane.” MLB Pipeline notes that Lodolo has worked his fastball from 90 to 94 miles per hour this year, topping out at 96 mph, while Baseball America projects his peak velocity around 94-95 mph. His arm angle is more three-quarters than over-the-top, but it still projects as an above-average pitch, per Pipeline.
Improvements in Lodolo’s control and command this year have helped the fastball (and other offerings) play up a bit. He has walked just 19 batters in 91 innings this season, down from 28 walks in 77 frames (3.32 walks per nine) during his sophomore year. Pipeline notes that the improved command comes from a more consistent arm slot, something that can be difficult for a lanky starter like Lodolo. Baseball America is equally optimistic about Lodolo’s potential to maintain these improvements, and thinks there could be even more in the tank than what we have seen so far.
Lodolo’s stuff isn’t quite as loud as the typical top college starter of a draft class, but he is a high-probability major leaguer with above-average control of three pitches that are current average offerings but could be plus pitches in the future. He still has more projection than the typical three-year collegiate arm thanks to a lean body that can add more weight, and he was one of the best performers in the country through his first seven starts of the season before hitting a slight speed bump in April.
Both Baseball America and FanGraphs note that Lodolo could have three plus pitches at his peak. The breaking ball is his primary off-speed pitch, but it is currently a “sweepy” offering “that flashes the makings of a plus pitch but needs more consistency.” It has been called both a slider and curveball, but Pipeline distinguishes between the two in their evaluation of Lodolo, the No. 8 prospect on their board.
He showed inconsistent feel for spinning a curveball in the past and is focusing instead on a tighter slider in the low 80s that has become a solid offering. He also sells his changeup well and it has good action at the plate, giving him three pitches that all can grade as plus at their best.
Lodolo hasn’t used the changeup as often this year, per Baseball America, but most evaluators are in lockstep regarding its potential going forward.
If there’s a true weakness to be found here, it’s that Lodolo doesn’t offer the upside one might hope the Tigers could get from a No. 5 overall pick. Baseball America projects him as “a middle-of-the-rotation starter more than a No. 1 or No. 2 starter in the majors,” and others seem to feel the same way. Were he a potential top-end guy, he would be getting more top-five buzz; aside from a couple of throwaway projections in one mock draft, almost no one project him to go before seventh overall.
Part of what hurts Lodolo’s stock, even with some projection left on his frame, is that he showed very little progress during his first two years at TCU. Lodolo was a supplemental round pick in the 2016 draft, but did not sign. He has been a three-year starter for the Horned Frogs, but put up ERAs of 4.35 and 4.32 in his freshman and sophomore seasons, respectively. His aforementioned walk rate was good, but not great, and opponents were able to square him up for about a hit per inning. His secondary offerings flashed plus at times, but were (and still are, to a certain extent) inconsistent pitches that needed more reps.
Concerns about Lodolo’s recent performance appear to be overblown, though. He was rocked for seven runs in five innings against Kansas State back in April, but has bagged 33 strikeouts in his last three starts, all while allowing just five runs across 20 innings pitched.
Draft position: top 10, and probably No. 7
Pick a mock draft. No matter where you go — FanGraphs, Baseball America, MLB Pipeline, you name it — Lodolo is mocked to the Cincinnati Reds at No. 7 overall. This makes sense, as he falls just behind the top six prospects in this year’s draft, and the Reds have been more than happy to take top college talents during their current rebuild. While Lodolo is the first pitcher of the group (Nick Senzel and Jonathan India were standout hitters taken in the previous two drafts), there is too much consensus here to assume otherwise. Baseball America notes that Cincinnati could go in a different direction given Lodolo’s struggles down the stretch, but it’s tough to see him falling much further than this on June 3.