The Tigers have heavily emphasized selecting college players throughout most of their rebuilding process. That may change this year. Again and again, Detroit has been connected to Brady House and Jackson Jobe, two of the most underdeveloped players at the top of the 2021 draft class. That opens the door to reasonable speculation about other high schoolers who could capture their interest.
One high schooler who could be in play for the Tigers in the first round is prep shortstop Kahlil Watson. Despite not being one of the names thrown around often in connection with the team, general manager Al Avila has been drawn largely to offensively gifted players over the last two drafts and could be drawn to Watson’s combination of power and exceptional athleticism.
Watson plays baseball energetically and it shines through in his best characteristics as a player. He’s able to get the most out of his smallish frame at the plate, with some of the best bat speed in the class and a swing path specifically geared to devastate baseballs. In fact, as FanGraphs’ scouting report points out, his smaller stature provides a sneaky advantage in that regard. He’s not going to suffer from the coordination problems of longer players and his short path to the ball will allow him to better handle professional velocity.
In addition to his outsized approach at the plate, Watson has above-average speed. His range and defensive motions should be plenty to let him stay at shortstop long-term. The shortstop position is evolving in the major leagues to put a greater emphasis on what the player can contribute offensively, and smart defensive strategies have allowed teams to hide worse and worse defenders at the position. However, Watson should be able to contribute admirably on both sides of the ball, which is what makes his potential so exciting.
I’m not usually one who cares much for intangibles compared to baseball skills, but there’s something to be said about how fun much of Watson’s playstyle is. His scorched-earth approach to hitting and his highlight-making ability on the bases and in the field are the kinds of things that players and fans rally around. If he pans out, Watson won’t just be a building block, he’ll be the face of the team.
The larger-than-life nature of Watson’s offensive profile leads to big dingers and electrifying doubles, but it also leads him to make some bad choices at the plate. His pitch recognition has been called into question throughout the entire process and it is the biggest thing holding him back from being the top player in the class. He sometimes struggles to identify breaking balls and winds up swinging over them from time to time. Being that he’s young and his swing isn’t problematic, the issue could be eased simply with experience and professional guidance.
There are also some questions about whether he’ll be able to stay at shortstop long-term due to his arm strength. The offensive profile he brings to the table is enough to work at any position, but he may have to adapt to playing at second base or in center field. If he has to move off of a premium position, that obviously caps his value, but he could be an excellent defender at a new position thanks to his straight-line speed and lateral agility.
Inherent in drafting any high schooler is the risk that something will go sideways in their physical development, and that concern is present with Watson. Listed as having a 5-foot-11-inch, 168-pound body, there’s room for him to add muscle and he’ll never have an imposing presence. That’s much less of a concern than it would have been years ago, though, as the league is discovering ways to get the best out of smaller and thinner players.
Expected draft range: 2nd-8th overall
The rumors attaching the Tigers to Watson have been scarce and haven’t come from sources generally considered credible, but they exist. The market for Watson really isn’t well-understood, but his name has been thrown around as a money-saving pick in the top three. The appeal of that idea is obvious — you can get two players with big upside by over-drafting Watson, giving him a below-slot signing bonus, and using the savings to buy a falling talent in the second round.
However, it’s not as if he’s a huge reach if the Tigers selected Watson. There’s a ton of smoke about the Orioles being heavily interested in him and it won’t be very far into the draft before he’s the obvious best player available.