The 2021 MLB draft is set to kick off on Sunday evening, and there’s been an unusually low amount of consensus on exactly what will happen in the first few picks. The Tigers’ pick is one of the disputed selections, as experts can’t seem to agree which of a handful of prospects are the team’s preference after prep shortstop Marcelo Mayer. One of the players involved in that conversation is high school right-hander Jackson Jobe.
Jobe’s eventual draft position largely hinges on whether the Tigers decide to pull the trigger on drafting him with the third overall pick. There aren’t any other teams with a lot of reported interest in him, and in most mock drafts where Detroit goes a different direction, Jobe slides to somewhere in the neighborhood of the tenth pick.
With that in mind, the report that general manager Al Avila may try to get a bargain on Jobe’s signing bonus if he is a sensible one.
“Our most recent intel suggests they will look to cut an under-slot deal with Jobe, who comes with all of the risks associated with high school arms but also arguably has the best pure stuff in the draft,” wrote Eric Longenhagen in the most recent FanGraphs mock draft.
True enough, high school pitchers have a bad reputation at the top of the draft. They fail to pan out at an alarming rate, and Avila really needs to nail this pick if ownership isn’t planning to spend money on the major league roster. However, if any team at the top of the draft is equipped to make something out of Jobe, it’s the Tigers. They’ve consistently upgraded the methods used to evaluate pitching throughout Avila’s tenure and established themselves on the cutting edge of pitching coaching by the hirings Dan Hubbs and, more notably, Chris Fetter.
The idea of Detroit drafting Jobe over the likes of Kumar Rocker or Jordan Lawlar, among other top prospects in this draft class, has been pretty poorly received by fans. Yet, the idea has been a persistent one throughout coverage of the 2021 draft cycle and appears to be as genuine as any draft rumor can be.
You can read our full draft profile of Jobe here, but the meat of this rumor isn’t that the Tigers are interested in him. It’s that they’re going to try to game the system.
Detroit is picking in the Competitive Balance Round A this year, meaning they own picks 3, 32, and 39. By reporting that the team is looking into signing their first pick to an underslot deal, FanGraphs is telegraphing that they’re looking into pricier options with their subsequent picks. In most years, that means drafting high schoolers who were expected to be selected in the first round but fell for one reason or another. Because of the extra year of eligibility afforded to NCAA athletes, though, that could also mean selecting a collegian whose stock fell after an underwhelming year.
Speculatively speaking, some players who may fit those categories are high schoolers such as Chase Petty, Anthony Solometo, Andrew Painter, Wes Kath or Joshua Baez, and college players such as Jud Fabian, Alex Binelas, Adrian Del Castillo, or Gunnar Hoglund.
This would represent a departure in strategy from the past few drafts that the Tigers have put together. In recent years, they’ve taken the approach of drafting more straightforwardly. They were able to reel in a bunch of big-name prospects last year by sitting back and letting the board fall to them. By proactively taking a riskier route, Avila would be gambling on his skills as an evaluator and negotiator to restock the Tigers’ farm system.
The Tigers tried to be clever and use the signing bonus rules to get their hands on better talent later on in the draft once before in 2017. So far, it has wound up being among the worst draft classes the team has put together in the last decade or more. The team selected Rey Rivera, Joey Morgan, and Gio Arriera to save money for high school catcher Sam McMillan’s signing bonus — and none of those players have panned out.
If the Tigers go this route again, it could pay off in a big way. The 2021 draft class is deep in high schoolers, and it would make sense to take advantage of that depth if they’re able to save money on Jobe. However, scouting and developing high schoolers hasn’t been the strong suit of the current Tigers regime. To make it work, Avila needs to gave gotten quite a lot savvier in the past four years, which is questionable.
Every one of Avila’s drafts since then have been more traditional, but well-received by the public and he adeptly navigated signing what was expected to be a very expensive class in 2020. That could be an indicator that he’s ready for the challenge this year, but frankly, we’re going to have to see it work before putting faith in his ability to pull it off.