Starting tonight, the 2023 amateur draft will give Scott Harris and his new scouting leadership their first crack at making big improvements in their talent pipeline. The Tigers are sitting in a really nice position this time around.
They finished with the sixth worst record in 2022, but the inaugural draft lottery went well and they landed the third pick in the first round, along with the second largest bonus pool at $15,747,200. Additionally, they have the 37th overall pick in the Competitive Balance A round. They hold the 45th overall pick as the sixth selection in the second round, and then they’ll pick sixth thereafter through the remaining rounds.
This is a big early test for Scott Harris and his new VP of Scouting, Rob Metzler, and new amateur scouting director, Mark Conner in running their first draft for the Tigers.
Obviously, it’s impossible to grade a draft effectively until years have passed. We all have preferences, particularly with the third overall pick, but at BYB we’re just happy to have a new set of decision makers from organizations with much better track records in drafting and developing talent. Whatever happens with the top couple of picks, the long game for the Tigers is getting their scouting and player development improved, integrated and doing a better job of picking the right players to fit their developmental strengths all the way through 20 rounds of the draft. With new leadership running the show and coming from organizations that already do these things well, hopefully the Tigers can build a consistently better, deeper farm system to draw on.
The main question right now is whether the Tigers will play this draft straight up, simply taking the best player available for something close to full slot bonus all the way through, or whether they might get a little cute with it. The possibility of taking a surprise player beyond the presumed top three of Dylan Crews, Wyatt Langford, or Paul Skenes, with an underslot deal and trying to float one of the top prep talents to the Comp A pick remains something to watch for, and as the decision making group for the Tigers is new, it’s really hard to guess which way they’ll go.
This is widely regarded as a deep draft for college talent. The impact of the shortened draft in 2020 means that just about all the prep talent that year, though not Colt Keith, for example, chose to go to college and are now only draft eligible as college juniors. That depth may encourage a lot of teams to try to spread their pool out and take a player on a significantly under slot deal in the first round.
The Tigers could potentially do the same thing. Metzler and Harris, coming from the Rays and Padres, respectively, are probably far more apt to try it than Al Avila’s team were. On the other hand, letting other teams tie themselves in knots, keeping it simple and just taking the best player all the way down could be the best way to play it with a deep draft class on the board. Most expect that Harris prefers a college bat, but there’s the drama of a new front office. It’s a lot harder to guess at their preferences.
Whatever they decide, we’ll find out their major decisions soon enough. Rounds 1 and 2, including the compensation pick and competitive balance pick round A between them, get underway tonight at 7 p.m. ET, and broadcast on MLB Network and ESPN.
Dylan Crews or Wyatt Langford
This is probably the ideal scenario. If Crews or Langford, or somehow both, are available, you pick the one you like best, say thank you very much, and start grinding on the next round.
There is a pretty clear triarchy atop most draft boards. LSU center fielder Dylan Crews has been projected to go number one or close to it since he was in high school and has done nothing but live up to the pressure. He and Florida outfielder Wyatt Langford are pretty clearly the two best college hitters in the country. They’re widely regarded as two of the better hitting prospects in the draft over the last decade, in fact.
LSU right-hander Paul Skenes is the third member of the group, standing out with a triple digit fastball, outstanding slider, and command advanced enough for many to suggest he’ll be in a major league rotation as soon as next summer.
The thought of Dylan Crews and Riley Greene covering Comerica Park’s lawns and hitting in the heart of the Tigers’ order is a very pleasant one. However, there are points in Langford’s favor as well. The difference in their bats is that Crews is maybe the better pure hitter and has a little more advanced eye. Langford is still strong in those departments, and he drives the ball in the air to the pull field more often. Crews has serious raw power, but puts the ball on the ground too much to really tap into it. Langford has the more natural power approach and has actually posted the better top end exit velocities between the two.
So, there is a divide out there over who is the better hitting prospect, but defensively Crews has a significant edge. Langford has the straight line speed to play center field, but lacks Crews’ reads and feel for the position. It’s not hard to imagine a future where Langford is the more productive power bat but Crews is the better all around player.
The issue with Crews, is that he’s represented by Scott Boras, and they’re widely rumored to be uninterested in signing for anything that isn’t overslot for the number one overall pick. That slot value is $9,721,000. The Pittsburgh Pirates hold the first overall pick and they have a total bonus pool to spend of $16,185,700. They’re not a team known for shelling out the biggest bonus, and often prefer to go under slot with their first rounder to try to land a better player in the competitive balance rounds and the second round.
ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel reported a week ago that Crews and his representatives just aren’t interested in signing with Pittsburgh in general, knowing it will be a battle over his bonus pool. McDaniel also goes on to suggest that the Pirates may well take Skenes instead. However, there are also plenty of rumors afoot suggesting that the Pirates plan is to take Langford, viewing him as an equivalent hitter and a much easier sign for them. GM Ben Cherington is a big believer in maximizing his talent pool in the early rounds rather than putting everything into one player.
The Washington Nationals hold the second pick, and they’ve been rumored to be strongly in on Skenes for months now. They could certainly view him as the kind of franchise building block that Stephen Strasburg was when they drafted him in 2009. On the other hand, having Crews drop into their laps might be too hard to resist.
Maybe Pittsburgh or Washington surprise and take one of the two top prep players in the draft, outfielders Max Clark and Walter Jenkins. Either could be probably be had for significant savings that could be leveraged later on, but there aren’t strong signals that either club is thinking that way.
One way or the other, the Tigers seem fairly likely to have a crack at one of Langford and Crews, but it’s not a sure thing. It will also be a bit of a tricky decision for them if Dylan Crews is sitting there when the Tigers are called for the third overall pick. Signing Crews would put a fair amount of stress on their ability to maximize their Comp A and second round picks. Crews is a putting all the eggs in one basket sort of selection.
Harris’ background suggests strongly that the Tigers will take a college bat here. It’s hard to imagine he’d pass on them both even if discerning their preference between the two is difficult. If they like Crews better and he’s there, you probably take him unless you can get Langford at a significantly better price.
Crews and Boras don’t have much leverage to demand some monstrous bonus. Going back to school for another year over a difference of a million dollars while pushing his potential future free agency another year down the road would be pretty foolish on their part. But it’s also true that you don’t really want to get a huge fight with Boras either. There are few if any more powerful individuals in the game.
There is no obvious third path
The worst case scenario for the Tigers here is that Crews and Langford go 1-2, and the Tigers are left with Skenes or the option of finding an underslot play in a position player. Clark or Jenkins could fit the bill, and both are very good prep outfield prospects. Various rankings have them fourth and fifth in differing order, with many tying Clark to the Texas Rangers and Jenkins to the Minnesota Twins.
There would be no problem in taking either one and the Tigers could save some money and perhaps take advantage of that in the next few rounds. Both left-handed hitters, Clark has 70 grade speed and should stick as a good center fielder. He projects to be as good a pure hitter as Jenkins, but the latter has more potential to be a major power threat while fitting in nicely into an outfield corner with above average speed and a good arm. Still there’s no getting around the fact that taking a prep bat holds some extra risk. Everything we’re hearing suggests the Tigers are locked in on college bats as the ideal with this pick. If that plan goes awry, anything could happen.
So in the absence of Crews or Langford simplicity, this seems likely to come down to LSU’s Paul Skenes or Virginia product, catcher Kyle Teel. Skenes is pretty undeniable if Crews and Langford are gone. If you’re asking who is the best player available in that scenario, you’re going to have a hard time convincing anyone it’s not Paul Skenes.
There are always the extra injury concerns for a pitcher, as Detroit Tigers fans know as well as anyone, but Skenes has advanced command of a triple digit fastball and a double-plus slider, with a solid changeup to boot. There are minor concerns that his somewhat pedestrian movement profile could eventually prove a liability at lower velocity as he ages, but right now he’s just an animal out there and could potentially be in the Tigers rotation next summer.
The Tigers are well known to have heavily scouted Teel, a left-handed hitting catcher out of Virginia. He’s generally ranked in the 6-8 range overall. Teel is a very athletic catcher with an excellent throwing arm who has the actions, leadership ability, and offensive potential to comfortably grade as the top catcher in this draft. He’s immediately a solid hitting prospect, but hasn’t shown quite the offensive potential you’d like from a catcher with the third overall pick. Arm strength and the ability to block and catch aren’t going out of style, but as the march to an automated strike zone continues, you have to wonder how much to value some of these skills. If the position becomes more offensive minded again, Teel isn’t necessarily equipped to stand out in the crowd.
However, if the Tigers decide to spread their pool around more broadly because Crews and Langford are gone, Teel appears a more likely candidate in that scenario. We’ll just have to hope they can put together a stronger, deeper overall draft that way.
The underslot theory and a dream scenario
It isn’t so easy to go about this, but the basic principle is to try and get two of the top 20 players in the draft by combining the third and 37th overall pick slot value and then dividing it between those two players. Those first two picks the Tigers hold are slotted for a combined $10,651,200. The 10th overall pick slot value is $5,475,300. So the Tigers could essentially pay two players the money of the 10th overall pick, getting two players ranked between 10th-20th overall. In a deep draft, with the two top college hitters gone in this scenario, that could be the way to go. It’s just harder to pull off those agreements on the fly during the draft.
If you want the wildest scenario I can dream up, let’s say the Tigers take Arizona outfielder Chase Davis and tell Florida prep shortstop Arjun Nimmala they’ll pay him the same slot bonus as the 10th overall pick and take him at 37. The hope being that if Nimmala, or any other prep player you want try this with, slips a bit on draft day, he’ll simply tell teams he’s going to school and just wait for the Tigers to take him 37th. If things get real tricky that would probably be my dream scenario if the two big bats are gone 1-2.
The 10th overall pick is worth $5,475,300. Depending on which draft rankings you’re looking at, Davis and Nimmala both rank somewhere between 9th and 20th best. If the Tigers could land two really good prospects like that at 3 and then at 37, that may be the way to go if they’re dead set on Langford and Crews but neither are available.
That scenario is almost certainly not going to happen. Both Davis and Nimmala have a little helium under them and it wouldn’t shock me if they both went in the top ten picks. But that gives you an idea as to why a team in the Tigers’ situation might try to do something like that, particularly if Crews and Langford are both off the board and they really don’t want to take a pitcher in the first round. You could end up with two of the ten best players in the draft that way, and if it means you pass on the third, fourth or fifth best player, it may well be worth it.
Hopefully, Sunday night progresses pretty simply and one of the two are there for the 3rd pick. If not? Things might get real interesting with the new front office still something of a wild card at this point.