On Wednesday, longtime Detroit News baseball writer Lynn Henning strongly suggested the Tigers and Arizona State slugger Spencer Torkelson were close to agreeing on a signing bonus, apparently north of $8 million, in advance of next week’s Major League Baseball draft (June 10-11).
Presuming this report to be true, Torkelson would become just the third No. 1 overall pick for the Tigers since 1965, when MLB initially launched a draft for North American amateurs (college/junior college/high school).
At BATSBY Sports, we’re not here to dismiss the prodigious talents of Torkelson, Arizona State’s all-time home run leader (54) and perhaps the most fearsome hitter in the college game (2020 stats: .340 batting, .598 OBP, 1.378 OPS).
From afar, Torkelson seemingly has the tools to become a productive offensive performer at the major-league level.
Now for the meh news.
The baseball draft can be a fickle mistress with various field positions. It has a long, illustrious history of supporting certain slots at the top (starting pitcher, shortstop, third base, outfielder) … and serving as a painful glass ceiling for others.
As such, here are four detailed reasons why the Tigers would be wise to pursue a different elite-level prospect before next week’s virtual draft.
For what it’s worth, the Tigers have collected the fewest victories over the last three MLB seasons, tallying 175 combined wins since 2017.
(The Orioles posted 176 wins for this same three-year cycle, and the always-rebuilding Marlins registered 197 during this stretch.)
REASON #1: MLB DRAFT HISTORY HAS RARELY BEEN KIND TO HIGH-END FIRST BASEMEN
Since 1965, a right-handed-hitting first baseman has never been selected No. 1 overall; and only three other natural first basemen have commandeered the top spot (Ron Blomberg in 1967, Harold Baines in 1977, Adrian Martinez in 2000).
Why is this the case?
At the risk of being flippant here, first basemen essentially grow on trees in the major leagues. In today’s power-obsessed game, it’s rather easy to sign a productive power for the 3-slot, without breaking the bank long term.
As a prime example, 30-year-old C.J. Cron has cracked 55 homers over the last two seasons (Rays, Twins); and yet, the Tigers quickly signed him to a one-year, $6.1 million contract during the offseason — a relative pittance for a starting asset in the middle of the batting order.
That isn’t to say all first base prospects have been created equal through the years.
If Albert Pujols (13th round in 1999), Mark McGwire (1st round, 10th overall in 1984), Rafael Palmeiro (1st round, 22nd overall in 1985) or Jim Thome (13th round in 1989) had been drafted No. 1 overall, history would have been very kind to the Cardinals, Athletics, Cubs and Indians, respectively — since that foursome has accounted for nearly 2,500 big-league homers.
Guys like Palmeiro and McGwire represent the outliers of first basemen snagged high in Round 1. From 2006-15, the results weren’t overly positive.
2006 — Chris Davis was the only first baseman drafted in the first five rounds to register double-digit career homers … and his lifetime batting average sits at .234. Ugh.
2007 — A boffo class for upper-tier first basemen, with Giancarlo Stanton (Round 2, Marlins), Freddie Freeman (Round 2, Braves) and Anthony Rizzo (Round 6, Padres) going in the first six rounds. It’s worth nothing, though, 75 other players preceded the mammoth-sized Stanton in the draft.
2008 — Volume was king for this year, with seven first basemen (Eric Hosmer, Yonder Alonso, Justin Smoak, Brett Wallace, David Cooper, Allan Dykstra) being snagged in the first 23 selections.
Now for the bad news: With the exception of Hosmer (167 career HRs, 16.7 WAR, one title with the Royals) … the other six first basemen were essentially replacement-level performers in the majors, at best.
2009 — The most heralded first base prospects of the first 11 rounds? Paul Goldschmidt (243 career HRs, 43.2 lifetime WAR, four-time Silver Slugger) and Brandon Belt (.801 career OPS) easily stand out in a crowd of veritable no-names. Neither asset went before Round 5, though.
2010 — The Marlins absolutely nailed their pick of Christian Yelich (1st round, 23rd overall), but then committed the unpardonable sin of trading the future National League MVP to the Brewers (prior to the 2018 season) … for the value equivalent of some magic beans.
2011 — The aforementioned Cron (17th overall) was the only first baseman selected in the first round — and for good reason. Overall, a lackluster class at this position.
2012 — The Athletics should be commended for selecting Matt Olson during the supplemental portion of Round 1 (47th overall); but then again, this also speaks to why so many MLB teams are right to be patient with first-base prospects.
2013 — Here’s another prime example of patience being rewarded. The Mets, Diamondbacks, Athletics and Astros wasted picks on first-base prospects … thus allowing the Dodgers to land 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger with the 124th overall selection.
2014 — The Phllies prudently held their ground, similar to the Dodgers from the previous year, and corralled Rhys Hoskins with the 142nd overall pick. However, the Rays (Casey Gillaspie), Astros (AJ Reed), Red Sox (Sam Travis) and Indians (Bobby Bradley) weren’t so fortunate, rushing to acquire corner infielders who haven’t impacted the majors.
2015 — Josh Naylor (1st round, 12th overall … now with the Padres) remains an interesting prospect. But then again, we’re also getting close to Crunch Time regarding Naylor’s long-term place in a big-league lineup. He’s no longer a blue-chip prospect.
REASON #2: YOU CAN NEVER GO WRONG WITH SHORTSTOPS OR STARTING PITCHERS AT 1-1
I don’t proclaim to be an expert with the baseball draft.
It takes a special kind of MLB lifer to travel the country, attend random prep/college games, write daily reports, execute endless prospect cross-checks and communicate with various front-office executives for 10-14 hours of a given day.
Every damn day.
That said, it doesn’t take a genius to construct a viable major-league roster — and fruitful farm system — as long as you’re surrounded by smart, energetic, forward-thinking people and have access to consistent financial resources.
What makes the job of drafting 1-1 so simple?
Baseball drafting isn’t an exact science. Unlike football and basketball, the average sports fan doesn’t have endless access to the high-end prospects. Heck, Spencer Torkelson might be one of the greatest hitters in NCAA history; and yet, there isn’t an unlimited treasure trove of YouTube clips showcasing his skills.
Which brings us to this …
Baseball fans don’t have much wiggle room for Monday Morning Quarterbacking the draft — unlike other sports.
Yes, Mike Trout was merely the 25th overall pick in the 2009 draft; but outside of pitcher Stephen Strasburg that year, there weren’t many Can’t-Miss Kids in the first 10 selections.
(Side note: As a Detroit native, I would gladly donate $400 to a charity organization … for the pleasure of reading the Tigers’ 2009 scouting report on Trout.)
In other words, MLB general managers shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the pressure of nailing the No. 1 pick. Yes, it can be a mentally exhaustive experience, knowing that any grave mistake (see Matt Bush, circa 2004) could be a setback for the franchise.
But when in doubt, just ride the talents of a starting pitcher with sterling stats, three dynamic pitches and off-the-charts character, and you’ll probably be fine in the end.
Or, go with the kid who has the physical acumen and mental makeup to handle playing shortstop or center field in the majors. Someone like Vanderbilt prospect Austin Martin (6-foot, 185 pounds … below).
For those unfamiliar with his game, Martin’s largely considered the best pure hitter in college baseball (career tallies: .368 batting, .474 on-base percentage, 1.007 OPS, nearly 1/1 strikeout-to-walk rate), while facing top-notch competition in the SEC.
But ay the rub: Thanks to the Coronavirus shutdown, MLB teams never reached a true consensus about Martin’s natural defensive position, either second base, third base, center field or even shortstop.
As such, the pro clubs are now consigned to speculate about Martin’s long-term home, despite his many athletic gifts.
These are First World Problems, by the way. For MLB.com’s draft page, Martin has a 50-plus score for all five scouting categories (hit: 65 … field: 55 … run: 55 … power: 50 … arm: 50 … overall — 60), including fielding.
To put that in better perspective, of the 10 top hitters on MLB’s 20-80 grading scale, only Martin, UCLA outfielder Garrett Mitchell and high school outfielder Zac Veen registered 50-plus scores for all five categories.
What about Martin’s signability factor, since each club has a limited talent pool for signing draftees?
This could be a thorny issue, since Martin and Torkelson both share the same draft advisor, MLB superagent Scott Boras.
However, in the last 25 years, only a small handful of top-5 picks elected not to sign with the drafting club (including Boras client J.D. Drew in 1997); and given Martin’s age (21), it stands to reason he’s ready for the pressure (and lucrative perks) of being a professional athlete.
To be fair, Torkelson doesn’t turn 21 until the end of August; and his power numbers (broke Barry Bonds’ ASU record for homers) are off the charts. There’s even prevailing optimism of Torkelson becoming the first hitter of the 2020 class to reach the majors on a full-time basis.
Speaking of which …
REASON #3: SHORT-SIGHTED CLUBS SELDOM GET REWARDED LONG TERM IN THE DRAFT
Back in 1997, the Tigers possessed the No. 1 overall pick for the first time in club history.
For me, a proud Detroit native, the possibilities seemed endless for a club that largely drafted well in the 1970s and 80s.
For example, the Tigers’ 1976 draft class included three eventual Hall of Famers (Jack Morris, Alan Trammell and Ozzie Smith, who didn’t sign with the team), one World Series-winning pitcher (Dan Petry) and a 10-year power hitter in the majors (Steve Kemp).
So, how did the 1997 Tiger handle this once-in-a-generation opportunity?
Did they target a power-hitting third baseman like UCLA’s Troy Glaus?
How about a dynamic hitter in outfielder like Lance Berkman (finished in the top 5 for league MVP four times)?
Or what about an uber-athletic catcher (Jayson Werth), who was destined for All-Star-level success in the outfield?
Nope, the franchise which produced a grand total of 166 victories from 1994-96 went for Matt Anderson, the Rice University gas-thrower who was merely pegged to be a closer in the major leagues.
Can you believe it? The Tigers’ brass actually green-lighted such a colossally stupid move, forgetting the franchise wasn’t anywhere close to having a steady stream of young prospects for the majors.
(Note: Anderson notched a grand total of 26 MLB saves in his seven-year career.)
Would drafting Torkelson (6-foot-1, 220 pounds) be worse than the Anderson selection from 23 years ago?
By all accounts, the Arizona State star could be a middle-order fixture for years to come in the Tigers lineup, perhaps serving as an annual threat for 30 homers and 100 RBI. However, given Torkelson’s speed deficiencies and limited opportunities in the field, this could also be a Bob Horner situation.
Do you remember Bob Horner?
In 1978, the woebegone Atlanta Braves (then owned by quirky billionaire Ted Turner) selected the 20-year-old hitting sensation from Arizona State (notice a pattern here?) with the No. 1 overall pick and instantly called him up to the big leagues.
The thinking back then? Horner had a major-league-ready bat and would instantly help the Braves (averaged only 59 wins from 1975-77) become pennant contenders.
The results: Sure, Horner was a productive hitter with Atlanta, averaging 26 homers from 1978-83. On the down side, there were also athletic limitations, a so-so on-base percentage (.341) and consistent struggles to dominate any other category during this six-year run.
Final synopsis: Good player … but not a decade-long star attraction with the Braves; and that should be the overall goal with every No. 1 selection.
Go for the upside!
REASON #4: THE TIGERS COULD DOMINATE THE NEXT DECADE WITH ONE MORE ROTATION STUD
I haven’t been this positive about the Tigers’ long-term outlook since the club landed Miguel Cabrera during the 2007-08 offseason, at the cents-on-the-dollar expense of six minor league prospects (including Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin).
At the time, Cabrera (then just 25 years old) was already on track for becoming a future Most Valuable Player, baseball’s best hitter and a first-ballot Hall of Famer, six years after his retirement (whenever that may be).
Why such optimism with Detroit’s modern-day structure?
The Tigers easily possess baseball’s best lot of starting pitching talent in the minors, a dynamic group led by Casey Mize (No. 7 overall prospect, according to MLB.com), Matt Manning (No. 24 overall prospect), Tarik Skubal (No. 46 overall prospect, perhaps the minors’ most lethal southpaw), Alex Faedo (former first-round pick with a strong repertoire), Joey Wentz (shelved in 2020, due to injury … but fantastic numbers last year, post-trade) and Franklin Perez, the centerpiece of the Justin Verlander trade from a few years ago (Astros-Tiger) … who might have the most natural talent of any other Detroit-bound hurler.
With the above riches, why would the Tigers need another arm, especially when their crop of hitting prospects (aside from Riley Greene, Isaac Paredes, Parker Meadows, Willi Castro, Daz Cameron, etc.) needs more reinforcements?
This difficult question warrants a simple answer: The Tigers can always trade for bats, or acquire young-veteran power in short-term signings (like C.J. Cron). But if they want a steady stream of cost-controlled pitching stars for the foreseeable future (eight, 10, 12 years), it always helps to feed the bulldog whenever possible.
And therein lies the heart of the problem, regarding the 2020 class: MLB scouts barely got a chance to separate the cluster of pitching prospects this spring, due to the Coronavirus.
Namely, the possible 1-1 selection of either Texas A&M southpaw Asa Lacy (2.07 career ERA, 224/68 K-BB rate, elite-level pitch repertoire) and Georgia righty Emerson Hancock (3.47 ERA, 206/55 K-BB rate), who draws favorable comparisons to Justin Verlander — the Tigers’ top pick from 2004 (No. 2 overall).
Bottom line: Unless the Tigers can guarantee that Torkelson will be a dominating force for the next decade-plus, why not exercise this year’s 1-1 gamble on a premium position?
Think of all the money they’ll save in the long run if Zac Veen, Asa Lacy, Emerson Hancock or Austin Martin emerge into baseball’s Next Big Thing.
After all, as a voracious reader of pre-draft materials, I’ve yet to encounter a single scout or pundit proclaim — with minimal hesitation — that Torkelson will be the undisputed king of the 2020 class in five or six years.
And really, isn’t that the answer we’re seeking here?