Where is the talent? 10 years of high-round MLB draft picks have yielded the Tigers little value

Why do the Detroit Tigers struggle to hit home runs and produce offense in general? Why is it so difficult to put together a steady starting rotation every year? Why is the team so often signing middling free agents or overpaying for better ones just to fill a roster.

And even more fundamentally, why hasn’t the team had a winning record for the past six seasons?

It is not a foregone conclusion that teams who go through stretches of success, as the Tigers did between 2006 and 2014, necessarily need to follow such stretches with a rebuild. Franchises who consistently draft and develop high-caliber young talent tend to avoid such ups and downs.

The Tigers have struggled mightily in the area of player development. Whether it’s the drafting or the grooming that goes on in the minor leagues, the Tigers’ record drafting and developing impact big league players has been abysmal in recent years.

Dreadful Outcomes

How abysmal? Let’s put it this way. The last player drafted and developed by the Tigers who made it to the majors, completed his club-control period, and got a multi-year offer in free agency was Nick Castellanos. He was drafted in 2010. The three before him who fit into this category were Willy Adames (!), Justin Verlander, and Curtis Granderson.

That’s how far back you have to go to find Tiger-drafted players who did that well in the Major Leagues.

Let’s look at it in a particular way: Generally speaking, you would hope to get the most value out of players you draft in the first three rounds. That is not the only place you find value, of course. Tarik Skubal was drafted in the ninth round and he blossomed. It does happen. But if you don’t consistently do well with your first three picks in the draft, you’re going to have big problems.

Casey Mize Tyler Holton Tigers

10 Years of Frustration

Let’s take a look at the Tigers’ top three picks in each of the last 10 drafts. We indicate which round and which pick overall (because sometimes the Tigers might pick more than once in a round, or skip a round), and we also tell you the player’s position and if he was drafted out of high school or college.

If the player ever played in the majors at all, even a day, his name is in bold:

Year: 2013

Round 1 (20th overall):            Jonathan Crawford, pitcher, high school

Round 1 (39th overall):           Corey Knebel, pitcher, college

Round 2 (58th overall):           Kevin Ziomek, pitcher, high school

Year: 2014

Round 1 (23rd overall):            Derek Hill, outfielder, high school

Round 2 (63rd overall):            Spencer Turnbull, pitcher, college

Round 3 (99th overall):            Grayson Greiner, catcher, college

Year: 2015

Round 1 (22nd overall):          Beau Burrows, pitcher, high school

Round 1 (34th overall):           Christin Stewart, outfielder, college

Round 2 (65th overall):           Tyler Alexander, pitcher, college

Year: 2016

Round 1 (9th overall):             Matt Manning, pitcher, high school

Round 4: (115th overall):        Kyle Funkhouser, pitcher, college

Round 5: (145th overall):         Mark Ecker, pitcher, college

Year: 2017

Round 1 (18th overall):            Alex Faedo, pitcher, college

Round 2 (57th overall):           Reynaldo Rivera, outfielder, college

Round 3 (95th overall):            Joey Morgan, catcher, college

Year: 2018

Round 1 (1st overall):              Casey Mize, pitcher, college

Round 2 (44th overall):            Parker Meadows, outfielder, high school

Round 3 (79th overall):            Kody Clemens, infielder, college

Year: 2019

Round 1 (5th overall):             Riley Greene, outfielder, high school

Round 2 (47th overall):           Nick Quintana, infielder, college

Round 3 (83rd overall):           Andre Lipcius, infielder, college

Year: 2020

Round 1: (1st overall):             Spencer Torkelson, infielder, college

Round 2: (38th overall):          Dillon Dingler, catcher, college

Round 3: (62th overall):          Daniel Cabrera, outfielder, college

Year: 2021

Round 1 (3rd overall):             Jackson Jobe, pitcher, high school

Round 2 (32nd overall):          Ty Madden, pitcher, college

Round 3 (39th overall):           Izaac Pacheco, infielder, high school

Year: 2022

Round 1 (12th overall):           Jace Jung, infielder, college

Round 2 (51st overall):           Peyton Graham, infielder, college

Round 4 (117th overall):         Troy Melton, pitcher, college

Now at first glance, this might not appear too bad. Fourteen of the 30 players listed here have played in the majors, and many of those who have not were drafted pretty recently and are still in development.

But look deeper at the names you see here. None of the players drafted prior to 2018 have been impact players at the major league level. Spencer Turnbull did pitch a no-hitter and had an excellent stretch early in the 2021 season, but that’s the only period of his career when he’s looked like he paid off as a draft pick.

Hill, Greiner, Stewart, and Funkhouser were never more than marginal contributors. Burrows wasn’t even that.

Alexander is actually still on the team and is a useful part of the pitching staff, but is hardly an impact major leaguer.

Knebel had some decent Major League seasons after the Tigers traded him for Joakim Soria.

Of the more recent picks, Manning still looks promising but has been hurt a lot. Ditto for Faedo, who has had a huge struggle to get to the majors but is here now and will get a chance to stick. We all know the story with Casey Mize, who, by the time he gets back from Tommy John surgery next year, will be 27.

Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson have taken their lumps as young players but both look promising.

Spencer Torkelson Detroit Tigers Javier Baez

Impact Missing

But overall, where are the players who have blossomed into impact major leaguers in this group? There are none. Mize, Torkelson, and Greene hold out the most promise to yet do so. Maybe Manning can become a steady member of a decent starting rotation. Maybe Faedo will defy the odds and yet make something of his Major League career.

Even so, this is a horrible track record. It’s exceedingly little value from 10 years of high draft picks.

Now, how do you fix it? The first question one needs to ask is whether the problem lies with the drafting or the player development. My sense of things is that the drafting could be better, but the primary problem is the player development.

The Tigers have had far too many young players who came to the organization highly touted, and who struggled mightily and for long periods of time.

Tiger Tendencies

There are also tendencies with the Tigers that don’t make a lot of sense. You will notice that 21 of the 30 players listed above were drafted out of college. A player drafted out of college is in the range of 22 years old when he’s taken, and the idea is supposed to be that he’s much closer to being ready for the majors than a high school player.

Yet the Tigers have a maddening habit of sticking these 22-year-olds at the lowest levels of the minors and bringing them along very slowly. For example, last year they drafted Peyton Graham and stuck him at Low Class-A Lakeland. This year they didn’t even move him up to Advanced Class-A West Michigan. He’s still stuck at the lowest level.

Why use a second-round pick on a player who’s 22 if you think he’s that far away from being ready for the majors? You’d be better off investing in a high school blue-chipper if you’re going to make him take that long.

Or is it that the player just isn’t developing as hoped? And if so, whose fault is that if it happens over and over and over again?

Fragile Arms

There is also the matter of injuries, especially with pitchers. Faedo, Mize, and Turnbull have all had Tommy John surgery since the Tigers drafted them. Manning has missed significant time with injuries just about every year. Jackson Jobe is likely to miss this entire season with an injury.

Pitchers are more injury-prone than ever. They’re pitching extensive innings every year from the time they’re 11 and 12 in travel ball, and coaches at that level are encouraging them to throw upper 80s or even 90s before they’re 15.

By the time they get to college or to the minors, they’ve put so much stress on their elbows, they are highly susceptible to serious injuries. Yet the Tigers keep making pitching their top draft priority, often to be left holding the bag when pitchers can’t stay healthy as they move through the system.

I am not qualified to tell the Tigers how to develop their players. But I know the way they’re doing it isn’t working.

Wrong Guy?

One final thought: The gold standard for player development in baseball is the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the man in charge of player development there is a guy named Josh Byrnes. He was a candidate for Tigers’ president of baseball operations last year. But the Tigers hired Scott Harris instead.

Pray, Tiger fans.

Written by Dan Calabrese

Dan is a lifelong Tiger fan whose earliest memories were of Verne Ruhle in the starting rotation and Ben Oglivie in left field. He has been a professional writer since 1984, including work for the Detroit News, Macomb Daily, DBusiness and a variety of trucking/supply chain/logistics publications. Today, in addition to writing about the Tigers, Dan and his family own and operate North Star Marketing Content, which provides contract writing services to corporate clients, magazines and advertising/PR agencies throughout the country. He lives in Royal Oak, where he grew up, and attends around 50 Tiger games a year. Dan and his wife Angie have been married since 1997, and their commanding officer in life is Jesus Christ.

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