Detroit Tigers: Implications of rebuilding through the draft

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 24: James McCann #34 of the Detroit Tigers pounds fist with Paws before a MLB game against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park on September 24, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 24: James McCann #34 of the Detroit Tigers pounds fist with Paws before a MLB game against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park on September 24, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images) /

Teams are stripping their roster and rebuilding. How well does having high draft picks work?  How well would it work for the Detroit Tigers?

The Detroit Tigers are expected to have a dismal 2018 season. But, there’s one word you won’t find being associated with the 2018 Tigers-tanking. Tanking has been a contentious topic over the last couple months in baseball. The Marlins have shipped off every fan-favorite player to “save money”. The Rays reportedly are using a four-man rotation for the whole season.

Our counterparts over at SB Nation have argued that tanking isn’t bad for baseball. Former Tiger and current executive director of the MLBPA-Tony Clark has openly stated that the one-third of teams aren’t trying to win a World Series title this season.  Current Dodger Kenley Jensen recently went on a tirade against tanking.

In general, when someone refers to tanking they’re implying that a team isn’t trying to win. Not just win a game, but in Major League Baseball they’re not trying to win a World Series. By not winning they’re trying to improve their chances of getting a higher draft pick. In turn, this will allow them (in theory) to get a higher quality player that can turn around the franchise.

While in other sports this is plausible. Lebron James took the 2007 Cavs to the finals with five players off the street (it seemed like). Tom Brady has carried the Patriots offense more times than I can count. Baseball is a sport that you can’t build around one player, at least that’s what it seems like. For as great as Justin Verlander has been, he wasn’t able to win a World Series with the Detroit Tigers.

Drafting in Baseball

Baseball isn’t a sport where a single player can lead a team into championship contention. Yet, there are teams shipping off above-average players for below average players. Some teams are stockpiling prospects. But, does rebuilding through high draft picks really work? On the surface, it seems like it.

A Sporting News article from 2015 graded every team in the last ten years based on their draft picks (at that time). The Detroit Tigers came in on that list at number nineteen. Their WAR leader was Alex Avila (a 5th round draft pick). The author notes that Avila and Rick Porcello were neck and neck for that title. The author also noted that:

“The Tigers are the only team whose 10 best picks of the last decade have a higher median WAR than average WAR, meaning that Detroit has added a steady stream of so-so players, but not much in the way of impact talent”.

Position Player’s WAR

You could strongly make the case then that the Tigers might then not be capable of recognizing impact talent. However, if you look at the top ten position players based on WAR. The top ten were drafted out (I excluded international signees) like so:

  1. Aaron Judge: 32nd overall
  2. Anthony Rendon: 6th overall
  3. Giancarlo Stanton: 76th overall
  4. Mike Trout: 25th overall
  5. Kris Bryant: 2nd overall
  6. Joey Votto: 44th overall
  7. Charlie Blackmon: 72nd overall
  8. Tommy Pham: 496th overall
  9. Francisco Lindor: 8th overall
  10. Corey Seager: 18th overall

Pitcher’s WAR

Of the top ten players, only three were top ten draft picks. Kris Bryant was the lone player who was a top-five draft pick.  The story here is that the best players come from the top of the draft. However, that doesn’t mean the best players come from the top five picks in the draft.

If you look at the top ten pitchers based on WAR, the story is the same.

  1. Chris Sale: 13th overall
  2. Corey Kluber: 134th overall
  3. Max Scherzer: 11th overall
  4. Stephen Strasburg; 1st overall
  5. Zack Greinke: 6th overall
  6. Jimmy Nelson: 64th overall
  7. Clayton Kershaw: 7th overall
  8. Chris Archer: 161st overall
  9. Jacob deGrom: 272nd overall
  10. Aaron Nola: 7th overall

Only one player on that list was a top-five draft pick-Stephen Strasburg. When you look at the Detroit Tigers James McCann and Nicholas Castellanos are the most recent Tigers number one draft picks on the 40-man roster. McCann was drafted in 2011 and Castellanos was drafted in 2010.

Next: Prospects entering make-or-break seasons

Final thoughts

In summary, drafting well isn’t enough for a team to contend for a World Series. The Astros have come to define the blueprint for winning. In addition to drafting well, you have to supplement players from elsewhere. The Cubs followed this blueprint and both teams have won a world series.

The Brewers brought David Stearns from Houston and they’re already turning the ship around. Some people have gone as far as declaring the Brewers rebuild over. We might then to redefine tanking, to include acquiring prospects and trying to win long-term as opposed to right now. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.