Detroit Tigers: 4 candidates for No. 1 pick in MLB draft

LAKELAND, FL - Detroit Tigers Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Al Avila looks on. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
LAKELAND, FL - Detroit Tigers Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Al Avila looks on. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

The Tigers are on the clock first for 2020’s amateur draft, and at this point, there’s no clear-cut choice for the top spot. Here’s a look at the players vying for consideration.

The perks of being the worst team in baseball are few, but they do exist. The team is granted the first pick in the Rule 5 draft, first priority on waiver claims through the whole offseason, and a positively enormous draft slot pool, allowing the team to target pricier talents in the middle rounds of the amateur draft. The big draw is, of course, the first overall pick in the draft. It’s no sure thing to grab a star, but there’s certainly no more enviable ability than to take the very best player on the board.

That’s where things get a little messy. No one has emerged as the clear top pick, and there are legitimate arguments to be made for the selection of a number of players. Without an obvious choice, the field is set for an out-and-out battle royale. Let’s take a look at the front-running competitors for the top spot, along with a handful of dark horse candidates for the position with a breakout campaign. The players are listed alphabetically, not by order of preference

RHP Emerson Hancock, Georgia

It’s easy to draw a number of comparisons between Hancock and top Tigers prospect Casey Mize, who was drafted first overall in 2018. Both are big right-handed pitchers who played in the SEC, college baseball’s toughest conference. Both have a tremendous softer offering to back up a plus fastball, although Mize’s splitter outclasses Hancock’s changeup by a small margin. Both have deep arsenals of pitches that elicit swings and misses. Both of them have questions about their health. It’s an exciting profile, one that the Tigers have shown a great affinity for in the past.

The difference between them comes in their ultimate ceiling. Hancock is easier to imagine as an eventual ace thanks to a group of pitches that is more conducive to creating strikeouts. His stock has taken a bit of hit in the early part of the season thanks to a poor opening showing, but he bounced back nicely in his second start. He has a slight disadvantage thanks to the simple fact that he’s a pitcher; there is a great deal of pressure on the Tigers to build a respectable group of offensive prospects. There’s still a path to being the first selection for Hancock, though. If he’s the best amateur player in baseball this year, he’ll be hard to pass up.

IF Austin Martin, Vanderbilt

Martin’s biggest strength is his picture-perfect swing. Between his commanding bat speed and a spectacularly athletic frame, few are the players who can boast better skill at barreling the ball. Scouts are split on where he fits best on the field, with some arguing he is suited for shortstop, second base, third base, or center field. He’d been taking his reps this season at Vanderbilt at the hot corner, where he could be an outstanding fielder, but he’ll doubtless get the chance to hang onto a job at a more challenging position once he enters the professional ranks.

For Martin, the path to the first pick is pretty obvious. Even if he merely stays the course, he’ll be a strong contender until the very day of the draft. Baseball America projects he’d be the Tigers’ selection if the draft were held today. He has the pedigree, the tools, and the strong statistical track record that teams like from the college players. Any improvements in his game would lead to a probable selection as the first choice; his floor is too high and his potential too significant to ignore.

1B Spencer Torkelson, Arizona State

Perhaps the most famous of the players with a serious shot to be the Tigers’ pick in the first round, Arizona State’s first baseman is a downright masher. His uppercut swing is geared for power and his barrel passes through a large part of the zone – a common characteristic among premium power hitters. His frame carries a great deal of muscle and he strikes the ball with a lot of force due to his imposing physical presence, impressive bat speed, and the aforementioned favorable swing path. Opposing staffs have refused to pitch to him in 2020, leading to a record-setting number of intentional walks in a stunningly small number of games.

There is no player comparable to Torkelson in Detroit’s farm system. He’s a premium hitter who could wind up with a plus hit tool and plus-or-better power. He’s possibly the safest choice in this draft class (college corner infielders taken highly in the draft almost always work out) and he’d fill an obvious long-term need for a first baseman within the organization. If the Tigers take him with their top pick, it’ll likely be an indication of their faith in his defensive value. Another driving factor could be the desire to add a high-end bat which would likely break into the majors on a similar timeline as their massive corps of pitching is establishing themselves.

2B Nick Gonzales, New Mexico State

Seen as the clear fourth among top draft talent when the college season opened, Gonzales has forced his way into the conversation with a dynamite showing in early action. There are some red flags regarding his profile – he plays in a small conference, his home stadium is elevated, and his defense doesn’t play well outside of second base. But he’s in the same conversation as the others at the top of this class because numbers have been positively insane. Small sample size warnings apply, but he’s hit multiple home runs in a positively absurd percentage of games and his batting average has hovered around .500 the entire time. That was true on leap day as well, wen he hit an almost unbelievable five bombs in a single game.

For the Tigers to settle on Gonzales as their choice at the top of the 2020 draft, he’ll have to continue hitting like a madman. No one expects this performance to translate directly to the pros – he’s hitting better than Ted Williams – but he’s proven that lesser competition is no match for his advanced approach and remarkable contact ability. He’s playing short for the Aggies this year, and if he can stick at the spot, it will significantly improve his chances at being Detroit’s selection.

Potential Challengers

LHP Asa Lacy, Texas A&M – Tall and well-built, Lacy has a full bevy of pitches and each has a chance to be above-average. He will almost certainly be taken among the top picks this summer, but there is a feeling his draft stock has plateaued. He’ll be an exceptional addition to whatever team drafts him, but he scouts have their doubts that he can improve enough in any meaningful way to make push for the top spot. He’s the top pitcher outside of Hancock, though, and southpaws with his build and arsenal don’t come along every day.

OF Garrett Mitchell, UCLA – With more defensive value than the players who will likely be drafted before him, Mitchell is a dynamic ballplayer. He can contribute on both sides of the ball with his speed and he’s able to bring the majority of his average raw power into play because of excellent contact ability. He’ll likely wind up in a corner because his instincts don’t play as well as his speed in the field, but he has a plus arm that will serve him well. He has Type 1 diabetes, which will be a factor against consideration for the first selection, and his ultimate ceiling isn’t as high as others being contemplated.

OF Zac Veen, Spruce Creek HS (Florida) – Six weeks ago, it may have seemed a little silly to suggest that Veen could have a path to being the first pick this summer. Today, it’s still a very outside chance for the prep bat, but he could be a much stronger contender if the frontrunners suddenly run out of steam. He’s performed very well in early action and evaluators adore his bat path. His swing is as pretty as they come, some even commenting on its visual similarity to Cody Bellinger’s. If, after closer scrutiny, the Tigers are unimpressed with the players who appear to have an inside track, they could target Veen as a money-saving option.