All signs have been pointing toward Spencer Torkelson as the eventual top pick in this year’s draft, but there’s still a chance the Tigers go in a different direction. Let’s look at the reasons why.
That headline isn’t meant to be clickbait-y. Despite the recent surge of mock drafts and experts reporting that the Tigers like him, there is a legitimate chance that Torkelson isn’t the 2020 MLB draft’s top pick. Baseball is weird. Baseball is a world where strange and unexpected things happen on the regular, celebrated and examined and replayed on Twitter again and again and again. For that reason, we can’t say with certainty that anything will happen in baseball (except for that one time) until it actually happens in front of our very eyes. The amateur draft is an excellent example of the fact – teams’ interactions with players and attempts to game the system frequently leads to draft day choices that leave third-party evaluators scratching their heads.
Let’s take a look at the factors that could contribute to Torkelson falling beyond the first choice this June.
Potential Long-Term Value
Like it or not, positional value impacts long-term player value. Torkelson is a first baseman – the least valuable position on the field. This reality has scared off every other team in the history of the modern draft format from drafting a collegiate first baseman with the top pick. In fact, in the 55 years that the June draft has taken place, there have only been three first baseman taken 1-1. Among those three, only Adrian Gonzalez was selected within the last 40 years.
Because his defensive abilities are unlikely to provide much value, a huge amount of pressure will be placed on Torkelson’s offensive abilities. Luckily, he’s likely the best offensive player to come through the draft within the last five years and edges out the White Sox’ Andrew Vaughn by the virtue of his raw power.
As Chris Brown of Tigers Minor League Report neatly explained, the amount of offensive output required for a first baseman to put up star-level value numbers is tremendous. Obviously, there is a direct correlation between the amount of offense a player is able to produce and his overall value. There have been 65 individual player seasons in which a primary first baseman was worth more than 5 WAR. Years in which a player was less than 30 percent above average at the plate account for only 2 of those instances.
“It is incredibly hard to reach our 5-WAR threshold at first base unless you’re producing at a level 50% above league average,” said Brown, in summation. “There are usually 7-8 players each year who post a wRC+ of 150. If you draft a first baseman at 1-1, your scouts better be damn sure he’s gonna be one of the 10 best hitters in baseball. Otherwise, it’s likely you’re not getting the best player in the draft”
When it comes to developing position players, Detroit has been at the bottom of the barrel in recent years. Between their apparent affinity for players who feature feel for the game rather than physical tools and athleticism and their ongoing love affair with old-school teaching styles, the results haven’t been all too pretty.
A look on the pitching side of things reveals a different story. The team has gathered some of the best pitching prospects in the game and crafted them from all sorts of starting points. Casey Mize, the slam dunk first overall draft pick in 2018, came to the team as a monster and has only gotten better. Matt Manning, drafted 9th overall in 2016, has metamorphosed from a project arm with lots of polish needed to one of the most dominant starters in the minors. Tarik Skubal was a faded star when the Tigers popped him in the ninth round and he quickly rebounded back to his old form under their stewardship.
In other words, it’s much easer to feel comfortable entrusting a high-end pitcher to the Tigers’ player development people than it is to hope they turn the ship around on their tendencies regarding hitters. Of course, the addition of Kenny Graham to oversee the development of position players is a big step in the right direction. However, the shot-callers within the organization may be more comfortable sticking to what they do best and drafting a bat for Graham to work with in the second round.
Everything else taken into account, if the Tigers go in a different direction than expected, money is probably at the heart of it. Torkelson’s agent, Scott Boras, is a minor celebrity in his own right. Famous for extracting the largest possible amount of money from owners in exchange for the rights of the players he represents, Boras is viewed with the same strange combination of disgust, fascination, and borderline admiration as well-known criminal. Add to that the fact that Torkelson, if taken with the first overall pick, is in a position of tremendous leverage.
No doubt completely aware of the fact that he’s the best offensive player available in the draft, he’s also younger than most in his draft class and could reasonably go back to school next year without hurting his draft stock in the process. That puts him in a position of power at the bargaining table. Failing to sign their selection this year would be a massive problem unless the Tigers are willing to go all-in on the 2021 class and bank the second overall pick in that draft as compensation. It’d be a gutsy strategy, to put it lightly.
A player like Asa Lacy, on the other had, doesn’t present any of these issues. As a left-handed starting pitcher with the potential to anchor a rotation, long-term upside is not an issue. He’s a pitcher from the SEC with a track record of strong performance, which is right in the Tigers wheelhouse. Most importantly, he’s going to cost the team less than Torkelson will. Naturally, there are whispers that the Tigers will take him over the slugging first baseman.
Honestly? Torkelson is probably the right pick, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing if they took a different player instead.