Detroit Tigers: Will Zac Veen steal the scene from Spencer Torkelson?

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 Detroit Tigers have been linked to a few players with the top selection in the upcoming draft, but there’s still a chance for Zac Veen to claim the top spot.

By the estimation of nearly every MLB Draft observer, The Detroit Tigers are poised to select Arizona State phenom Spencer Torkelson with the first overall pick in the truncated 2020 Draft. This seems like a very safe bet for the Tigers. But what pick could Detroit make to stun the baseball world? While some have bandied about names like Asa Lacey from Texas A&M and Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin as an alternative to Torkelson, it’s really prep bat Zac Veen out of Florida who would fill the role of a true stunner, should the Tigers feel they can’t agree to the demands of the Torkelson/Boras Camp.

Zac Veen is the number one high school player ranked by both Baseball America and MLB Pipeline. Both services also rank him the 7th best pre-draft prospect overall. BA has him slotted to KC at #4 and Pipeline sees him picked at #5 by Toronto. Veen stands at 6’5” and about 200 lbs, with the power potential Detroit should want with the pick. For now, he’s a centerfielder with a non-zero chance to stick at the position, which only adds the appeal. A player of that height might really have the potential leverage for prodigious power and he’s noted for having a patient approach and good batting eye.

Is this idea nuts? An out-of-left-field hot take? Quite possibly. There are no rumors to substantiate it at the present. I’d bet my own money on Torkelson being picked right now. But is it really all that outlandish to think the top ranked high school hitter could go #1, especially when Baseball America is projecting him at pick #4 already? Let’s take a look back at other drafts:

Precedent for Veen

In 2012, the Houston Astros surprised many by selecting shortstop Carlos Correa first overall out of Puerto Rico. It had been rumored that they favored Stanford pitcher Mark Appel and high school star Byron Buxton out of Georgia. Correa would ink a deal with Houston for the low price of $4.8M, well below the $7.2M slot value attached to the first overall pick.

Four years laters, the Philadelphia Phillies finally settled on using the first overall choice in the 2016 draft on California prep outfielder Mickey Moniak. In a year where there was never a true consensus “top guy,” the crown bounced around between college stars AJ Puk, Nick Senzel, Corey Ray and Kyle Lewis. Moniak never seemed to have a ticket to 1-1 until very late in the process. Eventually it would be known, much like Correa 4-years prior, Moniak agreed to a money saving deal with the Phillies. Moniak saved the Phillies just shy of $3M by agreeing to $6.1M in a slot valued at just a shade over $9M.

The obvious link between Correa and Moniak is their signing bonus. Both dipped well below slot and gave their respective clubs plenty of extra room to operate to sign other picks with the savings. Is this tactic something Tigers General Manager Al Avila is willing to employ?

The Tigers have certainly dealt with Scott Boras clients many times in the past in both free agency and the draft. While it remains to be seen if Chris Ilitch has the openness his father did to answering the Boras Hotline, Torkelson’s representation shouldn’t scare the Tigers away.

Neither of course should his prodigious offensive skillset the Tigers should rightly covet in their power-starved organization. Torkelson might not be the slam dunk no-brainer number one choice like Stephan Strasburg or Casey Mize, but Torkelson has been in the conversation surrounding the selection for well over a year. Only Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin has gotten close to the same amount of buzz since last winter.

It’s a strange year, that’s obvious enough. MLB has cut the draft to merely five rounds. Cash flow, whether you truly believe owners’ tales of woe or not, is tight. Bonus agreements will mean more than ever.

Monetary Implications

The Tigers will have six picks courtesy of an extra selection 62nd overall in Competitive Balance Round B. Detroit has a bonus cap of $13.33M to spend on those six players. Assuming they elect to spend it all, how they allot the money and what “understandings” they have reached pre-draft with other potential picks will determine their course.

If Torkelson is resistant to shaving much off his asking price and presses for the full slot value of $8.4M, it would crimp the Tigers’ flexibility with other choices. Will they look to Veen as a cost-saving but still highly talented alternative?

Veen is usually in the Top 8 in most notable mock drafts from respected publications. Let’s say he’s talking to Kansas City at #4. The Royals, being the Royals, are likely looking for a good deal. Their first round slot number sits at $6.66M (yikes! the Devil’s Slot!).

“The Royals are very interested in Veen at 4, but unless presented with a sizable under slot, they’ll likely go to the college route,” said Joe Doyle to Motor City Bengals. “The Royals are bargain shopping, in that regard. That being said, it’s unclear what Veen’s asking price is and whether or not the two can match up on a deal.”

The Tigers could easily top the Royals’ offer in their desire to go significantly underslot. Even if Detroit presented him a bonus of approximately $6M, it would still save $2.4M for other bonuses. In fact, Detroit could hand Veen a bonus equivalent to the Royals’ full slot allotment and still save $1.8M.

The question then becomes how much value they can find with the money they saved. Can Avila and his staff get more value from drafting Veen and using the cash to get one or two other premium players that may not have signed otherwise and gone to college? If they can’t make up the difference in value between Veen and Torkelson, they’re better off taking Torkelson and paying him the amount he’s demanding.

Will Detroit Draft Veen?

A practicality argument would certainly arise from Torkelson’s possible time of arrival in Detroit being much more in sync with Detroit’s stable of other young prospects making the jump. Veen is likely three or four years away. It’s definitely a point against him.

With all this in mind, who will be the pick? The betting lines will say Torkelson. Common sense might say Torkelson. The Tigers usual mode of business likely dictates Torkelson. But we’ve seen surprises of picking a cheaper high school alternative two times in this decade. Don’t totally dismiss the possibility, however remote it may seem.

If Avila stuns everyone by picking Veen, it would be a pretty audacious move, but only if it can be followed up by subsequent choices that can be tied to the savings on Veen’s selection will it be a wise one. The 47-win Tigers organization needs an influx of premium talent on multiple levels, even if only provided by a 6-player draft class.

But make no mistake about a Veen/Torkelson twist, “Knives Out” will no longer be just a piece of pop culture. It will also describe the reaction of the media, Tigers fans who have been conditioned for months to expect Torkelson, and the ruffians found on some segments of Tigers Twitter just looking for a new nail to hang their hat on to excoriate Avila.