What Al Avila’s five drafts tell us about the future of the Detroit Tigers.
Barring any stunning developments over the next five weeks, it seems likely the Detroit Tigers are content to go through at least one more season of bad baseball to secure another high draft pick. So now seems like a good time to check in on the progress of this draft-reliant rebuild.
To do this we’ll look at how Detroit’s drafts over the past five years compare to every other team in the following categories: total number of first-round picks, average first pick, total number of picks in the first five rounds, total number of big leaguers, WAR accumulated, and number of top-100 prospects according to either Baseball America or MLB Pipeline.
Here is how the Detroit Tigers rank:
We could present the rest of this data in a series of big, unwieldy tables, but it’s probably best to just break it down with text. So let’s do that.
Detroit Tigers Draft Numbers
This exercise is a bit difficult because of the disparity in total draft picks for teams. The table above shows the Detroit Tigers with five first-round draft picks over the past five years. That would figure to be an average number of first rounders, but it actually places the Tigers near the bottom, in a six-way tie for 22nd.
That’s because MLB teams can get more draft picks as compensation for losing players in free agency, or by being one of the bottom 10 teams in either revenue or market size. The Tigers haven’t lost a big free agent since Max Scherzer in 2015, and they didn’t qualify for competitive balance picks until last year.
Meanwhile, the Arizona Diamondbacks, Pittsburgh Pirates, and San Diego Padres have each landed 9 first-round picks in the last five years, and the Tampa Bay Rays had a whopping 11. On the other end of the spectrum are the Houston Astros, San Francisco Giants, and Boston Red Sox, who all had just 4 first-rounders.
Teams can also gain or lose picks in subsequent rounds. The Tigers lost their second and third rounders in 2016 after signing Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton, but they gained an extra 2nd-round pick last year. Overall, since 2016 the Tigers rank near the bottom of the league with 24 total picks in the first five rounds, while the Rays lead with 33, and the Phillies bring up the rear with just 21.
It’s clear the Detroit Tigers and Al Avila, through choice and circumstance, were mildly hamstrung in the draft, but that doesn’t tell the whole story…
Detroit Tigers Draft Position
Talented baseball players can come from anywhere in the draft — the 2016 Hall of Fame class saw the election of the first overall pick in 1987, Ken Griffey Jr., as well as Mike Piazza, who was taken in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft.
But everyone knows picking higher in the draft is better. The Detroit Tigers have been pretty bad at baseball lately, but one upside of that is high draft picks. Detroit’s average first pick in the draft over the past five seasons (6.8) is the 3rd lowest in baseball, behind only the San Diego Padres (6.4) and the Cincinnati Reds (5.8).
The Detroit Tigers have picked 1st, 5th, and 1st in the draft the past three years, and they pick 3rd in 2021. If they are bad again this season, which seems probable, they could become just the fourth non-expansion franchise to have top-5 picks in five consecutive drafts.
Picking that high doesn’t completely make up for the lower number of total picks, but it does significantly increase a team’s chances of landing impact talent. And to Al Avila’s credit, the Tigers appear to have done quite well with their high picks.
The Tigers are tied with the Padres and Twins for the most drafted players (5) landing on either the Baseball America or MLB Pipeline top-100 lists. In fact, all five of Detroit’s prospects ranked within the top 31 on Baseball America’s list, a feat no team has accomplished since the Kansas City Royals did it in 2011.
Other teams have more total top-100 prospects because they’ve done much better in trades or on the international market, but in terms of drafting prospects, no one has outdone the Detroit Tigers over the past five years. But once again, that doesn’t tell the whole story…
Detroit Tigers Draft Picks and MLB Success
It’s fun to have draft picks and make a splash with prospects, but the ultimate goal is to get good players to the big leagues and win games. There are a handful of other teams who could have landed five or more drafted prospects on top-100 lists, but they were busy trying to win.
Now, simply getting draft picks to the majors isn’t necessarily a sign of strong drafting. For example, the Washington Nationals lead all of baseball with 12 MLB players from the past five drafts, but those 12 have combined to produce -0.7 WAR. The Orioles and Reds have both seen just two draft picks reach the majors, but both teams have gotten positive WAR from their smaller hauls.
The Detroit Tigers fall right in the middle, with 5 players reaching the majors — Kyle Funkhouser, Bryan Garcia, Casey Mize, John Schreiber, and Tarik Skubal. But of those five, only Garcia has posted a positive WAR, and their combined WAR of -1.6 is the second worst in baseball.
Only the Houston Astros have gotten less value from their draft picks over the past five years, with -2.5 WAR coming from six players. But that isn’t quite accurate, because Houston traded three of those players — Jake Rogers (-0.5 WAR), Corbin Martin (-0.2), and Josh Rojas (-0.5) — to help land Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke. Knowing when to trade your prospects is a skill.
A handful of teams have managed to get excellent production over the last five years. Cleveland leads them all with 15.2 WAR, thanks mostly to a 2016 draft that saw them land Shane Bieber, Aaron Civale, and Zach Plesac. The Cardinals (14.1), Dodgers (9.9), and Blue Jays (8.8) aren’t too far behind.
Obviously all these numbers will change drastically as more players reach the big leagues over the next few seasons. For now, Detroit Tigers fans are right to feel optimistic about their future, as Al Avila and his staff have done a good job when it comes to drafting highly ranked prospects.
But prospect rankings ultimately mean very little, and fans won’t just sit and watch their team lose 100 games year after year. Soon these prospects will need to start providing much more value at the MLB level, because the Detroit Tigers have to make up an awful lot of ground.