After posting a 47-114 record in 2019, the Detroit Tigers have the (dis)honor of picking first overall in the MLB Draft for the second time in three years. With a very talented class of players set to highlight this year’s first round, the Tigers have a chance to add a transformative prospect — a massive opportunity for an organization that has seemed to be stuck in neutral (or, perhaps more accurately, reverse) since breaking up a talented veteran core that included players like Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler, and Justin Upton, all while seeing future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera regress much more quickly than anticipated. Therefore, this opportunity to inject some life back into their organization isn’t one that should be taken lightly.
Except in extremely rare cases — perhaps if a team has a young star catcher and there’s a close-to-ready college catcher projected to go first overall — positional need or lack thereof should not be a consideration for MLB teams in the first round. The catcher scenario won’t apply to the Tigers this year, and in all honesty they’re so devoid of elite young talent that they should unquestionably take the best player available. But if for some reason they have equal evaluations on a position player and pitcher at the top of their draft board, they’d probably be better-served to get a hitter at this stage. After all, three of their top four prospects — all of whom rank within MLB Pipeline’s top 50 prospects in baseball — are starting pitchers, so it’s likely that their rotation will be good again before their lineup is.
Here are the realistic candidates to be selected first overall by the Tigers, listed in order of the likelihood they’ll be taken from most to least:
Spencer Torkelson, 1B/OF, Arizona State
It’s still certainly possible that things could change in advance of next month’s draft, but right now there seems to be a pretty strong consensus among experts that Torkelson will be taken first overall. The right-handed hitting first baseman has raked throughout his career at Arizona State, hitting .337/.463/.729 with 54 homers in two full seasons and a small chunk of a third with the Sun Devils. He further established his dominance in the Cape Cod League, and he’s widely regarded as the best power hitter in this draft. While he’s an opposite-handed hitter, just imagine how quickly Kyle Schwarber made an impact with the Cubs after being taken fourth overall in 2014, and imagine Torkelson having the same meteoric rise.
If Torkelson does indeed end up being taken first overall, it should be interesting to see what position Detroit sticks him at. They’ve had a massive hole at first base ever since Cabrera suffered a season-ending injury in 2018 and subsequently transitioned to the DH role, so Torkelson would be able to fill that spot rather quickly. With that said, most teams don’t value the first base position very highly these days — consider that Cody Bellinger was widely regarded as a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman, and yet the Dodgers still chose to move him to the outfield at the major-league level — so it’s certainly possible that the Tigers would try to make him a corner outfielder. After all, he’s a little bit shorter than your average first baseman at a listed 6-foot-1.
Austin Martin, OF/3B, Vanderbilt
When you’re a fan of a team picking first overall, it’s perhaps not ideal to hear that one of the players your team is considering compares most closely to a ninth-round pick who didn’t make his major-league debut until he was 27 years old. And yet, Martin’s style bears a striking resemblance to that of a player who has frequently stuck a thorn in the side of the Tigers over the last few years: Royals utility player Whit Merrifield, who has led the majors in hits for the last two years, led MLB in triples in 2019, led the AL in stolen bases in 2017-18, and has played six different positions at the big-league level.
The 21-year-old Martin has seen action at every infield position plus left field and center field during his Vanderbilt career, and it’s definitely possible that he could hold down a premium position like shortstop or center field in the majors. And if he’s capable of moving all around the field and providing his manager with virtually unlimited lineup flexibility, there’s no telling how valuable he could be to the team that drafts him.
Martin isn’t much of a power hitter right now, but he’s an elite contact hitter and on-base threat, hitting .368/.474/.532 in two-plus seasons with the Commodores. He hit 14 home runs, though 10 of them came during his sophomore season. He really does have the ability to make a Merrifield-like impact on the basepaths in the big leagues, too, as he stole 43 bases during his college career. Unlike Torkelson, Martin’s skill set doesn’t bear a whole lot of resemblance to those of sluggers like Cody Bellinger, Mike Trout, Nolan Arenado, and Pete Alonso who are most frequently thought of as the league’s most transformative players right now. But if he can carry a team the way similar players like Merrifield, Jeff McNeil, and DJ LeMahieu did last season, he’ll be just fine, and he’ll be more than worthy of the first overall selection.
Asa Lacy, LHP, Texas A&M
The Tigers probably aren’t going to pick a pitcher first overall in this year’s draft, but how cool would it be if they selected Lacy — a college lefty whose skill set compares most favorably to those of Chris Sale and Madison Bumgarner — to join top-50 pitching prospects Casey Mize (the No. 1 pick in 2018), Matt Manning, and Tarik Skubal? In an era where there’s widespread organizational preference for developing difference-making hitters more than impact pitchers, it’d be refreshing to see an organization go old-school (relatively speaking) and put emphasis on building a dominant homegrown rotation. Then again, maybe the franchise that couldn’t win a World Series with Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, David Price, Aníbal Sánchez, and Rick Porcello in its rotation should try something different.
Lacy was spectacular over two-plus seasons at A&M, posting a 2.61 ERA with 224 strikeouts and 68 walks through 152 innings. Lacy still has a ways to go in developing his command — perhaps not the most encouraging quality for a college lefty who will be 21 by the time he’s drafted — but his velocity and deceptive delivery angle are obviously intriguing.