Unlike 2009 and the years prior, the Tigers will not have the luxury of going grossly over MLB's slot recommendation to sign a top talent that falls in the draft. Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, MLB's slot recommendations are now backed by definitive bonus pools and harsh penalties for exceeding MLB's guidelines. This year, with picks in every round and a competitive balance pick (39th overall) in the supplemental first round, the Tigers will have $6,467,400 to spend on players receiving a signing bonus over $100,000.
With a farm system that has been criticized for a lack of impact talent as well as a lack of overall depth, the Tigers will be looking for a much-needed infusion of talent with this year's draft class. As the draft approaches, rumors have intensified that the Tigers will be looking for college talent with their first round pick, and would ultimately like to pop a college pitcher that could move quickly through the system.
Barring an unexpected talent like Hunter Renfroe, Ryne Stanek or D.J. Peterson falling to the Tigers, their top target appears to be Oral Roberts right-hander Alex Gonzalez. With a projectable 6-foot-3, 200 pound frame, Gonzalez can pump fastballs in the low-90s, touching 95 mph on occasion. His fastball shows both cutting and sinking action at times and his slider can be a swing-and-miss pitch. If it all comes together, including his command and his changeup, Gonzalez could be a quality number three starter.
If, as many pundits expect, Gonzalez is off the board at 1-20, the Tigers will likely turn their attention to Florida right-hander Jonathon Crawford, San Francisco right-hander Alex Balog, Fresno State outfielder Aaron Judge and East Central Community College shortstop Tim Anderson.
Like Gonzalez, Crawford offers a power arm and the potential for a quality slider. He has been a member of Florida's weekend rotation for two years, showing scouts excellent competitiveness and stuff. Crawford has some effort in his delivery but he shows intermittent ability to command his fastball, giving some hope that it may all come together for him.
Balog fits the Tigers classic pitcher profile with a 6-foot-5, 210 pound frame and a fastball that sits in the low-90s and regularly touches 96 mph. His stock has been on the rise as his performance has improved this spring and while he seems a bit off the radar, he could be an intriguing option for the Tigers if their other targets are off the board.
Outfielder Aaron Judge is a polarizing prospect in the scouting community, owning a magnificent frame and exceptional athleticism. His raw power reaches the 70-grade level for some scouts and he has the potential to pop 30-home runs a year if he can make enough contact. There are open questions about his hitting ability and he may never be more than a .250-.260 hitter with bunches of strikeouts. Judge's power is rare in today's game and even with the risks associated with the rest of his profile that could be enough for the Tigers to pull the trigger.
The last of the prospects routinely tied to the Tigers is JUCO shortstop Tim Anderson. Anderson has true shortstop actions and an above-average to plus arm that hint at his ability to stick at the position long term. Given the Tigers (justifiable) infatuation with players that can play shortstop at the pro level, Anderson's defensive skills stand out in this draft class. Anderson is a plus-plus runner that has some thump in his stroke as well, giving him a chance to be an all-around player if he hits against premium competition.
Other rumors have had the Tigers tied loosely to Stanford outfielder Austin Wilson, Kentucky prep left-hander Hunter Green, and Gonzaga left-hander Marco Gonzalez. Rumors surrounding these players have been few and far between but they are worth noting in a weak draft that could see players popped in any order.
The Tigers are no stranger to selecting a player a round or two earlier than projected just to make sure they get their guy, and there is an outside shot that could happen in the first round this year. The Tigers have long held a deep affection for Minnesota high school outfielder Ryan Boldt. Considered one of the top outfielders in the draft and an easy first-round pick entering the spring, Boldt suffered a torn meniscus in April and has not taken the field since undergoing surgery. Because of the inability to scout him this spring, most clubs have Boldt pegged for the supplemental round gamble but the Tigers may not be willing to wait until the 39th pick and could aggressively pull the trigger at 1-20.
All told, if the draft unfolds the way it is currently projected, expect the Tigers to pop a college player like Gonzalez, Crawford or Judge with their first pick. The Tigers have not shown a propensity for going "cheap" early and then spending big later and it would be difficult to expect the club to adopt such a strategy in such a weak draft where impact talent worth paying a premium for will be limited outside of the first 30 picks.
The Tigers may adopt a strategy similar to last year, sticking reasonably close to MLB's slot recommendations through the first five or six rounds before popping a couple players like Jeff McVaney ($35,000) and Charlie Gillies ($15,000) in rounds eight through ten. Such a strategy would allow the club to save a little money for over-slot signings like Devon Travis and Logan Ehlers later in the draft.
In what should be an exciting time for Tigers fans as the club finally returns to the first round, they are unfortunately met by the reality of a very weak draft class and the Tigers in need of fast-moving prospects to fill some of the gaping holes in their system. The Tigers will find talent in this draft, but much of it will likely be quality college talent that can fill the gap between the low minors and Triple-A very quickly.