Draft previews for the Tigers have been difficult in recent years because the team has had precious few first round picks, leaving few opportunities for analysts and fans to try and figure out what the club might do early in the draft. This year, the Tigers select 23rd overall in the first round, a range they have grown accustomed to since embarking on their new winning ways in 2006.
As in past year, the Tigers are most frequently tied to college players, and mostly pitchers at that. Up until just days ago, the club was most consistently tied closely to Louisville closer Nick Burdi who can pump mid-90s heat and reach triple digits, with a devastating slider. Burdi projects as a fast moving reliever that should require minimal minor league time before logging high leverage innings in the big leagues.
After becoming the Tigers consensus target over the last few weeks, Burdi struggled as the college postseason gained steam. Whether that was the reason or the early rumors were overblown, TigsTown has confirmed that the Tigers appear locked in on another high-powered right-hander with the 23rd pick.
Barring an unlikely scenario that sees Virginia right-hander Nick Howard come off the board in the middle of the first round, the Tigers appear locked in and prepared to pop the 6-foot-3, 215 pound UVA closer. Howard can sit 94-95 and touch 97 in short stints, and his slider can play as a plus pitch, allowing him to miss bats and close out games. Though he doesn't project to move as quickly as Burdi, Howard could still reach the big leagues before the end of the 2015 season and could be on a track that mirrors 2013 supplemental first round pick Corey Knebel.
Should Howard come off the board, or if the Tigers are successfully employing a bit of a smoke screen, there are a variety of directions that could be available to them. Staying with pitching, which has long been their focus early in the draft, the Tigers would be pleased to see either UNLV right-hander Erick Fedde or Vanderbilt right-hander Tyler Beede sitting there when they pick.
Fedde is currently recovering from Tommy John surgery and would not be on the board if the injury was not in play. When healthy, he has the potential for a three-pitch mix, including a knockout slider that could help make him a mid-rotation starter. Most indications from the industry point to Fedde coming off the board to either Toronto or Kansas City earlier in the round, as both could get aggressive with multiple early picks.
Beede was a first-round pick of the Blue Jays out of a Massachusetts high school, but chose not to sign and entered the 2014 college season as a potential top five pick. His struggles this spring have drawn concern from talent evaluators, but it would still be a shock if a potential front of the rotation arm like Beede falls too far on draft day.
I don't expect either Fedde or Beede to be around when the Tigers select at 23, but if they are, their decisions could become more complicated.
Texas Christian left-hander Brandon Finnegan is another arm that has intrigued the Tigers this spring. Despite a smaller frame (5-11, 185), Finnegan sits in the low-90s with his fastball and has reached 96-97 mph at times throughout the spring; giving him the power arm the Tigers covet. Finnegan's slider and changeup are both big-league quality pitches, but there are scouts that believe he could still end up in relief long term.
In what would be a surprising, and likely disappointing pick to many, Cal Poly left-hander Matt Imhof is a name that shouldn't be ignored with the Tigers late in the first round. Multiple sources have indicated that the Tigers are very intrigued by the 6-foot-5, 220 pound lefty, and though he fits best in the second to third round range, he may not be there when the Tigers pick again with the 63rd overall pick. Selecting Imhof would be quite a shocker in the late first round, but should the Tigers draft board be in shambles and their primary targets all gone, he could be an option that resembles "break glass in case of emergency." If Imhof is there in the second round when the Tigers are on the clock for the second time this year, he could be a guy to watch.
In terms of position players, the Tigers have been linked to several players, but none as seriously as the arms listed above. With the Tigers propensity for digging into the Southeastern Conference for talent in recent years, Kentucky first baseman A.J. Reed is a natural fit with the club. One of the premier power hitters in this year's draft, Reed has 25-home run potential but lacks the bat speed that scouts look for in an impact bat. Despite hitting from the opposite side, Reed's profile is not that dissimilar to former Tigers prospect Ryan Strieby, who used a long, slower swing and excellent raw strength to power the ball out of the park, but lacked the bat speed to hit quality pro stuff.
Not unlike Reed, Wichita State first baseman Casey Gillaspie is another strength-based power hitter with questions about how much his overall offensive profile will play at the professional level. Gillaspie has the collegiate performance to warrant an early pick and the Tigers have been on him consistently this spring, but in my opinion, all of the aforementioned arms and Reed would have to be off the board for the Tigers to go in this direction.
A late entrant into the Tigers draft derby has been Stanford third baseman Alex Blandino, who has been connected with the Tigers with greater frequency over the last few days. Blandino has been consistently moving up draft boards over the last few weeks, and he could land in the late first round. Blandino is an excellent defender at third base and is capable of playing second base as well. He is a consistent hitter with a track record using wood bats, and success in the Cape Cod League; something the Tigers have historically valued highly. With questions surrounding Nick Castellanos' long-term future at third base, and Blandino's potential to move quickly through the minor leagues and provide above-average production on both sides of the ball, he could be a dark horse for the Tigers in the first round.
All told, while the Tigers appear to be heavily tied to Virginia reliever Nick Howard, there are still other players significantly in play with the 23rd pick; including right-hander Nick Burdi, left-hander Brandon Finnegan, and third baseman Alex Blandino. Regardless of how the pick plays out, the Tigers have been almost exclusively tied to college players as the draft approaches, and they are expected to stick with a more experienced player that can likely move quickly to the upper levels of their thin minor league system.