In recent months, the Tigers organization has been hammered by analysts and pundits for how weak their farm system is. GM Dave Dombrowski got into a public spat with ESPN analyst Keith Law over the Tigers collective prospects being ranked dead last in MLB. Add that to long-held complaints about the Tigers draft classes, and there’s quite a bit of ammo for critics to complain about how the Tigers are stocking their cupboard. Despite the critics though, the Tigers talent acquisition approach and results continues to work just fine.
For starters, let’s remember the end goal. The goal is not to be ranked by the pundits (Scout and TigsTown, included) as having a great farm system. The farm system exists for a purpose – to help supply the big league club with talent. That, along with free agent acquisitions and trades is ultimately how you fill out your roster.
And the farm system continues to do that.
When it comes to the draft, analysts and observers have questioned some of the Tigers selections, in addition to their overall approach, especially since the rule changes that created bonus pools that teams had to adhere to, or face stiff penalties. The Tigers have frequently taken experienced college players that were claimed to have low ceilings, in addition to a large volume of arms that many scouts thought were destined for the bullpen.
But, the strategy continues to work, with highly regarded prospects finding success in the big leagues (for the Tigers or elsewhere), or at a minimum being key to big acquisitions for the team. As Chris Brown detailed in his overview of the Tigers drafts from last decade, the Tigers didn’t necessarily produce a ton of contributors, but they did produce a number of impact players, and further, helped aide the big league club through key trades.
Here’s just a handful of recent notables.
Nick Castellanos is the most recent everyday player that is currently on the team that came up through the Tigers farm system, but he’s not the only youngster that originated with the Tigers that is doing damage at the MLB level. Castellanos is now in his second year as the club’s everyday third baseman, and has showed improved defense while posting a .734 OPS.
Devon Travis, who was traded this past off-season for center fielder Anthony Gose, entered Sunday ranking 3rd in MLB with a .502 wOBA. Gose is producing for the Tigers though, with an .859 OPS as the most-days center fielder.
Finally, the Tigers closer Joakim Soria has been outstanding to start the year. Soria has allowed just two baserunners and is a perfect 6-for-6 on save opportunities. The Tigers got him for Jake Thompson, who emerged as consensus Top 100 prospect this off-season, and Corey Knebel, an ace relief prospect who is shining as the closer for the Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have focused much of their attention internationally on spreading the wealth and acquiring a number of talented but less heralded prospects. The Tigers director of international operations talked a lot about their acquisition strategy (which has gone counter to teams handing out big money deals) in a two part feature at TigsTown. You can read Moore’s thoughts here and here.
The Tigers have used their international talent in much the same way as the draft, supplementing big league call-ups with trades.
But one important thing to note about this philosophy; it frequently takes time for the talent to emerge, and when it does, it’s very short-lived between time as a prospect and emerging at the big league level. It’s the nature of the strategy – you invest a bit of money in a lot of players, and when one pays off, it happens fast.
Avisail Garcia was viewed as a talented project for many years. The Tigers signed him in 2007 for only $200,000, and then he spent five years as a player worth mentioning and then suddenly broke out. He went from someone worth watching to a Top 100 prospect who got a big league call-up, and was eventually traded for talented shortstop Jose Iglesias, when the need for a shortstop arose.
Willy Adames was signed in 2012, with a good sized bonus ($420,000) and also was a prospect to watch. He came stateside and his talent emerged quickly, going from someone outside the TigsTown Top 30 to a top ten prospect in the organization by midseason, and was another key part in the trade for Price.
The most recent example for Tigers fans is Angel Nesbitt. He was a right-hander signed out of Venezuela in 2009, and was relatively non-descript for his first five years with the organization. He never even ranked among the top 50 prospects in the organization prior to 2014. But then he started dealing for Lakeland in 2014, checked in among the Top 20 this off-season, and despite no room available, fought to win a spot in the big league bullpen.
All of these guys had less than a year of which they were highly regarded talents at the minor league level before their time as a Tigers prospect came to an end, and would have done little to help the perception of the farm system before that. And yet, all three helped provide value to the Tigers.
This is all to say that the Tigers might not take a traditional approach to building a pool of talent or stocking their farm system, but it remains effective for them. They continue to rely heavily on scouts that they trust to identify young up-and-coming talent internationally. And due to their big league success, haven’t had the chance to select elite college or high school talents often, so they've instead focused on specific types of talent that have paid off enough for it to be worth it.
It's an approach that hasn't impressed the pundits as of late, but is still service its purpose in keeping the Tigers competitive.