It’s no secret that the Tigers have not had the strongest farm system in recent years. Some of that has been the result of big league success, putting the Tigers at the back of the MLB draft order for a number of years. Some has been the result of a focus on using trades to add talent at the big league level, trading a bevy of prospects for reinforcements. And some has been the result of financial investment, as the Tigers have over the last five years stopped handing large bonuses to key prospects, likely redirecting that money to the current roster and spreading their allocated bonus pool around to many potential players.
But this post isn’t about why the Tigers are where they are. That’s water under the bridge. This post is about where things currently stand, and what the path looks like moving forward.
When the Top 50 is released, it will be littered with players recently added to the organization. Among those acquired at the deadline, four will be ranked in the top 15 (the other two, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd, are good young talents, but no longer eligible for rookie/prospect status). Add on the fact that four more players in that range were drafted last summer, and the Tigers have basically injected an entire new top ten into the organization since Opening Day last year.
That’s a great sign for a system in desperate need of an infusion of talent. However, it’s also indicative of how much work needs to be done.
Even with those additions, the overall system is still not in great shape, and in many ways, those talent additions just help to replenish what the Tigers had traded away over the prior 18 months in continuing to prop up the big league roster. Players like Willy Adames and Jake Thompson are top 100 caliber players that now live in other farm systems, in addition to other valuable commodities traded away like Jonathon Crawford and Domingo Leyba.
As it stands, the Tigers farm system likely still resides in the bottom third of MLB, and the back half of the top 50 remains littered with players that either have limited upside or are many years away from contributing with extreme risk. Both types wouldn’t find themselves in a similar position in many other systems.
In addition, the system is lacking in elite talent at the top as well. Only one player is likely a lock for the Top 100. Scanning the top ten, it’s hard to find many players that are surefire starters or potential All-Stars.
Given the Tigers current position, having so much money invested in a handful of players, they are going to need cost effective talent to fill holes and create some balance on their roster in future years. How can they go about acquiring that talent? Well, there are a couple ways, one of which they’ve already started on, but it’s going to take time.
The first is to find more under-the-radar talent, and the Tigers have made a couple of key investments to their front office to boost their ability to do just that.
One area where the Tigers have made some additional investments is in their analytics and baseball operations team. They hired Jay Sartori as the team’s senior director of baseball operations and analytics, and hired former Baseball Prospectus writer Andrew Koo as an analyst for the club, while adding Chris Long as a consultant. That’s some significant investment to an area where the club was under-staffed, with just long-time analyst (now Director) Sam Menzin previously handling the responsibilities. This additional firepower should allow the club to use the massive amount of information that is being generated from amateur ball to uncover more targets.
Another area where the Tigers also made some additional hires was in their amateur scouting department, where they added seven scouts, including Steve Hinton as national crosschecker, and former minor league players Justin Henry and Jeff Kunkel as area scouts. Amateur scouting is an inexact science, and there are lots of players out there, so additional investment in finding talent can go a long way.
However, in addition to making investments to identify talent that can be had in later rounds of the draft, the Tigers will need to seriously contemplate how they spend money in pursuing talent. Since the implementation of bonus pools for both the draft and international scouting, the Tigers have been willing to follow those rules. Unfortunately that has resulted in potential talent that comes with a high price tag being avoided by the Tigers.
A few million on an unknown is a risk, but the Tigers are about to spend $16 million over the next two years on a back of the rotation starting pitcher that will likely be worth a few wins over that period of time. Providing reinforcements at the big league level is obviously paramount for a team that is in win-now mode, but the Tigers need to put themselves in a position where such expenditure isn’t needed because they have young talent that they can count on to fill those spots. And to have that in 2020, the Tigers will need to start acting in 2016. That may mean making some sacrifices in foregoing future draft picks, or paying financial penalties, but that’s a price the Tigers need to be willing to pay.
All of this must happen in addition to developing that talent once it’s brought in. And in that regard, the Tigers have doubled down on their prior staff, led by player development director Dave Owen.
Avila has a lot on his plate as he tries to retool a club that still has big league stars and wants to win a World Series next season. But he also must be mindful about the future, and start constructing a farm system that can be relied upon to supplement the big league club, and not force the team to trade for or spend free agent money on it. And that work needs to start this year.