The 2004 draft was the final one for scouting director Greg Smith, but he left behind several nuggets that could help the Tigers in the near future. Holding the second pick in the draft, the Tigers had several candidates to take a look at. Jered Weaver and Stephen Drew were considered the top talents available, but both were represented by Scott Boras and carried prohibitive price tags, which made a lot teams wary, including the Tigers.
The Tigers mainly looked at pitchers with their selection and they certainly had no shortage of them to watch. Rice had a trio of power pitchers in Jeff Niemann, Phillip Humber, and Wade Townsend and the Tigers also heavily scouted Homer Bailey, the top prep pitcher in the country, but when it was all said and done, the Tigers tabbed right-hander Justin Verlander of Old Dominion with their pick.
Coming into the draft, Verlander had the best pure stuff of anyone in the country, reaching 99 with his fastball to go with a nasty curveball and a developing changeup. However, Verlander's junior season was his worst as a Monarch, as he went 7-6 with a 3.49 ERA. He was also more hittable than in his previous two years (90 hits allowed in 105 2/3 IP).
His status wasn't helped when a prolonged holdout caused the Tigers to withdraw their contract offer, but the Tigers were finally able to sign him when Verlander's father intervened and helped negotiate a major league contract worth a guaranteed $4.5 million and could be as much as $5.6 million.
Verlander signed too late to participate in instructional ball, but Verlander would do more than make up for lost time when he made his pro debut in 2005. Verlander started at Lakeland and blew away the Florida State League, going 9-2 with a 1.67 ERA in 13 starts. Command, which had been an issue at ODU, was not at Lakeland, as he issued just 19 walks in 86 innings. He fanned 104 batters and was the second-ranked prospect in the league by Baseball America.
Verlander didn't slow down after being promoted to Erie, where he posted a 0.28 ERA in seven starts. He allowed a scant 11 hits in 32 1/3 innings and he added 32 more strikeouts. His performance in the minors earned him a trip to the Futures Game at Comerica Park and Verlander capped his season by making a pair of starts in the big leagues.
Verlander's season was cut short with a tired arm, but he was back pitching in instructional ball and should compete for a spot in the rotation next spring.
Verlander exceeded all expectations last year by reaching the majors less than a year after he signed and the Tigers could have a potentially dominant rotation with Jeremy Bonderman and Joel Zumaya in the very near future.
Jason Avery covers the draft and all amateur baseball topics for TigsTown.com. He can be reached at Jason@TigsTown.com.