Resurrecting the System - What's Next?

The big league club is winning; the minor league system is coming off a 2005 season where it led baseball in total winning percentage; and yet there are still huge amounts of work to be done. How is that possible? It doesn't seem right that an organization with the best record in baseball, an organization that just graduated three impact prospects to the Major Leagues, can still have work to do. So, what exactly is it that the Tigers need to do?

The Tigers, led by Dave Dombrowski, have made strides towards rebuilding a minor league system so bereft of talent that it was nauseating when he took over five years ago. Dombrowski initially dealt some of the few marketable commodities he had for some young talent, and began revamping the organizational philosophies on talent evaluation. The early returns on his efforts include the maturation of Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya, Chris Shelton, and Curtis Granderson into young, productive Major Leaguers.

Dombrowski went one step further in the fall of '04 when he brought in David Chadd to lead the scouting department and attempt to put those organizational philosophies in place when it came to amateur talent acquisition. Judging by the early returns of Chadd's first year and a half in charge, this was yet another positive move in contributing to the development of the organization as a whole.

This all still begs the question; what's next? What does this organization have to do in order to remain competitive beyond the immediate future? The simple answer involves one indisputable fact. It all starts at the bottom.

With the graduation of the aforementioned four players to the big leagues, the Tigers system has only one true impact player; uber-prospect Cameron Maybin. While having a wealth of elite or impact prospects is rare for any team, having only one of these types is not a recipe for long term success.

Dombrowski and Chadd have done a fine job of stocking the system with solid (if unspectacular) prospects, many of whom have limited ceilings or significant flaws. As recently as 2003, the Tigers system could not even boast the presence of solid prospects, a major problem that has since been improved upon dramatically.

The front office accepted the challenge of making immediate changes, focusing multiple drafts on polished players that could fill holes and balance the minor league system. With that goal nearly accomplished, the front office must now accept a different and much more difficult challenge. That challenge is creating an influx of impact potential that can help maintain the Tigers recent success as age, injury, and free agency take their inevitable toll.

Now that we have defined what comes next, we must face the more problematic question; what is the next step Dombrowski and Chadd must take? The question seems overwhelming on the surface, but in reality, the groundwork is already in place. The Tigers have begun slowly revamping the scouting department, have started development facilities in both the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, and they have begun valuing baseball skills instead of solely relying on raw athleticism.

Focusing on finding and investing in top Latin talent, as well as taking calculated gambles during the draft will be essential to creating the influx of impact talent the organization will need to succeed.

The Tigers absolutely must begin making serious bids for the top Latin American youngsters. The establishment of a joint development facility with the Yankees in the Dominican Republic, and a similar facility with the Marlins in Venezuela, is a step towards making those investments possible. An additional investment in expanding their world-wide scouting efforts would increase their success significantly.

Taking calculated risks throughout the draft will also help the organization increase the influx of high-ceiling players. In every draft, there are players with supposedly strong commitments to various college programs; but in the game of baseball, money talks. If the Tigers can buy some of these talented players out of their college commitments, it can mean the equivalent of multiple picks in the higher rounds of the draft.

Last summer saw the Tigers draft Zach Putnam and David Adams in the late rounds, with hopes that they may opt to take the bonus money instead of starting their collegiate careers. In the end, the Tigers didn't up the ante enough for them to jump aboard, but the move was still a sound gamble. If the organizational budget has the ceiling to allow for such signings, the system would benefit immensely.

There are certainly other methods the Tigers may use to improve the quantity of top flight players within the system, but increasing Latin development and investment, and taking risks on high-ceiling talents in the late rounds are quite possibly the most basic avenues.

The Tigers are one of the shining success stories so far this season, and for that success to manifest itself over the long haul (meaning the next 5-10 years), the amount of impact talent available to the big league club must increase. The coming couple of months could be very telling as to whether the organization has accepted the challenges outlined here.

Pay attention to the direction the Tigers take in next months draft, as well as for any new young stars the Tigers bring stateside from Latin America. The Tigers have the building blocks to become a perennial contender, now they must maintain that foundation and take the appropriate next steps to ensure they have the talent to pull from to continue building.

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