DETROIT -- The Tigers have one of the best rotations in the Majors, but their farm system doesn't have many pitchers who resemble those in the big leagues -- only three of MLB.com's top 20 Tigers prospects are starting pitchers.
So Detroit went after advanced pitching in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, ultimately taking 25 hurlers. The team's first seven picks were all collegiate pitchers, and the plan is to let nearly all of them begin as starters, even if they are still developing pitches.
"We added some experienced college pitching to the organization," said Tigers vice president of amateur scouting David Chadd. "I think right now if you evaluate our Minor League system, I do think that we have somewhat of a gap between upper level and lower level arms. And I think what we did in this Draft with this experienced college pitching should be able to absorb or help that."
With the 20th overall selection, the Tigers took University of Florida right-hander Jonathon Crawford, who throws a mid-90s fastball, a solid two-seamer and a late-breaking slider.
Crawford had mixed results this spring, with a 3.84 ERA, but he went 3-0 with a 2.10 ERA in six outings for Team USA last summer. Four of those appearances were against Cuba, including most of the lineup that the country took into the World Baseball Classic.
"That's what attracted us to Jonathon Crawford," Chadd said in a conference call on Friday morning. "When you [look at] the whole body of work, that helped us make our decision easier."
The team's second pick, and 39th overall, was Corey Knebel, a closer out of the University of Texas who will transition back to a starter and who has a mid-90s fastball that tops out at 98 mph. He also has a curveball, a slurve and a changeup.
"What we will do with Knebel, since he's closed his three years at Texas, we will probably just send him out to pitch the back end of the game for now," Chadd said. "And then look to lengthen him out [to a starter] in this offseason's instructional league."
Starters who can strike out a lot of hitters seem to be the theme in both the big leagues and in this year's Draft strategy. The scouting department also hopes that college pitchers will be able to rise through the ranks more quickly than high school prospects.
"When you're evaluating college pitchers," Chadd said, "one thing that jumps out at you is their ability to strike out college hitters."
The lack of hitters picked by the Tigers shows how comfortable they are with the position players in their farm system.
"We feel good about what we have at the lower levels and what we have coming," Chadd said. "I think it's fair to say we were looking for upper-level pitching depth we'd like to get in the system and get it going."
Detroit's second-round pick, left-hander Kevin Ziomek from Vanderbilt University, and third-round right-hander Jeff Thompson (Louisville) both have more than 100 strikeouts this season. The two are facing each other in the NCAA Super Regional, which also features the Tigers' seventh-round pick, outfielder Connor Harrell from Vanderbilt, and their 11th-round pick, Louisville right-hander Chad Green.
The Tigers also selected 11 players from the Southeastern Conference, including ninth-round right-hander Will LaMarche (LSU), whose fastball has topped out at 97 mph; 12th-round infielder Dominic Ficociello (Arkansas), who hit a team-high .355 before his numbers declined during his sophomore and junior seasons; and 15th-round pick Raphael Rhymes (LSU), who led the nation with a .431 batting average last year.
"It just seems like when you get to see them against the best competition, you get to see the best out of them and see what they are all about," said Scott Pleis, the Tigers' director of amateur scouting. "It's easy to take them out of there."
Detroit also drafted relatives of two current players -- outfielders Ben Verlander, brother of Justin (14th round), and Torii Hunter Jr. (36th). Verlander led Old Dominion University in slugging (.638), on-base percentage (.429) and stolen bases (13), and has a strong possibility of signing. Hunter, a top football recruit headed for Notre Dame, is unlikely to do so.
"It wasn't a courtesy to Justin," Chadd said. "We evaluated Ben, Ben was at our pre-Draft workout, and we saw him there. We stayed on him throughout the season, [and] he had a good year. We obviously think his tools bring something to the table for the organization, and that's where we felt comfortable taking him."
The Tigers faced some criticism for drafting hurlers that are still developing pitches, and may not end up as starters.
"I think it's really critical, to say negative things about anybody's Draft when these individuals haven't had a chance to go out and prove themselves," Chadd said. "Time will tell, we'll know in three to four years exactly how this draft turned out."
In the Pipeline
The Tigers are hoping to inject power pitching into their farm system. Although some scouts project many of the Tigers' selections as future relievers, all of the pitchers will have the opportunity to start. As an example, the team points to Drew Smyly, who transitioned into a reliable reliever at the Major League level after working as a starter prior to this season.
Crawford may become the Tigers' top pitching prospect, ahead of last year's top selection, Jake Thompson, having tossed a no-hitter at a NCAA Regional game last year and helping Team USA last summer. Scouts also like the team's fourth-round choice, Austin Kubitza from Rice University, who has two solid pitches. If he can develop a third pitch, he'll join Crawford as one of the team's top pitching prospects.
Bobby Nightengale is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less