On the morning of Nov. 12, Baseball America named Devon Travis the top prospect in the Detroit Tigers farm system. That evening, he was traded to Toronto.
“Very fitting,” laughed Baseball America’s Ben Badler, who put together the rankings. “They’ve traded so many prospects over the years.”
In 14 seasons under president/CEO/GM Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers showed some clear differences between how they scouted for the draft and operated and utilized their farm system and how the Red Sox did the same. The distinctions merit examination at a time when Dombrowski transitions from an organization that often is considered to have one of the worst farm systems to an organization that possesses one of the best in terms of industry prospect valuation.
A few reasons explain why the Tigers farm system built under Dombrowski was pegged regularly as one of the weakest in the game. Among them: perennial playoff contention that led to low draft positions; sacrificing first-round picks to sign free agents; a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that has limited the ability to spend aggressively on draftees who slip due to signability (something that wasn’t a problem when they drafted Andrew Miller and Rick Porcello); and, perhaps most notably, a willingness to trade top prospects such Travis to address major league needs.
Dombrowski kept the homegrown prospects who made the biggest impact in the big leagues (Justin Verlander, Curtis Granderson, Porcello, Alex Avila) and traded aggressively from the remaining pool of minor leaguers, stripping the farm system and knocking it down in the overall ratings. But virtually none of the traded players has come back to haunt Detroit, and they’ve helped to deliver considerable upgrades to Detroit’s big league roster — most notably obtaining Miguel Cabrera from Florida for Cameron Maybin and Miller, among others.
“We’ve never ranked their farm system very highly in the last few years, but it’s a combination of them not having top draft picks and then trading away a lot of the pretty good players that they have drafted — and trading them away at the right time, at the peak of their value,” said Badler. “No GM is going to have a perfect track record, but [Dombrowski] has one of the best track records in terms of identifying and projecting the major league talent from other teams and really knowing the value of the prospects in his own organization.
“They’ve done an outstanding job if you look at the track record of selling high at the right time, getting major league guys, and not having guys come back to bite them.”
Dombrowski insists that he isn’t anxious to start trading the Red Sox’ prized prospects. He suggested that he had a win-now/mortgage-the-future mandate in Detroit. Sox owners, on the other hand, have articulated a desire to create a sustainable model of success, which requires significant contributions from a young, homegrown core.
“We had the pedal to the metal to try to win a world championship [in Detroit] and unfortunately we fell short of that,” said Dombrowski. “And we traded a lot of good young talent at that time. We just recently replenished it a little bit [by trading David Price and Yoenis Cespedes at this year’s deadline]. But ideally your farm system, if you can bring up your own homegrown players, it’s that much better.”
A couple facets of the Tigers’ scouting efforts and minor league system are noteworthy. In terms of scouting, Dombrowski and longtime scouting director David Chadd used many of their early picks on power arms — 11 of the 16 first-round picks under Dombrowski were pitchers, seven from college, four from high school. That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.
“If you [asked] me what would I love, I would love to have power pitching — I love power pitching overall,” Dombrowski said immediately when asked about his team-building philosophy.
Under Dombrowski, the Tigers also showed a striking willingness to put prospects on the sort of fast track that few other organizations embrace.
Take Daniel Fields, who made his major league debut this year. Fields was taken in the sixth round of the 2009 draft out of high school. The typical progression would have had him in either a short-season league or, in rare instances, full-season Single A in 2010. The Tigers had him make his full-season debut in the high Single A Florida State League in 2010.
“Almost no one is in the Florida State League as a 19-year-old out of high school,” said Badler. “This is definitely a team that’s not afraid to push guys up the ladder.”
There are even more extreme examples. In 2003, the Tigers put Jeremy Bonderman — a 20-year-old who had spent his one pro season in High A — in their big league rotation. Porcello went from his pro debut in High A in 2008 straight to Detroit’s big league rotation in 2009. Jacob Turner blitzed from high school to the big leagues to make three starts as a 20-year-old. Detroit, in fact, is the only team in the majors that had three pitchers go from the draft to the big league rotation during Dombrowski’s tenure there. Verlander, at 22, made 20 minor league starts — 13 in High A, seven in Double A — before joining the Detroit rotation in late 2005.
The Sox, by contrast, haven’t had a player go from the draft to a big league start at age 20 since Jeff Suppan in 1995. The fastest that a Sox starting pitcher has gone from the draft to the big leagues in recent years came when Justin Masterson — drafted out of college — reached the big leagues in early 2008, after little more than 200 minor league innings.
It remains to be seen whether Dombrowski alters the model of the club he is inheriting, potentially entrusting jetpacks and skates to some of the younger pitching talents in the system. But, at a time when the Red Sox have made changes to their baseball operations department masthead, it is unavoidable that something else will change — the Red Sox’ way of doing things, or Dombrowski’s modus operandi with Detroit, or perhaps both.
Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.