DETROIT -- A highly rated pitcher named Weaver. A couple of hard-throwing pitchers from Rice. Is this the 2004 First-Year Player Draft or a Tigers draft reunion?
The reward in last year's 119 losses comes on June 7. The bad news is that thanks to the rule that alternates the top pick between leagues, the worst season in AL history earned the Tigers just the second pick behind the Padres, who finished 21 games ahead of Detroit last year.
The good news is that there isn't necessarily a superstar in the making whom the Tigers will miss.
"Unlike last year, I don't think the top of this group has necessarily separated itself," said scouting director Greg Smith. "I don't think there's a lot of separation. If you took a poll of the clubs picking in the top five or six of this year's draft, we're talking about the same group of players, but the difference isn't as much. Last year there were some clear-cut guys."
That's not to suggest that there isn't top-level talent. Right-hander Jered Weaver, from Long Beach State, is having the most heralded season by a big-time college pitcher since Mark Prior. Baseball fans around Detroit have heard about Weaver as much because of big brother and ex-Tiger Jeff as because of the Tigers' draft position.
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Despite the elder Weaver's trade out of Detroit two years ago, Smith said, the club has a very good relationship with the family. But it might not matter either way.
Depending on the story, Weaver is either already the Padres' choice or at least has an edge over Rice right-hander Jeff Niemann and Florida State shortstop Stephen Drew, pending agent Scott Boras' contract demands.
Yet even if San Diego passes on Weaver, that doesn't guarantee the Tigers will grab him.
Amid all the comparisons between Weaver and Prior lies the opinion that Weaver doesn't have Prior's pitch quality. Though Weaver's fastball reportedly reaches 95 mph, he usually works between 88 and 92. That's fast enough to star in the big leagues, but the draft history of Dave Dombrowski-run organizations favors the hard throwers at the top if given the choice.
Past five No. 1 picks
2003 Kyle Sleeth, P
2002 Scott Moore, IF
2001 Kenny Baugh, P
2000 Matt Wheatland, P
1999 Eric Munson, C
Though Smith wouldn't define the strategy, he defined the goal. "We're trying to draft and develop a top-of-the-rotation type guy," he said.
While the Padres consider three guys, Smith said the Tigers have a list of four or five. It's believed to include Weaver, Niemann, Drew, Rice teammate Philip Humber and either Old Dominion right-hander Justin Verlander or hard-throwing Texas high schooler Homer Bailey. Detroit hasn't ruled out a position player, namely Drew, but several pitchers would likely have to fall out of favor to sway Detroit from their fourth first-round pitcher in five years.
Given the strength of pitching -- and relative dearth of hitting -- in the farm system, three words justify taking another: best available player.
"It'll be the thumbprint this draft is evaluated by four or five years down the road," said Smith. "Each year has its own unique stamp. I think when this draft is all said and done, the theme of the draft will be the college pitchers."
Specifically, the theme could be Rice pitchers, three in the first round. The program produced top Tigers picks Kenny Baugh three years ago and Matt Anderson in 1997, Smith's first draft with Detroit and the last time the Tigers drafted that high. That doesn't give the Tigers any preference, Smith said, only familiarity with coach Wayne Graham's system.
What makes Niemann stand out isn't so much what he throws as how he throws. Unlike the 6-foot-10, sidearming Randy Johnson, the 6-foot-9 Niemann has an overhand motion that fires the ball seemingly from the heavens toward the plate. He can't approach a younger Johnson's fastball -- Niemann tops out at 97 and usually works in the lower 90s -- but his slider is nasty and his command precise.
"He's an impressive young man, physically imposing," said Smith. "Obviously, he's pitching with a tremendous amount of leverage."
A year ago, Niemann went 17-0 to establish an NCAA standard, much like last year's first-round pick, Kyle Sleeth. He missed a month this season with a groin injury and has shown rust since returning, but it's less of an alarm than an arm injury would be.
Humber has a stronger fastball than Niemann but not the same total package. He could be the better option, however, is Niemann struggles down the stretch. Verlander and his 99-mph fastball were once believed to be the Tigers' preference, but his inconsistency this season likely has pushed him down the board.
Position players will probably have to wait, but Dombrowski and Smith have succeeded over the past two years on projecting players. Tony Giarratano was believed to be a defensive-oriented infielder as a third-round pick last year but has hit his way to high Class A Lakeland. Brent Clevlen was plucked from Texas high school football two years ago and is a potential power-hitting prospect.