Under Dombrowski, Tigers have used the MLB draft brilliantly

Rick Porcello was the Tigers' first round pick in 2007 and two years later when he was 20 years old he was in their starting rotation.

Rick Porcello was the Tigers’ first round pick in 2007 and two years later when he was 20 years old he was in their starting rotation.

On Thursday the Detroit Tigers will have the 23rd pick in the first round of the Major League Baseball Amateur draft. We can’t be sure who they will select, but one thing is certain: it’ll work out.

One way or another, the Tigers’ first round draft selections work out. And we can thank general manager Dave Dombrowski for that.

Since assuming control of the Tigers’ front office 12 years ago in 2002, Dombrowski has spun more gold out of the first round of the draft than any other executive in the game. All you have to do is look at the current Detroit roster to see it.

You like Justin Verlander as the workhorse of the rotation? JV was the second overall pick in the 2004 draft. He’s thrown two no-hitters, won a Cy Young and MVP award, and anchored the staff as they’ve won three consecutive division titles and made two trips to the World Series.

Two more members of the starting rotation are results of the first round draft. In 2007, 18-year old high school pitcher Rick Porcello dropped in the draft and Dombrowski nabbed him at #27 in the 1st round. Less than two years later Porcello was in the Detroit rotation. He started Game 163 in ’09 as a 20-year old and pitched brilliantly. He’s been a staple in the Bengal rotation for five-plus years and this season at age 25 he seems to have taken a huge step forward and is 8-3 on his way to a breakthrough season. His “rate stats” are all trending upward: more K’s and fewer hard hit balls resulting in a more mature big league starter.

Two years after getting Porcello late in the 1st round, Dombrowski snatched up Jacob Turner, a strapping 6’5 high school pitcher out of Missouri. Turner isn’t in the Detroit rotation now, but Anibal Sanchez is because the Detroit GM traded the first rounder to Miami to get him. Flipping the unproven Turner for 28-year old Sanchez in 2012 has proven to be a great deal: Sanchez led the AL in ERA last season and is going well again this year. He has a lot of great years ahead of him, while 23-year old Turner is in the Miami rotation but struggling to translate his potential into actual results.

The Sanchez trade is evidence of Dombrowski’s clever approach to the draft and young blue chip prospects. He realizes that many in baseball are dazzled by young players with “a great future.” But DD also recognizes that more often than not, the high draft picks end up being mediocre or a bust. So, since Dombrowski has a reputation for being an insanely smart judge of talent, he uses that to his advantage. Other teams figure that if Dombrowski likes a kid enough to draft him, he must be a good player, and Dombrowski has proven remarkably adept at spinning those unproven youngsters into major league players who are good RIGHT NOW. He did it when he traded Turner to the Marlins for Sanchez, but his biggest coup came at the 2007 MLB Winter Meetings. Once again fleecing the Fish, Dombrowski packaged not one but two first round picks and shipped them to the Marlins. In return he got Dontrelle Willis, a coveted and successful young left-handed pitcher, and Miguel Cabrera. Miguel FRIGGIN’ Cabrera.

Yeah, game over. We shouldn’t have to debate the genius of Dave Dombrowski any longer. In exchange for Cameron Maybin (’05 first round pick) and Andrew Miller (’06 first round pick), the Tigers got the best hitter of his generation. Miller has turned into a fairly decent left-handed relief specialist, sort of what we wish Phil Coke was, but so what? The Tigers have a triple crown winner. Maybin, who was the most heralded outfield prospect the Tigers had since Kirk Gibson, has suffered from injuries and inconsistency. He plays center field for the San Diego Padres when he isn’t hurt (he played 14 games all of last season), and if he’s healthy he can steal 30 bases for you and maybe hit .265 with below-average power. The fact that you didn’t probably even know he was playing for the Padres tells you all you need to know about that trade involving first round draft picks: Dave Dombrowski has 20/10 vision and the rest of the world is wearing bi-focals.

By the way, at the time the Cabrera trade was made, there were some people who questioned whether the Tigers gave up too much of their future. (Yes, really). Please understand, the Tigers under Dombrowski know one thing: several other teams will give up major league talent for the promise of a possible future payoff. Knowing this, the Tigers have continued to pluck the best available players from the draft, which is why you shouldn’t worry if DD and his draft geeks select another pitcher or even a first baseman in Thursday’s draft. That young player may be flipped for a current All-Star in the next few years.

Of course, what also makes the Tigers recent success possible is the fact that Dombrowski has selected players who have helped the big league team too. Nick Castellanos is the starting third baseman in his rookie season this year, and he’s considered one of the best young hitting prospects in the game.

Dombrowski has whiffed in the first round (pitcher Kyle Sleeth was the #1 in 2003 but never made it past AA-ball), it’s just that he’s done it far less frequently than other GMs, and he’s realized his errors earlier than enemy teams have. That’s allowed him to deal first rounders who were overvalued to other teams for pieces he could use right away. In 2011, he put first round selection Chance Ruffin into the deal that brought Doug Fister to the Tigers.

It’s likely that the most recent first round picks for the Tigers: pitchers Jonathon Crawford and Corey Knebel, will not be shipped off for immediate big league talent. Both have fantastic arms and Knebel has already made it all the way to the big leagues. Crawford is lighting up the Midwest League for West Michigan and projects as a top of the rotation guy.

Rest assured there will be some out there who will criticize any player the Tigers select in the first round on Thursday. There will be some who won’t pay attention at all. But given the track record of Dave Dombrowski, we’ll see something positive come out of that pick, you can bank on it.