The 10 Best First Round Draft Picks by the Detroit Tigers

Justin Verlander, Kirk Gibson, Travis Fryman, and Lance Parrish.

Earlier this week the Detroit Tigers selected college star Spencer Torkelson with the overall #1 pick in the 2020 Major League Baseball Draft. The Tigers project Torkelson as a third baseman, but he wasn’t picked for his glove. Nope, his first baseball card should list his position as “SLUGGER.”

We won’t know if Torkelson will pay dividends for a few years, but we can look back at the first round picks made by the Tigers to find their best decisions. First some history.

A Brief History of the MLB Amateur Draft

The MLB Draft was first held in June of 1965 when all 20 big league teams made selections of amateur free agent players. Why a draft? Because baseball was fed up with the Yankee dynasty, basically. Before the draft, any team could sign a young player out of high school or college, with little restrictions. This made it difficult for bad teams to catch up to the winning teams. Signing and cultivating talent was difficult as the better teams had as many (or more) scouts to scour the country for ballplayers.

The draft order was determined by team record: the worst team in baseball drafted first, the second worst record drafted second, and so on. The MLB Draft has (until 2020) consisted of 40 rounds, which means each team gets plenty of fresh talent into their system every June.

The first pick in the first draft was Rick Monday, an outfielder from Arizona State University, selected by the Kansas City A’s in 1965.

Let’s get to the ten best first-round picks by the Detroit Tigers:

1. Justin Verlander (#2 in the 2004 draft)

The future Hall of Famer is picking up hardware in Houston now, but he established himself as a great pitcher in Detroit, where he did almost everything. He was Rookie of the Year in 2005, won a Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award, and threw two no-hitters in a Detroit uniform. Verlander is a once-in-a-generation talent, and when the Tigers had the #2 pick in 2004 (after losing 119 games the previous year), their scouting staff had the right-hander from Old Dominion at the top of their list. The Padres had the #1 selection and they let sentimentality lead them: as they picked San Diego high school star Matt Bush. Verlander has won more than 200 games and struck out more than 3,000 batters. Bush pitched 137 innings in the majors and won ten games in three seasons.

2. Lance Parrish (#16 in the 1974 draft)

The Tigers plucked Parrish out of Walnut High School in southern California. He was originally a third baseman, and a beefy one, but the organization shifted him to catcher and the rest was history. Parrish was a six-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner in Detroit, and in 1984 he was the cleanup hitter for the World Champions.

3. Kirk Gibson (#12 in the 1978 draft)

A lot of teams liked Gibson out of Michigan State, in two different sports (football and baseball), but Gibby grew up a Tigers’ fan and he never seriously considered the NFL or playing anywhere else. He quickly shot up the Detroit farm system and made his debut at the tail end of 1979. Five years later, Gibson hit another home run off Goose, that one in Game Five of the World Series. Gibson was the first Tiger to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases in the same season, and he was a fan favorite in two stints with his hometown team.

4. Travis Fryman (#30 in the 1987 supplemental round)

After the Tigers had phenomenal success in the draft in the 1970s, the well ran dry for several years. Fryman was one of the few exceptions from the mid-1980s to the early 2000s, a rare gem who was drafted and cultivated by the Tigers. A quiet young man from a high school in Pensacola, Fryman had a meteoric rise to Detroit, debuting in the middle of the 1990 season. At that time he was a shortstop, a big shortstop in the mold of Cal Ripken. But Detroit already had Alan Trammell, so they moved Fryman to the hot corner. His arm was more than strong enought to handle the switch, but it was his bat that made him a star. In his seven full seasons as a Tiger, Fryman averaged 20 homers and 93 runs batted in. He was a four-time All-Star in Detroit.

5. Cameron Maybin (#10 in the 2005 draft)

When he was drafted at #10 in the 2005 draft, Maybin was hailed as leadoff man and center fielder of the future. He never matured into that role, buried under the pressure of expectations, but he has carved a decent little career out for himself. Through 2019, Maybin has played 13 seasons in the big leagues, including two brief stints with Detroit. He’s now back in Motown for a third try, as a veteran leader. His biggest contribution to the Tigers was as one of the big prospects that went to Florida in exchange for Miguel Cabrera in what is most likely the greatest trade in franchise history.

6. Rick Porcello (#27 in the 2007 draft)

High school pitchers don’t typically fare well when drafted so high, but Porcello bucked those odds. The New Jersey native made only 24 starts in the minor leagues before the Tigers elevated him to their rotation in 2009 when he was 20 years old. He won 14 games as a rookie and performed brilliantly in Game #163 against the Twins in one of the most dramatic games in franchise history. Porcello averaged 13 wins per season before the Tigers traded him to Boston in the Yoenis Cespedes deal. He later won a Cy Young and a world title with Boston.

7. Glenn Wilson (#18 in the 1980 draft)

In the early 1980s, Wilson was considered the most polished of the position player prospects in the organization. He was a solid hitter with good power from the right side of the plate, and a good base runner. He had excellent range in the outfield and his arm was rated +5, the highest mark given by a scouting department. It was compared to the throwing arm of Al Kaline. It was thought that Wilson would play right field at Tiger Stadium alongside Kirk Gibson in center for a decade. But plans change. After a fine rookie season in 1982 (.292 with 12 homers in 84 games), Wilson showed good promise in his second season. But the Tigers had Chet Lemon in center and Gibson was projected as a right fielder, and the team needed a left-handed reliever. In spring training in 1984, only days before the season was set to begin, Wilson was traded to the Phillies with John Wockenfuss for relief pitcher Willie Hernandez and Dave Bergman. The Tigers won the World Series, Hernandez won the MVP and Cy Young Award, and Wilson missed out on it. He ended up playing ten years, and was an All-Star one year for the Phils, but he never hung that star in right field at Tiger Stadium.

8. Jeff Weaver (#14 in the 1998 draft)

“Jeff Weaver is mean as hell on the day he pitches,” said manager Phil Garner, “but I don’t mind him having the ball in his hand because he gives us the best chance we have to win a game.” Garner didn’t win many games as skipper of the Tigers, but Weaver made lots of noise as the ornery, cocksure ace of the staff for a few seasons starting with his glimmering debut in 1999 when he one-hit the Twins for his first victory. Weaver won 13 games for the team in 2001, when the Tigers lost 96. He was never afraid to “buzz the tower,” leading the league in hit batters three times. The Tigers traded him as part of the big three-team deal in July of 2002, sending him to the Yankees. The Tigs got Carlos Pena and Jeremy Bonderman in exchange, among a few others. Weaver got his revenge on the Motor City: in 2006 he started two games for the Cardinals in the World Series, winning once against his former team and getting a ring.

9. Tony Clark (#2 in the 1990 draft)

For too long (way too long), team owner Mike Ilitch let the Tigers wither at the end of the vine. During those dark days, in the 1990s, Clark was one of the few good players to come out of the farm system. He was a stud in college, in two sports, playing basketball and baseball at San Diego State University. The Tigers actually drafted him out of high school but allowed him to attend college and retained his rights. When Clark picked baseball over a career in the NBA, it didn’t take the long-legged switch-hitter long to make it to The Corner of Michigan and Trumbull. In 1996 he hit 27 home runs and was third in AL Rookie of the Year voting. He replaced Cecil Fielder at first base and averaged 32 homers and 106 RBIs from 1997-99. In only seven years in the Motor City, CLark hit 156 home runs. He played 15 years in the majors and belted 251 home runs, 189 from the left side and 62 from the right.

10. Justin Thompson (#32 in the 1991 supplemental round)

A lot of people forget about Thompson, but for a brief period, he was as close to a Justin Verlander type pitcher that Detroit could muster in the lose-a-lot 1990s. Drafted out of high school in Texas, the tall lefty seasoned in the farm system before bubbling to the top in Detroit in 1996 to make 11 starts. The following year he won 15 games and was named an All-Star, striking out 151 batters. That season his Wins Above Replacement was 7.7, the highest mark by a Detroit pitcher since Mark Fidrych in 1976. The 7.7 WAR wouldn’t be surpassed again by a Detroit pitcher until the other Justin (Verlander) did it in 2011.

Thompson saw his ERA jump by a full run in 1998 and 1999, then he developed shoulder troubles. He was included in the ten-player trade that brought Juan Gonzalez to the Tigers after the 1999 season, in fact Thompson was the prize the Rangers wanted. His shoulder never recovered, and he only pitched two games out of the bullpen for the Rangers before retiring.

Honorable Mention: Nicholas Castellanos (#44 in 2010 draft), Andrew Miller (#6 in 2006 draft), Tom Veryzer (#11 in 1971 draft), Christin Stewart (#34 in the 2015 draft), Rick Leach (#13 in 1979 draft).

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