Detroit Tigers’ First Round Pick Justin Thompson Remembered

In recent years the Detroit Tigers have had a love affair with tall pitchers. Their draft picks during the Dave Dombrowski era confirm this. But the truth is, tall pitchers have always been coveted. Back in the early 1990s, the Tigers nabbed a tall left-handed Texan who was supposed to anchor their staff for years to come. But he flamed out after a few seasons and was included in one of the team’s most lopsided trades instead.

People who saw him pitch in high school still talk about Justin Thompson. He was a man among boys as a teenager in Klein, a suburb of Houston. In his sophomore season, at the age of 16, the southpaw tossed a no-hitter and allowed just three hits per game. He threw two more no-hitters as a junior when he posted a 0.78 ERA. As a senior he twirled a fourth no-hitter as he led Klein High School to the state title. As a three-year starter on varsity, he lost just twice.

Thompson was selected by the Tigers with the 32nd pick of the 1st round in the 1991 amateur draft. At the time he was seen by many to have the potential to be a left-handed Roger Clemens. He threw hard, had great command, and his mechanics were excellent for his age.

Just weeks after his high school graduation, Thompson was pitching for the Bristol Tigers in the Appalachian League, where he struck out 60 batters in just 50 innings as an 18-year old. At 6’4″, 215 pounds, he was a blue chip prospect. The Tigers were cautious with him, even after he vaulted two levels as a 20-year old. Even so, Thompson suffered an arm injury in 1994, missing the entire season after surgery. He was back the following year but the fastball wasn’t quite as fast. Regardless, in 1996 he was called up to the Tigers in late summer.

As a 23 year-old rookie the lefty struggled to get out big league hitters, going 1-6 in 11 starts. But in 1997 he was brilliant, showing why he had been so highly touted as a teen. That year, Thompson was an All-Star for Detroit, winning 15 games for Buddy Bell’s club. His 3.02 ERA ranked fifth in the league, and his WHIP was fourth behind only Clemens, Randy Johnson, and Mike Mussina. Thompson was one of the most promising young starters in the league. His WAR (wins above replacement) for that campaign was 7.2, which ranks 8th all-time for a Tiger pitcher.

Unfortunately, the next two years saw Thompson’s ERA increase more than a run each season, to a mark of 5.11 in 1999. Just 26 years old, Thompson seemed to have a dead arm. He was shut down early in ’99, and in the off-season he was included in a huge trade with the Texas Rangers. In the deal, the Tigers received slugger Juan Gonzalez, reliever Danny Patterson, and catcher Gregg Zaun. Detroit sent Thompson, Frank Catalanotto, Francisco Cordero, Gabe Kapler, Bill Haselman, and Alan Webb to Texas. Catalanotto, Cordero (still saving games in the big leagues), and Kapler all had long successful careers, making it a stinker of a deal for the Tigers.

The key to the deal was Gonzalez, a two-time AL Most Valuable Player. But Juan Gone was just plain gone after one disappointing season in Motown. Thompson never panned out for Texas either, suffering another arm injury and undergoing three more surgeries. He stuck it out in the Ranger minor league system, hoping to one day pitch for his home-state team, but he never could have imagined it would take so long. Finally, in 2005, at the age of 32, Thompson toed the rubber for the Rangers after toiling in their minors for six years. He pitched out of the bullpen, striking out one batter and allowing four runs in 1 1/3 innings. He latched on with the Milwaukee Brewers and spent parts of two seasons in their minor league system, hoping to make it back to the big leagues. But his career was over.

Once a promising teenage pitching phenom, Justin Thompson won 36 games and lost 43 in five years in the majors. For one year in a Tiger uniform, in 1997, he was an All-Star.