The Five Best Late-Round Draft Picks In Tigers History

Who are the club's greatest finds after the fifth round?

Will Burchfield
May 12, 2020 - 4:34 pm

One of the best prospects in the Tigers' rich farm system is also one of their best draft picks in recent memory. That would be Tarik Skubal, selected by Detroit in the ninth round in 2018. Skubal already looks like a steal for the Tigers. And he probably wouldn't be a Tiger at all had the MLB Draft always been the five-round affair it will be this year.

The draft's reduction is a necessary step on the part of the league amid the coronavirus pandemic. But it's a bummer for the thousands of players who will miss out on a potentially life-changing moment. Which got us thinking. Since the inaugural MLB Draft in 1965, who are the Tigers' greatest finds after the fifth round? Who are the best players we may have never known? 

Does Shortened Draft Make First Pick Obvious For Tigers?

Let's start with a few honorable mentions. These are players the Tigers drafted, but who declined to sign with the club and wound up elsewhere down the road. 

Ozzie Smith

The Tigers saw brilliance in this Cal Poly shortstop and chose him in the seventh round in 1976. But Smith opted for another year in college, was drafted in the fourth round by the Padres in 1977 and wound up winning 13 Gold Gloves over a Hall-of-Fame career with the Cardinals. 

Mark Mulder 

Mulder was a nameless high school lefty when the Tigers selected him in the 55th round in 1995. He chose to attend Michigan State instead and went second overall to the A's three years later. Mulder would team up with Barry Zito and Tim Hudson to give Oakland one of the best rotations in baseball. 

DJ LeMahieu

The Tigers took a shot on the hometown kid in the 41st round in 2007. But LeMahieu, the two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Michigan, kept his commitment to LSU, then signed with the Cubs as a second-round pick in 2009. He's now a three-time All-Star. 

Now onto the top five. 

5. John Smoltz

Yep, Detroit struck gold in 1985, taking a future Hall of Famer and a childhood Tigers fan out of Lansing's Waverly High School in the 22nd round, No. 574 overall. The only reason Smoltz isn't No. 1 on this list is because the Tigers threw their gold back in the river two years later in a trade with the Braves for pitcher Doyle Alexander. Not ideal.

4. Don Kelly

Don Kelly was ... not a Hall of Famer. The Tigers have drafted better players in later rounds. But they only drafted one 'Donnie Kelly Baby,' in the eighth round, No. 237 overall in 2001. He went on to play every position but shortstop over a six-year career in Detroit, which was highlighted by his crucial homer in Game 5 of the 2011 ALDS against the Yankees. 

3. Joel Zumaya

The Tigers' renaissance in 2006 doesn't happen without Zumaya, an 11th-round pick, No. 320 overall out of California's Bonita Vista High School in 2011. With a sizzling fastball, the rookie formed a dominant 1-2 punch in the back of Detroit's bullpen with Todd Jones and helped the club reach the World Series for the first time since 1984. Injuries shortened his career, but Zumaya will long have a place in Tigers history. 

2. Bobby Higginson

Here's to Bobby Higginson, man. A 12th-round pick (No. 336 overall) in 1992, he played 100-plus games in every season of maybe the worst decade in Tigers history, then retired in 2005 the year before the club made the World Series. Choose your Higginson highlight: breaking up a Roy Halladay no-hitter in 1998 with a pinch-hit homer with two outs in the ninth, or going yard in four straight at-bats in 1997.

1. Mark Fidrych

What's Tigers history without The Bird? A cult hero drafted in the 10th round, No. 232 overall in 1974, Fidrych came out of nowhere to win Rookie of the Year in 1976. He threw an astounding 24 complete games that season, then vanished almost as quickly as he arrived, undone by a litany of injuries. But Fidrych's brief hold over baseball, heightened by his quirky personality, remains the stuff of legend.