DETROIT – At one point during this long rebuild, the Detroit Tigers used four straight first-round picks on starting pitchers. It’s possible Tarik Skubal -- a ninth-round selection -- could be better than all of them.
Skubal and top pitching prospect Casey Mize will both make their MLB debuts this week against the Chicago White Sox -- Skubal on Tuesday and Mize on Wednesday.
Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in 2018, was the fourth straight starting pitcher selected by the Tigers in the first round -- Beau Burrows in 2015, Matt Manning in 2016 and Alex Faedo in 2017.
Burrows has since been demoted to the bullpen and Faedo has been up and down in the minors. But Skubal -- who went 254 picks after Mize in the 2018 draft -- has joined Mize and Manning among MLB’s top 50 prospects.
The Tigers were likely only able to get Skubal in the ninth round because he missed the entire 2017 season at Seattle University due to Tommy John surgery.
In 2018, after his return, Skubal struck out 106 batters in 80 innings but had a 6.3 BB/9, 1.525 WHIP and 4.16 ERA. In other words, he could miss bats but his control and command were awful.
Skubal rewarded the Tigers with a nice professional debut in 2018, striking out 33 batters and allowing just one earned run in 22.1 innings across rookie ball, Class A Short Season and Single-A. He posted a 0.851 WHIP and allowed just four walks.
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He really burst onto the scene in 2019, earning a promotion to Double-A Erie by whiffing 97 batters in 80.1 innings at High-A Lakeland, posting a 2.58 ERA, 1.008 WHIP and 2.1 BB/9.
In 42.1 innings with Erie, Skubal posted a ridiculous 17.4 K/9, striking out 82 of the 170 batters he faced. He posted a 1.016 WHIP and a 2.13 ERA.
The walks increased slightly at Double-A, but Skubal still struck out 4.56 batters for every walk. He was by far the most dominant pitcher in the Tigers’ organization and went from well outside the team’s top 10 prospects to a top 50 prospect in all of baseball.
In Lakeland, Skubal got swings and misses on 16% of his pitches -- an elite rate. After the promotion, that number rose to 22%.
MLB Pipeline ranks him right at No. 50 overall and No. 5 among left-handed pitching prospects.
Like Mize, Skubal will make his debut at 23 years old.
In 4.2 innings against MLB hitters this spring, Skubal allowed just one run while striking out six. He issued three walks and allowed four hits.
The lefty missed summer camp on the COVID-19 injured list but returned early in the season to the team’s alternate training site.
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He could make as many as eight starts this season, though the Tigers are likely to take it slow since his build-up was delayed.
Skubal has the highest ceiling of any Tigers pitching prospect because of his ability to miss bats at such an elite rate. He’s still largely unproven, but that’s about to change.