DETROIT – More than a month into the Detroit Tigers' third season of rebuilding, the organization's future plans are becoming much clearer.
Pitching prospect depth
General manager Al Avila has laid a strong foundation in terms of starting pitching, focusing the rebuild around elite prospects such as recent first-round picks Casey Mize and Matt Manning. Alex Faedo, the team's 2017 first-round pick, is also bouncing back in Double-A this season.
Those three pitchers, along with top 100 prospect Franklin Perez, the prized piece of the return in the Justin Verlander trade, give the Tigers several chances to find a top-of-the-rotation pitcher.
They also have hope for Beau Burrows and Kyle Funkhouser, who are off to terrible starts but have solid prospect pedigrees. Last year's ninth-round pick, Tarik Skubal, is also due for a bump in the prospect rankings due to a hot start in Lakeland.
Major league roster
Most teams in the third year of a rebuild have already started to accumulate pieces for the future on the MLB roster, but the Tigers are a little behind in that regard.
Once again, the pitching appears to be ahead of the offense, as starters Matt Boyd and Spencer Turnbull are establishing themselves at least as possible long-term options. Boyd, in particular, is off to an ace-like start with elite strikeout numbers, building off a strong 2018 season.
Turnbull is much less proven, but in his first seven starts of 2019, he has never allowed more than three runs and has allowed just two earned runs in 24 innings over his last four starts, which included tough tests at Philadelphia and Boston.
Joe Jimenez is another pitcher who's in it for the long haul, either as the Tigers' future closer or a high-leverage relief pitcher. His numbers look rough this season, but he's actually pitched well, striking out 22 batters in 13.1 innings. A trio of home runs have smeared his otherwise solid body of work.
Offensively, there doesn't appear to be much hope. Nicholas Castellanos appears destined for a trade and Niko Goodrum and JaCoby Jones haven't run away with opportunities to solidify jobs.
Jeimer Candelario is still an intriguing player. He has improved dramatically at third base in just one offseason, becoming one of the top defensive players at the position in all of baseball in terms of defensive runs saved. He leads the team in walks from the leadoff spot and has shown extra-base power in the past.
Christin Stewart could also be a mainstay in a corner outfield spot after getting off to a strong start before being sidelined by injury. In 16 games, he racked up nine extra-base hits and led the Tigers in slugging percentage and OPS before hitting the injured list.
At best, the Tigers have two everyday players who appear to be part of the long-term plan. That's obviously an issue, especially since some of the pitching prospects look like they could be ready to join the MLB roster soon.
Recent trade success
The July trade deadline will again be an opportunity for Avila to acquire a handful of young players for the future.
The Tigers have shown an ability to cash in on those opportunities in the recent past. They landed Candelario and newly minted top 100 prospect Isaac Paredes by sending Justin Wilson and Alex Avila to the Chicago Cubs in 2017. Detroit swapped Joakim Soria for Jones in a 2015 deadline deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Justin Verlander was sent to the Houston Astros at the 2017 deadline and brought Perez, Daz Cameron -- the team's top outfield prospect -- and Jake Rogers -- an excellent defensive catcher who's raking in the minors this season -- to Detroit.
Even the 2015 David Price trade looks better now that Boyd has emerged as a high-end starting pitcher.
Bottom line: No trades are guarantees, but the Tigers have done a nice job swapping players who weren't going to be part of the future and getting young contributors or high-end prospects in return. When it comes to rebuilding, that's the name of the game.
This season's trade pieces
This year, the Tigers have a handful of players who could attract contending teams.
Castellanos is the most obvious trade candidate. Not only is he in the final year of his contract, he also hired notoriously high-priced agent Scott Boras to represent him through free agency this season. It seems unlikely Castellanos will be a Tiger at this time next year.
This could end up being similar to the J.D. Martinez negotiations of 2017 when Al Avila found an underwhelming market and settled for a trio of fringe prospects in a deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Castellanos isn't as good as Martinez, but he has improved his defense to the point he isn't a complete liability in right field, so that could make it easier to move him to a National League team if the market warrants.
Shane Greene has also emerged as a viable trade piece, converting 13 of 13 save chances while allowing just three runs in 16 innings and striking out 20. He has been a good reliever in the past, so his breakout could very well be legitimate.
Relief pitchers often yield the best value in deadline deals, as the Tigers found in the Wilson trade.
Other players who could possibly turn into trade chips include Tyson Ross and Josh Harrison, though both are off to bad starts and need to turn things around quickly.
5 hitters to target in trades this year
CF Mallex Smith
If JaCoby Jones isn't the answer in center field, the Tigers could use a good defender with elite speed to take over at the position. Smith would certainly be worth a try.
One of the fastest players in MLB and an above average outfielder for his career, Smith checks the necessary boxes to patrol center in Comerica Park. While he's not quite the defender Jones is, he has been a much better hitter throughout his young career.
Smith is off to a terrible start in Seattle, posting a .502 OPS in 27 games with 33 strikeouts and only 16 hits in 27 games. The Mariners have opted to move Mitch Haniger to center field at times to get Smith's bat out of the lineup.
The early struggles and Seattle's surprisingly strong start could make Smith much more affordable at the trade deadline, especially if the Mariners continue to have a revolving door at closer and Greene is an option.
Last year, the Mariners had Edwin Diaz, the top closer in the game. This year, nobody has more than four saves through the first 38 games.
Smith just turned 26 years old Monday and is under team control through the 2022 season. He's also one year removed from an excellent season with the Tampa Bay Rays during which he posted a .773 OPS to go along with 40 stolen bases.
It was Smith's first full season. He appeared in 141 games, batting .296 with a low strikeout rate and 39 extra-base hits. The Tigers like Cameron as a possible leadoff man of the future, but Smith could be another option with a solid career on-base percentage and elite speed.
3B Rafael Devers
Dave Dombrowski liked Castellanos enough to draft him in the first round in 2010 and traded Robbie Ray for Greene in 2014, so he could be a potential trade partner. The defending World Series champs might also be in a dog fight with the Rays and the New York Yankees in the AL East Division.
Devers is a promising young player but could become available in a trade because the Red Sox have an embarrassment of infield riches and Devers has been terrible in the field.
Through 35 games at third base, Devers has already made nine errors, including some that have cost Boston games and contributed to the slow start.
Xander Bogaerts has shortstop locked down in Boston and Eduardo Nunez, Dustin Pedroia, Brock Holt and now Michael Chavis are battling for infield at-bats as well, so the right deal could make Devers available.
While the Tigers already have Candelario at third base, adding Devers' bat would be too good an opportunity to pass up. A move to second base or corner outfield would certainly be a possibility if the team has to make room for both in the lineup.
Devers was an elite prospect as recently as 2016 when he was the No. 1 third baseman and the No. 16 overall player in the minor leagues. By comparison, Mize is currently ranked No. 16 in the prospect rankings and Tigers fans can't wait to see him get the call-up.
As a 21-year-old, Devers hit 21 home runs and 24 doubles last season, but an uncharacteristically bad strikeout-to-walk ratio left him with a mediocre .731 OPS. This season, he has gotten back to what made him such an elite hitting prospect, drawing 17 walks to 24 strikeouts with 10 doubles and a .300 batting average.
Devers has only hit one home run this season, but his power is well-established, so that's not much of a concern. If the Red Sox are willing to move him -- Devers is under team control through 2023 -- the Tigers could get an absolute steal.
2B Rougned Odor
Another player who could become available due to a slow start and inconsistencies is Odor, who has three times as many strikeouts as hits through 21 games this season.
Odor has been in the league for six seasons, but he's still only 25 years old and locked up through 2022 with a team option in 2023. Not counting 2019 as a complete lost cause just yet, he has only had one bad season since his rookie campaign in 2014.
Last season, Odor hit just 18 home runs while increasing his walk rate to post a .326 OBP and a .751 OPS. He hit 33 home runs in a 2016 breakout season and legitimized that power with 30 more homers in 2017.
The Tigers are sorely lacking power in the minor leagues and could use a 30-home run bat, especially at a traditionally power bereft position.
There are certainly holes in Odor's game, but the Tigers aren't likely to land a perfect player without great trade chips. He's got a career OBP below .300, which is awful, but makes up for it with power.
Odor has also been a plus defender the last two seasons.
Unlike Smith and Devers, Odor signed a back-loaded contract, so the Tigers would have to pay him about $12.3 million in 2021 and 2022. That could be a deterrent, but if he hits 30 home runs as a second baseman, that's not a bad price to pay.
Texas is currently in the mix for a wildcard spot and has a decent middle infield prospect in Anderson Tejeda playing well in the minor leagues, so if Odor continues to struggle, the Rangers might be willing to move on.
INF/OF Scott Kingery
Kingery is currently on the 10-day injured list with a right hamstring strain, but he was off to a great start for the first-place Philadelphia Phillies.
As a rookie in 2018, Kingery played all three outfield positions, second base, third base and shortstop. He has played all three infield positions and left field so far this year, so his versatility is a major positive, especially for a team such as the Tigers.
Without great players at most positions, the Tigers could use Kingery to play matchups at other positions, moving him wherever they need in order to satisfy a platoon or give someone a day off.
Kingery finished with poor offensive numbers in 2018, but he raked in the minor leagues. He posted a .284 average and .778 OPS while racking up 377 hits in 329 career games in the Phillies' farm system. As a prospect, he rose to No. 50 overall and was the No. 1 second base prospect before his call-up.
Castellanos isn't a perfect fit for the Phillies because it would force Andrew McCutchen to slide over to center field, but if manager Gabe Kapler wants to replace Odeubel Herrera in the lineup, Castellanos would be a massive upgrade.
With Cesar Hernandez, Maikel Franco and Jean Segura all playing well in the infield, the Phillies don't really need Kingery. He's more of a luxury right now, and if the Tigers offer a good enough deal, they might be able to part with that luxury.
Kingery turned 25 years old April 29 and is signed through 2023 with team options for the following three seasons.
SS Carter Kieboom
Full disclosure: This is by far the least likely name on the list, but there are shocking moves at every trade deadline.
The Washington Nationals wouldn't part ways with their top prospect for Castellanos or Green, or Castellanos and Greene, but if Avila got creative, he might be able to put an enticing package together for the No. 24 prospect in baseball.
Kieboom is the latest hot-hitting shortstop to reach the majors after tearing up Triple-A to the tune of a .379 average, 1.142 OPS and 16 walks compared to 20 strikeouts.
An eventual move to second base seems likely for Kieboom since the Nationals already have a star shortstop in Trea Turner and an elite third baseman in Anthony Rendon.
Sure, there are solid second base options for Washington in Brian Dozier and Howie Kendrick, but those aren't players who will get in the way of a 21-year-old stud if he's deserving of an opportunity.
Kieboom has struggled in his first 39 at-bats, picking up just five hits, though two have been home runs. He's already been nearly a win below replacement level because of poor defense and 16 strikeouts, but the Nationals certainly aren't going to give up on Kieboom.
The Tigers might be able to package a pitching prospect in a deal for Kieboom because the Nationals only have three average pitching prospects in their system.
Again, this would be a tricky move to pull off, but the Nationals are in a very competitive division and have already dug themselves into a hole, so they could be an eager trade partner in July.
It's not unheard of for a top prospect to get moved. Even in the past few years, Eloy Jimenez, Fernando Tatis Jr., Jesus Luzardo, Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech -- all ranked ahead of Kieboom -- have been traded.
In fact, Luzardo was sent to the Oalkand Athletics by the Nationals in exchange for two relief pitchers.