DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers have a fever, and the only prescription is, well, better trades.
Al Avila is in San Diego this week for baseball’s Winter Meetings, where many of the biggest off-season signings and trades go down. We’ve already seen Stephen Strasburg sign the largest contract in history for a starting pitcher.
Detroit attends the meetings as by far the worst team in baseball. Its 47-114 record was 6.5 games worse than the rest of the league. The Tigers have been the worst team in baseball twice in the last three years and the worst team in the AL Central three times in the last five years.
And next year could get even worse.
There’s very little reason to believe the Tigers will get out of the cellar in 2020. The team has little incentive to rush its top pitching prospects until there are legitimate MLB bats in the system. Even though Avila said Monday that it’s time for the Tigers’ rebuild to start trending upward, fans need to see evidence of that to believe things will change.
Could it start this week at the winter meetings? There are plenty of free agents the Tigers could sign to improve the current roster and begin the transition back into contention. But some of the moves made by the current regime yield little confidence in its ability to make the right decisions.
Here’s a look at 10 trades that have made the Detroit Tigers the worst team in baseball.
- Date: Dec. 5, 2014
- Details: Tigers trade Robbie Ray and Domingo Leyba to the Arizona Diamondbacks and receive Shane Greene from the New York Yankees in a three-team trade. The Diamondbacks sent Didi Gregorius to New York.
The trades that would come back to haunt the Tigers began almost five years ago to the day, before Avila even took over as general manager.
Dave Dombrowski got crushed for his 2013 trade that sent Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals for Robbie Ray. Fister was a fan favorite and a solid No. 4 pitcher for the World Series contending Tigers while Ray was a prospect and not quite ready for MLB action.
A year and three days after acquiring Ray, the Tigers shipped him off to the Diamondbacks in a three-team trade that certainly didn’t work out as well as the one that brought Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson to Detroit.
Since being trade to the Diamondbacks, Ray has evolved into one of the game’s elite bat missers. In the last four seasons, Ray has struck out 11.9 batters per nine innings with a 4.04 ERA, a 1.33 WHIP and a 4.00 FIP. He’s posted 10.1 WAR over the last four seasons, including an All-Star 2017 campaign in which he was one of the most valuable pitchers in baseball.
He’s still only 28 years old and isn’t eligible to become a free agent until 2021. Along with Matthew Boyd, Ray would be at the top of the current Tigers’ starting rotation and could either be an extension candidate or a more valuable trade piece (not that that guarantees anything, obviously).
Shane Greene had a good half season for the Tigers in 2019, but having an electric starting pitcher in his late 20s would be much more valuable.
- Date: Dec. 11, 2014
- Details: Tigers trade Eugenio Suarez and Jonathan Crawford to the Cincinnati Reds for Alfredo Simon.
This is probably the worst trade on the list. There were more redeeming qualities about this move at the time, and it looks worse and worse every season.
Alfredo Simon was a bad pitcher who had one half of a good year, and the Tigers fell for it. In his first season as a starting pitcher for the Reds, the 33-year-old had a 4.33 FIP, a 1.21 WHIP and a tiny 5.8 strikeout rate.
The Tigers touted him as an All-Star starter but neglected to mention he allowed 40 earned runs in 79.2 innings (4.52 ERA) in the second half. He clearly ran out of gas as a first-time starter in his mid-30s, but the Tigers sent a promising young player to Cincinnati to fill a hole in their rotation.
Simon was a bust, posting a negative WAR in 31 starts and guiding the Tigers to a last-place finish.
Meanwhile, Eugenio Suarez has turned exactly into what the Tigers’ offense is lacking: a middle-of-the-order bat with power and the ability to draw a walk.
In 2018, Suarez made his first All-Star team by slashing .283/.366/.526 with 34 home runs and 22 doubles in 143 games.
He played 159 games this season and crushed 49 home runs with a .358 on-base percentage and a .930 OPS. Suarez has finished in the top 20 in NL MVP voting both of the last two seasons, yet the Tigers gave him away for nothing.
In 2019, the Tigers got the second-worst production in baseball from the third base position -- a .675 OPS with 17 home runs and a .294 OBP.
- Date: Dec. 9, 2015
- Details: Tigers trade Chad Green and Luis Cessa to the Yankees for Justin Wilson.
At the time, this move by Avila didn’t look so bad. He even flipped Wilson for Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes two years later, and that could still turn out to be a positive. But Having Chad Green and Luis Cessa would have made the team better in 2019 and 2020.
Green has quietly been one of the best relievers in a loaded Yankees bullpen the last three seasons, posting 5.4 WAR over that span with a elite strikeout, walk and home run rates.
In 157 appearances -- including 16 spot starts -- Green has posted a 2.82 ERA and 1.00 WHIP while striking out 295 batters in 213.2 innings. His 2.66 FIP suggests this is absolutely sustainable for a pitcher who’s only 28 years old.
Green would be the best reliever in the Tigers bullpen, and that can be a valuable trade chip.
Cessa hasn’t been as successful, but he’s better than many of the options in the current Tigers bullpen. He struck out 75 batters in 81 innings last season.
- Date: Nov. 3, 2016
- Details: Tigers trade Cameron Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels for Victor Alcantara.
Not every bad trade is a blockbuster. Sometimes it’s a matter of missing an opportunity to make a small move that improves the roster. That’s what happened when the Tigers trade Cameron Maybin after their last competitive season in 2016.
Maybin was a 1.9 WAR player in just 94 games for the Tigers in 2016. batting .315 with a .383 OBP and an .801 OPS. He stole 15 bases and racked up 110 hits in 94 games.
The Tigers weren’t going to get much for him with only a year left on his contract, but they missed an opportunity to get a better player in the deal.
Victor Alcantara is still only 26 years old, but the underlying numbers in 79 MLB appearances suggest he won’t be a high-leverage relief pitcher. His career strikeout rate of 5.6 batters per nine innings is higher than his 5.1 mark in 2019. He posted a 1.41 WHIP and allowed eight home runs in 42.2 innings.
Really good franchises can flip players like Maybin and identify a return that helps the team in the future. It’s not a high success rate, but the Tigers seem to miss on more than most.
- Date: July 18, 2017
- Details: Tigers trade J.D. Martinez to the Diamondbacks for Sergio Alcantara, Jose King and Dawel Lugo.
The trade market for J.D. Martinez at the 2017 deadline wasn’t as hot as the Tigers had hoped, but the return still ended up being underwhelming.
Martinez has continued to be one of the best hitters in baseball. He slugged 29 home runs in 62 games for the Diamondbacks after the trade. He’s hit 79 dingers for the Boston Red Sox the last two seasons while batting .317 with a .985 OPS.
There aren’t 10 better offensive players in the world than Martinez, but the Tigers didn’t get a single contributor in return -- at least not yet.
Dawel Lugo is the only player from this trade to appear on the Tigers’ roster, striking out 79 times compared to 87 hits in 104 games. In his first extended taste of MLB action last season, he hit six home runs and 11 doubles in 77 games while posting a .245/.271/.381 slash line.
Maybe Lugo will improve his OPS by 100 points and be an MLB average hitter, but so far, we haven’t seen it.
Sergio Alcantara posted a .642 OPS with two home runs in 102 games at Double-A last year. Jose King finished with one home run and a .556 OPS across two levels in the lower minors.
The Tigers traded one of the best hitters in the game and got three players who haven’t hit much at all since they arrived. Rental bats don’t bring back what they used to, but it’s not always this bad.
- Date: Aug. 31, 2017
- Details: Tigers trade Justin Upton to the Angels for Grayson Long and Elvin Rodriguez.
The last truly exciting offensive signing of the Tigers’ era of competitive baseball was Justin Upton, and he delivered with 59 home runs and 65 doubles in a season and three-quarters in Detroit.
Upton had a .904 OPS and four years left on his contract -- he wasn’t going to opt out of that deal -- when the Tigers sent him to Los Angeles.
One of the players acquired in the deal -- Grayson Long -- made his last career appearance for the Erie SeaWolves a month after the trade. He has since retired from baseball.
Elvin Rodriguez might end up being a contributor for the Tigers. At 21 years old, he posted a 3.77 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 7.5 K/9 in High-A Lakeland. The strikeout rate is low, but he showed better bat missing potential in 2018.
Still, this trade is part of the reason the Tigers are where they are today. Upton would be the best hitter on the team, and instead the Tigers have been left with the likes of Christin Stewart and Mikie Mahtook in left field.
Rodriguez offers hope for this trade in the future, but for now, it’s a win for the Angels.
- Date: Aug. 31, 2017
- Details: Tigers trade Justin Verlander and Juan Ramirez to the Houston Astros for Daz Cameron, Jake Rogers and Franklin Perez.
While I believe the Suarez trade was much more indefensible at the time, most Tigers fans point to the Justin Verlander deal as Avila’s worst move to date.
The problem is Verlander has gone to Houston and been more dominant that he ever was in Detroit. At ages 35 and 36, he’s posted a 2.55 ERA, 3.03 FIP, 0.85 WHIP and 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings in 68 starts. He finished second in Cy Young Award voting in 2018 before winning the award last season. He also threw another no-hitter and reached 300 strikeouts for the first time.
Verlander was one of the best pitchers in Tigers history for 13 years, but he’s gone to Houston and found another level. That makes the spotlight even brighter for the players Avila got in return.
Unfortunately, they haven’t hit the ground running. Fans are most frustrated with Franklin Perez, a top 50 prospect and the centerpiece of the return for Verlander. Perez has been on the injured list four separate times since joining the organization, making just nine starts in more than two seasons.
He suffered an injury and missed the start of last season. Then, right after he finally returned, another injury ended his season. Now, the Tigers say he’s still not back to full strength. It’s been a complete disaster.
Jake Rogers reached the MLB roster this season despite struggling offensively in Triple-A. He batted .125 with 51 strikeouts and 14 hits in 35 games.
Daz Cameron looks like the best hope for the Tigers to salvage something from this deal, and he batted just .214 with a .707 OPS in 120 games with the Mud Hens this season. He struck out 152 times and hit just 13 home runs.
There’s no sugarcoating it: The Tigers traded what has turned out to be the best starting pitcher in the league over the last two and a half years for three players who haven’t contributed anything at the MLB level and aren’t guaranteed to do so at all.
Date: Dec. 13, 2017
Details: Tigers trade Ian Kinsler to the Angels for Wilkel Hernandez and Troy Montgomery.
The Tigers fleeced the Texas Rangers when they acquired Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder in November 2013. In four seasons with the Tigers, Kinsler hit 78 home runs and 129 doubles while posting a .764 OPS. He was also an elite defender at second base.
When his Tigers tenure ended, Kinsler had posted 20 WAR in four seasons. He was the best player on the roster.
The Tigers weren’t going to get a bounty for a 36-year-old second baseman. But neither player is close to contributing at the MLB level. Montgomery played just 19 games for Double-A Erie this season and posted a .508 OPS. Hernandez appeared in 21 games for West Michigan.
Hernandez could turn into an MLB pitcher later in his career. He’s just 20 years old and finished with a 3.73 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 8.0 K/9.
Was this a bad trade? It remains to be seen. But the Tigers traded their best player in the off-season of 2017, and so far that hasn’t helped the MLB roster at all.
- Date: Aug. 6, 2018
- Details: Tigers trade Mike Fiers to the Oakland Athletics for Nolan Blackwood and Logan Shore.
The Tigers had to trade Mike Fiers last season. He was pitching well over his head -- his 3.48 ERA was more than a run lower than his 4.66 FIP -- and a low swinging strike rate suggested he could lose it at any moment.
Other teams saw those same signs, so the price for Fiers was low.
But improbably, Fiers was even better for the A’s this season, finishing with a 2.9 WAR thanks to a low walk rate.
Logan Shore was the main piece of the return, but he walked almost as many batters as he struck out this season. Nolan Blackwood was a very reliable relief pitcher for the SeaWolves, but again, the numbers aren’t spectacular.
The Fiers, Kinsler, Upton and Maybin trades individually don’t look so bad because the Tigers weren’t giving up much in the grand scheme of the rebuild. But the fact that not one of the players from those deals looks anywhere near the MLB roster is how 114 losses happens.
- Date: July 31, 2019
- Details: Tigers trade Nicholas Castellanos to the Chicago Cubs for Alex Lange and Paul Richan.
It’s hard to blame the Tigers for this trade, and it’s far too early to know whether the return will have an impact.
But there’s no doubt moving Castellanos made the team worse in 2019, and starting 2020 without him should make the offense even weaker throughout the summer. If the Tigers could only score 582 runs -- the fewest in MLB by 33 and fewest in the American League by more than 100 -- with 100 games of Castellanos, imagine how bad it could look without him at all.
Castellanos went to the Cubs and hit 15 home runs and 21 doubles in 51 games. He was their best hitter for the final third of the season.
The Tigers had to make the move because he was an impending free agent, but that won’t make another 100-loss season any easier to stomach.
The Winter Meetings present another opportunity for the Tigers to improve their roster and hasten the rebuild. Whether it’s through trades or free agent signings, Avila needs to start making more moves that pay off at the MLB level.
Detroit can only sell the idea of Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal, Alex Faedo, Isaac Paredes and Riley Green for so long. Fans want to watch some competitive baseball.
It’s also important to point out that Avila has had some trades that worked out over the years. He got a good return by trading Wilson and his own son, Alex Avila, to the Cubs. He stole Willi Castro for a year of Leonys Martin. The Shane Green deal already looks like a win.
Many of the moves Avila has made were justifiable, but some of that theoretical success needs to turn into actual on-field production if the Tigers are going to start digging out of his hole.