DETROIT – Detroit Tigers General Manager Al Avila has his work cut out for him this week at the MLB Winter Meetings as he looks to start building up a roster that finished with the worst record in the league.
Avila said this week that it’s time for the Tigers to start trending in the right direction after years of rebuilding. Detroit finished with 114 losses last season, 6.5 games behind the closest team.
On Tuesday, we took a look at 10 trades over the last five years that have contributed to the Tigers finishing in last place three times in the last five seasons. But to be fair Avila a former Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski have also made some good moves during that span.
Since the team last made the playoffs, the Tigers have made six trades that have positively impacted the organization. Here’s a ranking of those moves.
6. Joakim Soria for JaCoby Jones
- Date: July 30, 2015
- Details: Tigers trade Joakim Soria to the Pittsburgh Pirates for JaCoby Jones.
This trade with the Pirates was one of two moves the team made on July 30, 2015, that officially kicked off the rebuild.
Joakim Soria was a 31-year-old relief pitcher with an expiring contract and numbers that weren’t at all supported by the underlying stats. His 2.82 ERA was more than two full points worse than his 4.87 FIP and his strikeout rate had dropped below eight batters per nine innings.
The Tigers had to get him out of town fast, for whatever they could find.
Dombrowski did a nice job landing a young prospect who was very raw but had the skills to be a five-tool player. JaCoby Jones has elite speed, a great glove and good power. He hasn’t put it all together yet, but he’s one of the few beacons of hope in the team’s current lineup.
Jones hit 11 home runs and 19 doubles in just 88 games this season, posting a very solid .450 slugging percentage. He also increased his walk rate dramatically, earning more free passes in 2019 than 2018 despite playing 41 fewer games.
The result was a .740 OPS to go along with good speed on the base paths. It’s not an elite player, but it’s among the best offensive performances for the Tigers.
Jones has also flashed the ability to play an elite center field. He was the best outfield defender in baseball in 2018 before regressing to below average last season. If he can pair last year’s offensive numbers with 2018′s defense, he’ll be at least a 3.0 WAR player.
5. Leonys Martin for Willi Castro
- Date: July 31, 2018
- Details: Tigers trade Leonys Martin and Kyle Dowdy to the Cleveland Indians for Willi Castro.
The Tigers have taken stabs at several one-year players throughout the rebuild, but none worked out better than Leonys Martin.
Martin was basically an afterthought when the Tigers signed him to a one-year, $1.75 million deal ahead of the 2018 season. He was 30 years old and coming off a dreadful 2017 season that saw him hit .172 with more strikeouts than hits and walks combined.
He posted a slightly below-average OPS for the Tigers while hitting nine home runs and 15 doubles and stealing seven bases. That was enough to draw the attention of division rival Cleveland, though, and the Indians agreed to fork over Willi Castro in the deal.
Castro struggled in his first taste of MLB action this season, but overall, he’s an exciting 22-year-old prospect. He played 119 games for Triple-A Toledo this season, batting .301 with an .833 OPS, 11 home runs, 28 doubles, eight triples and 17 stolen bases.
Even if Castro doesn’t end up being a difference-maker for the Tigers, Avila found a way to flip a rental player who was doing nothing for the team’s future for a prospect with a legitimate chance to be an everyday major leaguer.
4, Shane Greene for Joey Wentz and Travis Demeritte
- Date: July 31, 2019
- Details: Tigers trade Shane Greene to the Atlanta Braves for Joey Wentz and Travis Demeritte.
Shane Greene, like Joakim Soria in 2015, was having a strong season for the Tigers in a way that seemed unsustainable. While he wasn’t outplaying his underlying numbers as much as Soria, Greene didn’t quite deserve to have a 1.18 ERA, a 0.87 WHIP and 22 saves midway through the season.
Atlanta was desperate for bullpen help and pounced on Greene, who had a year and a half of control left. The Tigers were smart to move their closer this deadline because he would be much less valuable as a rental in 2020.
For Greene, the Tigers got a couple of lottery tickets with legitimate upside.
Travis Demeritte was inserted immediately into the Tigers’ starting lineup. He struggled to the tune of 63 strikeouts in 48 games, finishing with a .630 OPS.
But with an opportunity for full-season reps in 2020, the Tigers hope Demeritte can mimic what he was doing in Triple-A before the trade. He was slashing .286/.387/.558 with 20 home runs, 28 doubles and 51 walks in 96 games.
Detroit desperately needs a middle-of-the-order bat with some power and the ability to draw a walk. Avila identified a player who at least has that potential.
The real steal of this trade appears to be Joey Wentz, who came over and joined top prospects Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal and Alex Faedo in Double-A Erie.
Wentz fit right in with that studly group, allowing just six earned runs in 25.2 innings with the SeaWolves while striking out 37 batters. His high strikeout rate was matched with a minuscule walk rate, leading to a 0.94 WHIP.
The 22-year-old made five starts in the Tigers’ organization, and in that time, he got swings and misses on 17% of his pitches -- an elite rate.
It’s possible neither Demeritte nor Wentz make a major impact in Detroit, but there’s a nonzero chance they become contributors. Greene wasn’t going to be part of the team’s long-term plan, so this trade is already a win.
3. David Price for Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris
- Date: July 30, 2015
- Details: Tigers trade David Price to the Toronto Blue Jays for Matthew Boyd, Daniel Norris and Jairo Labourt.
Looking back, the Tigers would have liked to get more for David Price in 2015. He was having a strong season and remained one of the most reliable pitchers in the league, but he was a three-month rental.
At the time of the move, Daniel Norris looked like the prized return. Norris was the No. 25 prospect in all of baseball before debuting as a 21-year-old in 2014. He was the No. 5 left-handed pitching prospect and the No. 1 player in the Blue Jays’ organization.
Norris hasn’t panned out as a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. In fact, he’s been injured or downright unusable for the majority of his Tigers career.
But he found a role as an opener in 2019, making nine consecutive starts of exactly three innings. He posted a 3.33 ERA and 1.00 WHIP over that span, holding hitters to a .683 OPS. His swinging strike rate ballooned to 14% over that span.
Is this what the Tigers envisioned when they traded for a top prospect? Obviously not. But Norris quietly had a 2.9 WAR in 2019, meaning he’s the team’s second-most valuable player.
Matthew Boyd was a great scoop for the Tigers in this deal. He wasn’t considered much of a prospect at the time of the trade, and the first several years in Detroit didn’t go very well.
But a breakout 2018 -- when Boyd raised his strikeout rate to 8.4 batters per nine innings and posted a 1.16 WHIP -- led to an even better 2019, and suddenly, Boyd is the best player on the roster.
He has posted a combined 5.6 WAR the last two seasons and ranked among the MLB leaders with 238 strikeouts. His sudden emergence as one of the game’s premier bat missers will make Boyd a valuable trade chip, especially if he can get the home run rate under control.
Boyd allowed a league-leading 39 home runs this year, nearly two per nine innings. When he keeps the ball in the yard, he’s a legitimate ace, and the best asset the Tigers have gotten in recent trades.
2. Yoenis Cespedes for Michael Fulmer
- Date: July 31, 2015
- Details: Tigers trade Yoenis Cespedes to the New York Mets for Michael Fulmer and Luis Cessa.
Yoenis Cespedes was a tremendously fun player to watch in Detroit, and he was one of the most valuable players on the 2015 team because of his powerful bat and his elite defensive numbers.
But the Tigers weren’t competitive that season and Cespedes was set to become a free agent in November. The fact that they were able to get a top 100 prospect for him was a steal, and it wouldn’t happen in today’s environment.
Michael Fulmer was that top 100 prospect, and though his numbers don’t offer much hope for the future, he was certainly a great find for two seasons.
Fulmer won the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year award by posting a 3.06 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 26 starts for the Tigers. He was solid the following season, posting a 3.83 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP.
But the inability to miss bats, despite a high 90s fastball and a wicked slider, was always a concerning trend.
Fulmer’s career strikeout rate of seven batters per nine innings caught up with him in 2018, when he went from a player who posted 8.7 WAR in his first two seasons to a league average pitcher.
An injury cost Fulmer his entire 2019 season, and there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding his return this spring. At 27 years old, will Fulmer rebound and return to his old ways? Can he make a Boyd-esque leap in terms of strikeouts? Will he stay healthy?
If 2016 Fulmer was the real Fulmer, this would be one of the best Tigers trades of the century. Instead, it looks like a very good trade with a chance to look even better if Fulmer can make improvements and get back in the Tigers’ rotation.
1. Justin Wilson and Alex Avila for Isaac Paredes and Jeimer Candelario
- Date: July 31, 2017
- Details: Tigers trade Justin Wilson and Alex Avila to the Chicago Cubs for Isaac Paredes and Jeimer Candelario.
Avila did a nice job jumping in on the Cubs’ prospect fire sale, landing a top 100 prospect in Jeimer Candelario and a future top 100 prospect in Isaac Paredes.
All he had to do was trade a left-handed reliever. And his son.
The Tigers traded three months of Alex Avila and a year and a half of Justin Wilson for what they believed were two cornerstone pieces of the future offense.
Early returns were extremely positive for Candelario. He was a player who showed an excellent ability to get on base in the minors, posting a career .353 OBP to go along with 316 extra-base hits in 809 games.
In 27 games with the Tigers after the trade, Candelario posted a .874 OPS with 31 hits and 12 walks compared to just 18 strikeouts in 27 games. It was the Candelario everyone imagined.
But that changed during his first full season in 2018. Candelario’s swing got way too big, and as he sold out for power, the traits that made him such a revered prospect started to fade. His OBP fell to .317 as he struck out 160 times in 144 games. His walk rate was fine, but the inability to put the ball in play dropped his average to .224.
Candelario’s struggles compiled in 2019 as he hit just .203 with a .306 OBP. He didn’t hit for power, either, settling for eight home runs and 17 doubles in 94 games.
There was a glimmer of hope in September after the Tigers recalled Candelario from Triple-A Toledo. He still hit just .230 in 20 games, but posted a .377 OBP thanks to 12 walks and just 16 strikeouts. Candelario finished that month with a strong .770 OPS.
Ironically, that’s exactly the mark Paredes owns in 30 games in the Mexican Pacific Winter League. The 20-year-old has racked up 36 hits and walked more often than he’s struck out, all while playing competition nearly a decade older than him, on average.
Paredes spent the entire 2019 season in Double-A, and he was one of the few offensive bright spots in the organization. He posted a .282/.368/.416 slash line and hit 23 doubles and 13 home runs. Most impressively, Paredes walked 57 times and struck out 61 times in 127 games. That type of plate discipline for a 20-year-old is extremely exciting.
The Tigers don’t have much to offer in terms of trade chips this week, but Avila could make some savvy free agent signings to brighten the outlook for 2020.
Boyd’s value has plummeted since the second half of 2019, and unless teams are willing to offer a package based on his underlying numbers, the Tigers should take advantage of him being under team control for the next three seasons. If his strikeout numbers remain among the league’s best, he should eventually fetch a top-notch prospect in a trade.
Would teams be interested in Joe Jimenez, Niko Goodrum or Norris? If so, Avila should keep his mind open. Nobody on the current roster has earned the designation of untouchable.
The Tigers will be bad again in 2020 -- maybe even worse than in 2019. But if Avila truly believes it’s time to start building the roster back up, then the Tigers need to make more moves like the trades above to bring offensive talent to Detroit.
Mize, Manning, Skubal, Faedo and Wentz will be ready to test the MLB waters soon. Avila’s job is to make sure the team can score runs and play defense behind them.