Let's just cut to the chase: Dave Dombrowski is going to look like a genius if he gets this one right. Or two right. The Tigers made a pair of high-risk, high-reward trades today after an otherwise lackluster Winter Meetings for the club. First, they agreed to send Rick Porcello to the Boston Red Sox for Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Wilson, and minor leaguer Gabe Speier. Before the team even had a chance to announce the deal, the Tigers also sent Eugenio Suarez and prospect Jonathon Crawford to the Cincinnati Reds for Alfredo Simon.
Got all that?
Cespedes and Simon are the two main pieces the Tigers received in this deal, and both are free agents after the 2015 season. Cespedes is a big name with the home run totals to back it up, but his on-base percentage is leaving many Tigers fans with doubts. He hit .260/.301/.450 with 22 home runs and 100 RBI last season, but walked in just 5.4 percent of plate appearances. He has a career .316 on-base percentage in three MLB seasons.
Simon, on the other hand, might be the most reviled All-Star pitcher in baseball. Not only was Simon's stellar first half a bit of a misnomer -- he benefitted from a .232 BABIP before allowing a 4.52 ERA after the All-Star break -- he is also in the middle of some legal issues. The 2014 season was Simon's first as a full-time starter, and he totaled 196 1/3 innings with a 3.44 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. Not bad, right? Well, his 4.33 FIP and 2.27 strikeout-to-walk ratio suggest that the low ERA may not be a reasonable expectation in 2015.
Before we trash the deal and question who kidnapped the real Dave Dombrowski, let's think about what this deal did for the 2015 Tigers. They downgraded their rotation and gave up a potential compensatory draft pick in 2016, but picked up a huge upgrade in the outfield and bolstered their bullpen in the process. Sure, the moves don't make sense on their own, but they kind of work when you think about the bigger picture.
Call me crazy, but the Tigers might be better today than they were 24 hours ago.
Sure, Cespedes and his low on-base percentage don't really fit the needs of the Tigers' lineup. They could have used a corner outfielder who gets on base at a 35 percent clip to sit atop the lineup and score bunches of runs when Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez walk up to the plate. But those don't exactly grow on trees, and finding one is a bit more complex than any of us think. Even if Nori Aoki is staring you right in the face.
While on-base percentage is a good way to measure a hitter's production -- certainly moreso than batting average, I would argue -- it isn't the perfect tool. And Yoenis Cespedes has proven to be a dangerous hitter despite the low on-base percentage. He has finished with a wRC+ of 109 or better in two of his three MLB seasons, and has hit at least 22 homers in all three. He drove in 100 runs last season for the first time despite a rather pedestrian .260 batting average. He was a monster in 2012, hitting .292/.356/.505. And he is 29 years old, smack in the middle of his prime.
The Tigers see this. They're not focusing on the hole atop the lineup, they're looking at the entire batting order. And when you add Cespedes to a middle of the order already featuring Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and J.D. Martinez, it says something. Brad Ausmus recognized this during his media session today.
"At some point, a pitcher's going to have to go through that stretch of hitters, which is a pretty powerful part of the lineup, probably as powerful as any part of any lineup in the game."
Offense isn't the only thing Cespedes brings to the table, either. He will be relegated to one of the corner outfield spots after shuffling between left and center field in Oakland. Defensive metrics love his glove in the corners. He has a career 14.5 UZR and +17 defensive runs saved in left field. And the arm. Oh, that arm. Cespedes has 35 outfield assists in the last three seasons. The Tigers have 56. Opposing baserunners, beware.
Then there's Simon. Just about everything he did in the first half of 2014 screamed regression. Lo and behold, that regression bit -- and bit him hard -- in the second half. Simon's ERA rose from 2.70 to 4.52 while his strikeout-to-walk ratio dipped considerably. He only averaged 5 2/3 innings per start. The Reds went 4-10 in games that he started after the All-Star break. Overall, it wasn't pretty.
There are reasons to believe, though. Simon's workload more than doubled from 2013, when he pitched 87 2/3 innings out of the Reds' bullpen. In fact, Simon worked nearly 50 innings more in 2014 than he did in 2012 and 2013 combined. The start-by-start breakdown is encouraging, too. Simon allowed three runs or fewer in nine of his 14 second half starts last year. He only crossed the 100 pitch barrier in four of those 14 starts, and only tallied 90+ in four more.
Is it a perfect match? Not by a long shot. Simon has a career 4.55 FIP and will be 33 years old in May. Pitchers usually don't "figure it all out" at that age, and he will rely heavily on the defense behind him. He only struck out 15.5 percent of the batters he faced in 2014, and that percentage dipped below 15 percent after the All-Star break.
That first half was something, though, and the Tigers might have stumbled upon another little gold nugget. Simon allowed a 2.70 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in 18 starts. He posted a 2.68 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He kept the ball on the ground, falling just shy of a 50 percent ground ball rate. Could he do it again? This is what the Tigers may be betting on.
Even if he can't, there are other options. Kyle Lobstein and the other prospects we were expecting to man the fifth starter spot two weeks ago are still around. And Simon was a fairly reliable bullpen arm in 2012 and 2013. This isn't a Brad Penny situation. Simon is versatile, and can provide innings as a starter or reliever. The club sees him as a starter, but if he falters, it's a short step down to the bullpen, where help is typically needed.
Speaking of the bullpen, let's not forget about Alex Wilson. What seems to be a throw-in for Porcello could actually turn out to be a decent find for the Tigers. Wilson is 28 years old, throws in the mid-90s, and has five years of club control remaining. He was dynamite in 28 1/3 innings for the Red Sox last season, allowing a 1.91 ERA and 0.88 WHIP. His peripherals weren't great -- he had a 3.91 FIP and only struck out 17.4 percent of batters -- but only two returning relievers (Al Alburquerque and Blaine Hardy) were better in that regard.
Yes, the cost was steep. Rick Porcello finally had his breakout season in 2014, and he will provide a compensatory draft pick if he departs via free agency, unlike Cespedes. Eugenio Suarez looked like a competent MLB shortstop at times. Jonathon Crawford is a former first-round pick who still has some big league upside. Any one of those player -- or even all three -- could make the Tigers regret this trade later.
But I would argue that Cespedes, Wilson, and Simon make the team better than Porcello and a blocked Suarez in 2015. They filled a big hole in the outfield and improved the bullpen at the expense of the rotation, making the team more balanced. They didn't sacrifice much future value -- both Suarez and Crawford were likely to be trade bait at some point -- and only added a couple million dollars in payroll. Is it risky? Absolutely, but it could also pay off in a big way in 2015.