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Tigers picked the right time to trade Cameron Maybin

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The return isn’t impressive at first glance, but probably because Maybin’s trade value wasn’t as high as we think.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Winter is coming. We’ve known this for a while as Detroit Tigers fans, but that first gust of cold air is startling. That initial shiver came in the form of a surprising trade, one that sent center fielder Cameron Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for pitching prospect Victor Alcantara. The immediate reaction from Tigers fans was largely negative, especially as fans look at the internal options to replace Maybin in center field.

But that negative perception is based on an inflated view of Maybin’s value across the fanbase. The Tigers traded a left-handed reliever and a lottery ticket of a prospect to the Braves for Maybin last year, when Maybin was coming off one of the healthiest seasons of his injury-plagued career. After a BABIP-inflated 94-game sample, the Tigers received similar value in return.

This was the right time to trade Cameron Maybin. Perhaps it didn’t have to happen on November 3 — the Tigers could have picked up Maybin’s option and looked to move him later in the winter — but moving Maybin this offseason is a low-risk gamble that sheds some salary and nets a prospect in return.

There are some negatives to this trade, to be sure. Maybin’s departure leaves a big hole in the outfield, one that looms larger when you consider just how vast Comerica Park’s outfield is. Maybin also leaves a hole at the top of the lineup where the Tigers struggled to find a capable No. 2 hitter early in 2016. A healthy Maybin was playing at a 3-3.5 WAR pace last season, a valuable commodity for only $9 million.

However, this isn’t the Maybin that other teams see. The Angels see the oft-injured outfielder who only played 94 in 2016. Maybin’s injuries seemed random, but his teams have said the same thing for a decade now. He has never played 150 games in a season, and has topped the 100-game mark just three times. Odds are he would have fallen short again in 2017, leaving the Tigers in the same situation they find themselves in right now. The only difference is that now the Tigers have five months to find a capable replacement.

Tigers fans had an inflated view of Maybin because of his stellar offensive production last year. Maybin hit .315/.383/.418 in 391 plate appearances, numbers he has never approached before. His only other above average season at the plate came back in 2011, when he managed a 105 wRC+ in 137 games with the Padres. Maybin’s 2016 numbers were inflated by a .383 BABIP, a figure he won’t come close to replicating next season. A drop-off was coming, and the Tigers did their best to sell high before the fall.

The problem is that the Tigers weren’t able to sell too high. Other teams see those same red flags we do, and their perception isn’t colored by Maybin’s electric smile and giddy gestures when he reaches base. This resulted in a disappointing return, at least at first glance. Victor Alcantara is the prospect that needs to have multiple things go right before he’s a capable major league arm. He has a monster fastball, but his secondary stuff is middling and the command is nonexistent. The Tigers don’t have a great history with prospects like this. However, you can’t teach a triple-digit fastball, and even a small improvement in his command makes him a viable middle relief arm.

Replacing Maybin could be difficult, but it’s far from impossible. JaCoby Jones could use more seasoning before being handed the job full-time, but there are other options in the system that can fake it until he’s ready. For all his faults, Anthony Gose is one year removed from a 90 wRC+ in 140 games played. He hits right-handed pitching well, and could handle the lion’s share of a platoon. Tyler Collins doesn’t look like a center fielder, but he hit well during regular playing time in 2015. The Tigers could also look outside the organization for another outfielder, whether it’s a full-time contributor or a lefty-masher to platoon with Gose or Collins.

Moving Maybin isn’t the catastrophe Tigers Twitter might lead you to believe. The Tigers would have been in this same predicament a year from now, or whenever Maybin inevitably hits the disabled list during the 2017 season. With this trade, the Tigers don’t have to worry about Maybin’s injury woes. They shed some salary, net a prospect, and even get a chance to evaluate some potential long-term center field options during a 2017 season that might be spent in limbo as they continue to build a viable farm system.

Will they? Who knows. It’s a long winter, and all we can do is wait as the pieces to this offseason puzzle come together.