However the offseason scuttlebutt started, the Detroit Tigers refuse to force the issue in one direction or the other. They have not received the offers for their big names that they expected, and they haven’t settled for less either. Instead, they appear to be waiting for opportunities to present themselves. One may be on the table in the person of reliever Justin Wilson. Several teams have shown some interest in the hard-throwing lefty this offseason. The latest, according to Fox Sports’ Jon Morosi, appears to be the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs’ side of this makes perfect sense. Having declined to shower Aroldis Chapman with cash as part of this winter’s super-reliever gold rush, the Cubs are weak in left-handed pitching. And the crop of southpaw relievers in free agency is rather a sketchy bunch. Justin Wilson is a better option for a Cubs organization dreaming of a North Side dynasty.
Where this gets interesting is on the Tigers’ side of the equation. What do the Tigers reasonably want in return? Whatever else may come in trade talks, the Tigers need a legitimate center field option and left-handed hitting catcher. Trading Wilson for another reliever doesn’t make sense. For a team that is trying to compete next year, any prospects not yet blooded in the majors don’t fit into their aspirations. It’s difficult to find a nexus of value and need between the Tigers and Cubs. Particularly in light of the current run on relief pitching, Wilson is perhaps more valuable than Tigers fans might think.
He just isn’t enough to get Albert Almora, a fine young centerfielder whose hit tool hasn’t yet caught up to his glove. Problem is, Almora is already flashing some power, and at age 23, still profiles as a valuable player for the Cubs in the years to come. Almora posted a 101 wRC+ in a short span of 117 plate appearances last season. He managed low walk and strikeouts rates, as he has in the minors, along with solid extra base power. Add in plus defense in center field, and you have a guy the Cubs seem unlikely to trade for just a good relief pitcher.
However, Almora is replaceable. The Cubs have Jon Jay on a one-year deal. Jason Heyward is available as depth at the position. Between Almora, Jay, Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber, and outfield fill-in Kris Bryant, they’re loaded with outfielders. They may have a future center field option in Donnie Dewees, their second round pick in 2015. Another year of development in the minors and Dewees could be the centerfielder of the future, not Almora. The Tigers would have to sweeten the deal substantially — no, not with Steven Moya — to get the Cubs to part with Almora. Still, this is something they should definitely be inquiring about.
Another possibility would be to trade for catcher Miguel Montero. The left-handed hitting veteran is in the final season of a five-year contract he originally signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and which will pay him $14 million in 2017. That’s a lot of bread for a 33-year-old catcher with a history of back issues. Montero and Cubs manager Joe Maddon had a fairly public falling out during the Cubs’ postseason run. Between this, Montero’s cost, and the rise of Wilson Contreras as the Cubs primary catcher, the Cubs may view Montero as expendable. He is still a plus framer with plenty of game-calling experience, but generally he has fallen off both defensively and with the bat. The Tigers could certainly use a left-handed hitting catcher with above average framing ability. At this point, however, Montero isn’t much of an upgrade from options like Alex Avila or Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Montero is not a player the Tigers are willing or able to spend that kind of money on, either. This is doubly so when giving up a valuable piece like Justin Wilson. Were the Cubs to pitch in much of Montero’s salary (not to mention a prospect), perhaps something could be arranged. But, just as in the case of Almora, the fit just isn’t there with the Tigers.
The Tigers need Justin Wilson. They would have the same problem the Cubs do if they dealt him. Wilson isn’t really a prototypical left-hander in terms of his splits. There are only so many Andrew Millers in the world, so Wilson is the closest thing to a shutdown lefty the Tigers are going to find. For such a scarce resource, “equal” value probably isn’t enough to be worthwhile. This makes it hard to envision the Tigers dealing Wilson for a prospect, either.
The Cubs could certainly make for interesting trading partners. They have the firepower to make a deal happen, and all the reason in the world to push for a second World Series title with their current roster. Justin Wilson makes sense for them. It’s just hard to see a reasonable deal that grades out as a net gain for the Tigers. To make something happen the Tigers will probably have to expand the scope of such a deal. As things stand, it just doesn’t fit.