As the trade deadline approaches, people keep wondering whether the Detroit Tigers should be buyers or sellers. Like Craig Edwards at FanGraphs, I believe that the Tigers cannot afford to sell. So that means the two options are to stand pat or to buy.
Standing pat doesn’t seem like a terrible idea. Two of the Tigers' best players (J.D. Martinez and Jordan Zimmermann) should be back in a span of weeks, and both should give the team a big boost. However, even with both players healthy playing time factored in, FanGraphs only estimates that Detroit has a 28.7 percent chance to make the playoffs.
Therefore, to this writer, buying may be the best option. The remaining questions are at what position and who from.
Much like Malcolm Gladwell described soccer on his podcast this week, baseball is a weak-link sport. This means that your success as a team isn’t built around how good your best player is. It depends on how good your worst player is. This has been clearly demonstrated in the past (Alex Rodriguez winning the MVP on a last place Rangers team in 2003) and more recently (see: Trout, Mike). Therefore, while teams try to gather the most "star" players, sometimes it is in their best interest to upgrade their players at their worst positions.
Using FanGraphs Depth Chart pages, which estimate future performance based on projected playing time, here is how the Tigers would compare against the rest of MLB in terms of projected rest of season Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
It’s surprising to see that the worst Tigers position when compared to other MLB teams is third base. However, there is no way that the Tigers are displacing Nick Castellanos, as he is finally tapping into his immense offensive potential. He has also gotten better defensively in each of the last three seasons. Third base just happens to be a stacked position throughout baseball.
That leaves three positions where upgrades would bring the best return on investment: catcher, center field, and the bullpen. I am not going to discuss the bullpen as it has been a well chronicled Achilles’ heel over the years, and even ranking 21st in MLB is a significant improvement. That leaves two positions where the Tigers can improve the most.
James McCann has struggled mightily this year. After an encouraging rookie year (85 wRC+), he been in a slump at the plate all season (40 wRC+), which has been exacerbated over the last 30 days (6 wRC+). Some of this is just bad luck -- he has a 0.256 BABIP which would rank in the bottom 12% of all players with at least 200 plate appearances. However, he is also striking out more frequently and is hitting for less power than in 2015.
McCann has especially struggled against right-handed pitching, hitting just .165/.208/.198 in 126 plate appearances, a wRC+ of 4. He has always been a good defensive catcher with regard to blocking balls but he was the worst pitch framer in baseball last year and ranks near the bottom again this year. Mccann is still relatively young and has room for improvement, but I think it’s an understatement to say that this year has been disappointing.
On the other hand, Cameron Maybin’s career has been revitalized with the team that drafted him. He is posting career bests in batting average (.325), on-base percentage (.392), strikeout rate (14.3%), walk rate (10.1%) and wRC+ (115). He is also playing serviceable defense in center field. However, much like McCann is hurt by bad luck on BABIP, Maybin is being helped by it. His .379 BABIP ranks seventh out of 263 players with 200 plate appearances on the season, and he is almost certainly heading for some regression.
Enter the Oakland Athletics. The A’s are likely going to be sellers in the upcoming trade deadline, as they sit 12 games back of first place in the AL West and have a projected 0.3 percent chance of making the playoffs. They have two position players that would be intriguing for the Tigers. Stephen Vogt has turned into one of the best offensive catchers in baseball. In addition, he hits left-handed and performs well against right-handed pitching. He is also in his last year of his contract before arbitration, which is especially important for the perennially cash-strapped Athletics. Vogt is not as young or as good defensively as McCann, and he’s also a poor pitch framer. However, he could form a formidable catching rotation with Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
The other interesting player the A’s might be willing to part with is the aptly named Billy Burns. Burns is a speedy switch hitting center fielder who had a great rookie year last year (102 wRC+) but has been also bitten by the BABIP bug in 2016. He’s also a good (not great) defensive center fielder, and one of the best baserunners in all of baseball.
With JD Martinez injured, the Tigers fourth outfielder is a combination of Mike Aviles and Tyler Collins. Mike Aviles is having the worst season of his career (-1.1 WAR) and is having the seventh worst season of any MLB player with 150 plate appearances. Collins has played well lately, but has a career .693 OPS in parts of three seasons.
Adding both Vogt and Burns would balance the lineup better, which we know is incredibly right-hand heavy. In addition, Burns would be immediately be one of the best fourth outfielders in baseball, and a weapon as a pinch runner in late inning situations, similar to how the Royals have used Jarrod Dyson over the last several years.
Aviles is one of the Tigers' backup infielders, but you could argue that those reps are better served by Andrew Romine, Dixon Machado or Jacoby Jones. By replacing McCann, the outfield platoon, and Aviles with Vogt, Burns, and Machado, the team should get about 0.5-1.0 WAR better over the remainder of the season. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it would be a similar upgrade to either the Indians or Rangers acquiring Jonathan Lucroy (1.1 projected WAR for the remainder of the season).
What would you be willing to give up in a trade like this?
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Christopher Yheulon is a contributor to Bless You Boys and firmly believes that Lou Whitaker should be in the Hall of Fame.