Under former president and general manager Dave Dombrowski, the Detroit Tigers were perennial players at the MLB trade deadline. Last-minute deals included blockbuster trades for Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez, and David Price, as well as the last minute firesale in 2015 that netted the Tigers several promising young players.
This year looks to be different. Not only are the Tigers reticent to part with the young talent they picked up just last year, general manager Al Avila has emphasized the importance of restocking the farm system time and again since he was hired. Earlier this month, he even went as far to tell reporters that the Tigers would not be involved in any high-profile deals this July.
This doesn’t mean the Tigers won’t be looking for the right deal. There are players available that could provide a boost to the current roster without ravaging the farm system. They may not be the flashiest of names, and we may have to squint a bit to find the positives, but they could ultimately pay off if things go right. Here are five such players the Tigers could target prior to the trade deadline.
RHP Jeremy Hellickson, Phillies
The Tigers have long had a thing for pitchers who perform well against their club in game action, and Jeremy Hellickson fits that bill perfectly. He went seven strong innings with seven strikeouts against the Tigers in May, and has limited their lineup to a 2.25 ERA and .638 OPS against in six career meetings.
Hellickson is far from the sexiest name on the market. He has a 4.06 ERA and 4.32 FIP in 17 starts with the Philadelphia Phillies this season, and has had gobs of home run issues in the past. Since the start of 2013, he has allowed a 4.69 ERA and 1.33 WHIP.
Buuuut, things are trending in the right direction. Hellickson has induced an 11.8 percent swinging strike rate this season, the highest of his career. His strikeout rate is also at a career high while his walk rate has dropped slightly since 2015. His changeup has gotten better and hoo boy do the Tigers also love themselves a good changeup. Plus, getting him out of Philadelphia could help his numbers improve; he has allowed more home runs on the road, but opponents are hitting almost 30 points higher in Citizens Bank Park.
LHP Rich Hill, Athletics
Many scoffed at the idea of signing Rich Hill to be a starter last offseason. After all, he had practically zero success as a starter throughout his career, and would be 36 years old by Opening Day 2016. He was Kershaw-esque in a four-start stint with the Boston Red Sox down the stretch in 2015, but it was hard to buy this renaissance based on a 29-inning sample.
Welp, we were all wrong. Hill has been every bit the dominant force he was in Boston last September for the A’s this year, limiting opponents to a 2.31 ERA while striking out over 10 batters per inning. He was once the AL ERA leader, and perhaps the hottest commodity on this year’s trade market.
Until he got hurt, that is. Hill recently returned from a groin injury, and has only made one appearance since he started against the Tigers on May 29. His return was solid, with two runs allowed in six innings with six strikeouts, but there can still be lingering effects from an injury of that nature. Given the limited timetable teams will have to scout him following his return, his asking price should drop considerably. It’s a risky move, but one that could pay the most dividends if the Tigers can pull off a deal.
LHP Will Smith, Brewers
When scouring the internet for players that won’t raise your eyebrows, I found this tweet very interesting.
For all the talk about going after Miller/Chapman if Yanks sell, Will Smith might give you nearly as much for a portion of the price.— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) July 6, 2016
Smith started his career in the Royals organization, but moved over to Milwaukee in the 2013-14 offseason in exchange for outfielder Nori Aoki. Odds are neither side will complain about the result, but Smith has been one of the more effective relievers in baseball since joining the Brewers. He has a 3.07 ERA in a Milwaukee uniform, but has lowered that figure to 1.84 in 2016. His peripherals — a 3.78 FIP and 4.84 xFIP — aren’t quite as excited, but Smith’s batted ball profile looks particularly unsustainable. He is currently allowing a 30.8 percent line drive rate, but inducing soft contact at a relatively high (25.6%) clip. He is more of a left-handed specialist, but hasn’t been awful against righthanders in his career.
Adding to the bullpen at the trade deadline could pay dividends for the Tigers in multiple ways. For one, bolstering the bullpen allows them to move Shane Greene back into the rotation, hopefully fixing their starter issues. Smith (or another reliever) will also be cheaper to acquire than a starter, particularly one under club control for a number of years, like the Rays are currently offering. Smith also has the ability to go multiple innings, though he has been shoehorned into a LOOGY role over the past couple seasons.
RHP Jim Johnson, Braves
I’m not kidding, I promise. Jim Johnson had a disastrous 2014 season while pitching for the A’s and Tigers, allowing a 7.09 ERA and 5.08 FIP in 53 1/3 innings. This was a clear anomaly, though. Johnson has posted solid results on both sides of that terrible ‘14 season, including a 2.25 ERA and 3.24 FIP in 48 innings for the Braves last season before being traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in July. He struggled down the stretch last year, but still posted a 2.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio while inducing grounders at a 61 percent clip.
While Johnson’s 4.40 ERA this season isn’t encouraging, his advanced metrics are. He currently owns a 3.52 FIP, and both xFIP (3.37) and SIERA (3.26) are even more optimistic that better days are ahead. Johnson is still inducing grounders at a high rate. Once his batter ball profile normalizes a bit, he should be just fine. Given the Braves’ current record and his expiring contract, he’s a near-lock to be moved before the trade deadline.
RHP Daniel Hudson, Diamondbacks
Closer Brad Ziegler and setup man Tyler Clippard may be more sought-after pieces in the Diamondbacks’ bullpen, but Hudson is a free-agent-to-be who would cost a fraction of the price. Hudson has posted middling results so far this season, with a 4.50 ERA and 2.08 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 32 innings. He has limited opponents to a .213 batting average and 1.19 WHIP, and while those numbers are partially deflated by his .253 BABIP, he is also inducing more pop-ups and weak contact than ever before. Hudson has been able to limit the home run ball throughout his career despite pitching in one of the most hitter-friendly environments in the game as well.