With the calendar more than halfway through January and spring training just over a month away, it’s easy to become annoyed by the Detroit Tigers’ apparent lack of plan in center field. Any vacant gap in the roster at this stage in the offseason is an unwelcome sight, but when a team trades away their only viable option for the position just days after the season ends, the negative feelings only multiply.
The real source of frustration for Detroit fans, though, is that the Tigers let Cameron Maybin go for barely anything in return. Maybin’s $9 million contract was out of Detroit’s price range, but many felt that the electric center fielder was well worth the cost. When healthy, Maybin was a dynamic part of the 2016 Tigers, offering exciting speed and a consistent presence on base at the top of the lineup.
It is hard to see the Tigers finding anyone who can replace Maybin’s production from last season. He ranked second on the team in batting average, on-base percentage, and base running, and he came in fourth in wRC+. He also ranked in the top five among all center fielders with 300 plate appearances in average and OBP and landed in the top ten in wRC+. But even these numbers were not enough to make the Tigers want to hold on.
Hitting his ceiling
As frustrating as it may be to admit, the Detroit front office looks smarter than they may have initially seemed when looking at the Maybin trade in retrospect. Sure, the payroll limitations are aggravatingly narrow right now, but even with a full budget there was no guarantee he would have lived up to his contract. The first indication is his health, which once again limited him last year. Over the last four seasons, Maybin has appeared in 100 games just once. His 94-game season in 2016 was riddled with injuries and he has shown no sign of shaking them.
But even when healthy, there is very little chance that Maybin could repeat his performance from last season. His .315 average was over 50 points higher than his career mark, as was his .383 OBP. His .383 BABIP was the highest on the Tigers and his 120 wRC+ was also an anomaly. Even his 2.5 BsR was his best total since 2012. Across the board Maybin was playing much better than he ever had before.
Tony Blengino came to the same conclusion in a recent Fangraphs article, looking at the contact quality of American League center fielders in 2016. His depiction of Maybin’s season is harsh, but hard to refute:
He was ridiculously fortunate on both liners (141 Unadjusted vs. 102 Adjusted Contact Score) and grounders (203 vs. 98) last season. Sure, he’s fast, but .344 AVG-.367 SLG on the ground? Even if you give him that, .780 AVG-1.051 SLG on liners? There’s good luck, and then there’s Maybin’s 2016.
Simply put, Maybin is due for a regression, and the Tigers front office likely realized that. The drop-off might be on the smaller end, but expecting him to repeat his performance from last season is foolish. Yes, it is unsettling to have no apparent plan in center field, and yes, it seems rash that the Tigers got rid of Maybin so early, but the end result is bound to be much less controversial.
The debate is not between 2016 Maybin and the 2017 Tigers center fielder, but between the latter and whoever the 2017 version of Maybin turns out to be. He very well could have a decent season, but there is every reason to believe that he is primed for a letdown. A .383 BABIP is all but unrepeatable, as is assuming his health will stay the same or improve, and that does not even touch his poor defensive metrics.
Maybin will probably outperform Mikie Mahtook or Tyler Collins, or whichever player takes over center for the Tigers, but chances are that the difference in his performance will not be significantly superior. Given the Tigers’ cost savings and recognition of Maybin’s ceiling, the choice they made to trade him away is not as drastic as it appears on the surface.