Last Wednesday, the Detroit Tigers sent veteran second baseman Ian Kinsler to the Los Angeles Angels in return for a pair of prospects. Kinsler’s no-trade clause made it difficult to extract a quality return. However, the lack of even an average prospect coming back for a player who since 2014 has been the third most valuable second baseman in the game is a tough pill to swallow. The trade isn’t that important in the grander scheme, but it continues a trend of the Tigers trading good players for meager returns.
The Tigers’ defensive tone is the giveaway
In post-trade comments, general manager Al Avila made it pretty clear that Kinsler’s no-trade clause severely limited his ability to deal with any team but the Angels.
However, when you finish an offseason trade by admitting that you had no leverage, perhaps it was a trade you shouldn’t have been involved with in the first place. The Tigers weren’t out of time, but from Al Avila’s quotes, you might think it was late July already.
"We went through it at the Trade Deadline this past summer; that didn't work," Avila said. "And now here we are, and I think it's time to move on. The longer you wait in this scenario, I don't know that [the return] would've been any better."
Avila’s isn’t exactly selling the deal as a winner here. They aren’t pushing Troy Montgomery and Wilkel Hernandez as guys they held in high regard and were really pleased to acquire.
Interesting too, that Avila references the 2017 trade deadline as a point they had little leverage. Depending on how you feel about Dawel Lugo, the Tigers didn’t come away with much for J.D. Martinez. But, by valuing and holding out on Justin Verlander, they ultimately got a deal quite close to what they’d hoped to land in July.
Another example involved passing on offers for Justin Wilson last offseason. Because Wilson had a fine first half, coupled with an Alex Avila renaissance, they came out ahead, pairing them to acquire the Chicago Cubs’ two best infield prospects.
The point is, circumstances change constantly over the course of a season, and what happened last year isn’t necessarily going to repeat itself in 2018. Credit Avila for his candor, but the Tigers are characterizing the deal as one they were forced to take. An understandably surly Tigers fanbase isn’t thrilled to hear that amidst glowing reviews for Angels GM Billy Eppler.
Ian Kinsler’s dismal 2017 is better explained by luck than aging
The other element here is the assertion that Kinsler had little trade value. That isn’t an argument the Tigers should have even been willing to entertain. When a good general manager moves to trade a player, he becomes a salesman. There is a very strong case to make that Kinsler will do well for the Angels next season, and you have to wonder if the Tigers made that case forcefully enough.
As FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan points out, despite a rough season by his standards, Kinsler’s peripherals don’t reveal a player in real decline. He raised his walk rate three percent over his 2016 numbers and struck out less often. He hit the ball every bit as hard on average as he had the season prior.
Expected Weighted On Base Average (xwOBA) uses exit velocity and launch angle to estimate a batted ball’s probability to be a single, double, triple, or home run based on comparable batted balls. Kinsler has maintained steady numbers, posting a .314, .328, and .326 over the past three seasons. Everything in Kinsler’s contact profile suggests that he was essentially the same hitter in 2017 as he was during his 5.7 fWAR campaign in 2016.
Kinsler’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was just .244 last season. If a single factor explains his decline in production last year, it was bad luck.
All this indicates a reasonably high probability that Kinsler will bounce back in 2018 to some point between his 2016 and 2017 levels of production. There’s always a bit of extra risk in a player his age, but it’s balanced by no notable decline in his underlying tools. A 3-4 WAR campaign is still a pretty likely outcome in 2018.
You can bet Eppler is aware of all this. He knows the caliber of player he acquired without losing a single top 10 prospect. The Angels got a leadoff hitter who runs the bases well, and now have perhaps the most formidable middle infield in the game defensively. None of the other options for the Angels could provide all that, and that’s a case the Tigers should have been effective in making.
Tigers had little to lose by waiting
Perhaps the Tigers would never get any more for Kinsler than they received. The outcome of this trade has little long-term bearing on the fate of the franchise. But, when you look at the prospects involved, the Tigers had little to lose by waiting.
At a time when the Tigers should be taking some risks to acquire good prospects instead of depth pieces, there is a frustrating lack of creativity in the Tigers’ front office. It’s hard to imagine that they used all available instruments to acquire a little leverage of their own. Instead, the Kinsler deal looks like a salary dump, despite the team’s protestations to the contrary.
According to Avila himself, lowering the payroll further isn’t his goal.
"Lowering payroll isn't really what we're trying to do. What we're trying to do is basically get younger, get leaner and then start rebuilding with the best players that we can acquire in order to put a good team on the field."
Why then did they accept full salary relief over a better prospect package? Did they try to expand the scope of the deal, including another player to pull one of Eppler’s better trade chips from him? Or did they just keep exchanging names until they got far enough down in the Angels farm system for Eppler to agree?
In the end, the Tigers’ farm system wouldn’t be appreciably affected had they missed out on a deal entirely. It’s difficult to be pleased with that outcome, and the Tigers themselves aren’t arguing the point. Maybe their scouts are smarter than everybody else and the prospects will surprise, but that’s a hard bet to ask a frustrated fanbase to place.