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Cameron Maybin trade looks like a win for Tigers and Al Avila

One of the major sore spots of the offseason is turning out to be a non-issue.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

On November 4, 2016, right as the trading season got underway, the Detroit Tigers dealt centerfielder Cameron Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels. The shock waves hit quickly. Coming in concert with comments from general manager Al Avila that the Tigers needed to get younger and less expensive, the trade seemed to indicate the team wouldn’t be looking to contend in 2017. The talk of a rebuild was buoyed by more general comments from Avila that the Tigers would be open to trading anyone, even Miguel Cabrera or Justin Verlander. The direction seemed clear. And then, nothing happened.

In the end, the Maybin trade turned out to be all smoke and no fire. It didn’t portend any real changes. The Tigers simply made an isolated player valuation decision like any other. The team decided they were good enough as constructed in centerfield. And, as it turns out, Al Avila was probably right.

So far in 2017, Maybin’s season in Detroit looks every bit the fluke some thought it was. A year after posting an outstanding .383 OBP out of the leadoff spot for the Tigers, Maybin has only gotten on base at a .293 clip for the Angels. His 60 wRC+ in the early going is half the number he posted in Detroit. While he’s pretty clearly suffered from batted ball luck as bad as it was good last year, the Tigers appear in no danger of missing on this one.

Cameron Maybin 2016-2017

Season PA wRC+ Avg OBP Slg BABIP K% BB%
Season PA wRC+ Avg OBP Slg BABIP K% BB%
2016 391 120 0.315 0.383 0.418 0.383 17.6 9.2
2017 123 60 0.187 0.293 0.252 0.232 19.5 12.2

We obviously can’t put a lot of weight on Maybin’s 2017 numbers as they represent less than a fifth of a season. His hard hit rate and overall batted ball profile isn’t so different from last season’s numbers, though his 3.5 percent lower line drive rate is a concern. Still, he’ll almost certainly see the ball start bouncing his way more, and be at least a productive player for the Angels along the way. However, as we’ve covered here extensively, Maybin’s numbers last year simply weren’t sustainable. Al Avila and his staff recognized that, and more importantly, realized they already had enough in-house options to handle centerfield without any notable loss in production.

So far, Andrew Romine holds a 93 wRC+. Tyler Collins, despite sitting in an ugly funk the past few weeks, holds a 72 wRC+. The only fly in the ointment has been JaCoby Jones. So far, Jones has looked completely over matched by major league pitching, despite being protected from some tougher right-handed pitching. His wRC+ sits at a lowly 50 mark, though with just 45 plate appearances, there’s even less predictive powers to his numbers than any of the players discussed.

None of this is to say the Tigers are strong in centerfield, of course. In terms of overall offensive production, the Tigers are one of the worst teams in the game at the position. But offensively, Maybin hasn’t provided anything that would have made him the answer. And it’s unlikely that even with a more typical BABIP, and his ability to steal bases, he’d be a nine million dollar difference maker in that regard.

Centerfield just isn’t a position the Tigers need much offense from to begin with. Few teams in the league can match the Tigers bats one through six in their lineup, and obviously at catcher, in the early going at least, the Tigers are leading the league in offensive production. They can afford a few defense-first positions. And defense is where the Maybin deal is looking like a sustainable win for the team.

2017 Defense

Player DRS UZR
Player DRS UZR
Cameron Maybin 3 -0.5
Andrew Romine -1 -1.4
JaCoby Jones 3 2.8
Tyler Collins 1 -0.1

Last season Maybin posted a -11 DRS in centerfield, to go with a -6.9 UZR. So far he’s on pace to improve on those numbers, but of course he’s playing mainly in left field for the Angels. Defensive metrics are sketchy and take a long time to become truly meaningful, so there’s little point digging in deep here. However, last season was the second consecutive year Maybin had graded out poorly as a full-time centerfielder. The Tigers probably aren’t going to do much better with Romine and Collins out there, but they’d be hard pressed to do worse.

The key to the Tigers coming out ahead is obviously JaCoby Jones. Both by the tiny bit of data we have available, and by the eye test, Jones is easily the best centerfielder of any of these players. For a team that plays in a large park, and boasts a staff of pitchers who get their share of flyballs, Jones is the one player who could make a real impact in terms of run prevention. He’ll have to hit better than he has, however, to be a viable option out there.

Cameron Maybin was a fun addition to the 2016 squad. He seemed to wreak havoc on the bases every time he was on them, and he was on base a lot when healthy. He also brought with him a sense of an era coming full circle. Maybin’s return to the team that traded him for Miguel Cabrera, near the end of the run that Cabrera himself sparked, just felt right. It would have made for a great story if the team had managed to make a deep playoff run. The Tigers made a tough call in the face of large scale protest from the fanbase this offseason, trusting that their in-house options made Maybin expendable. Turns out they were probably right.