The Tigers have officially raised the white flag for the 2017 season, trading J.D. Martinez to the Arizona Diamondbacks earlier this afternoon. In return, general manager Al Avila pried away prospects Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King. All three are young infielders who ranked outside of most top-100 lists prior to the start of the season.
If that return seems underwhelming for unquestionably the best hitter to be available this July, you’re right. The return is underwhelming. Avila did not manage to return a blue-chip name like Daniel Norris or Michael Fulmer. Instead, the Tigers are sticking to their scouting and hoping that they know something the rest of the MLB does not. In particular, this appears to apply to Lugo: The Toronto Blue Jays previously traded him one-for-one for two months of Cliff Pennington — and this was in a year Pennington had a .578 OPS.
Is it possible that in two years, Lugo’s value has increased so much that he is now worth two months of J.D. Martinez? That requires a massive leap of faith. He had risen to the number four position in Arizona’s farm system prior to the season, but the Diamondbacks’ farm system currently resembles the Tigers’ in 2014. That doesn’t say a lot. More likely, the Tigers are following their tradition of not paying attention to prospect lists and instead going for “their guy.” Sometimes, that has worked (Robbie Ray says hello). It still makes for an incredibly high-risk move.
More than anything, this trade appears to signal a dose of reality to Tigers fans. We have been spoiled recently by how well “sell” trades have gone. Fulmer, Norris, and Matt Boyd (even JaCoby Jones!) made for a hell of a return in 2015. A lot of times, unfortunately, the names that come back won’t be so glamorous. Remember what Seattle got in 2011 for several years of well-pitching Doug Fister? A lot of spare parts.
And that’s the thing. Selling often isn’t the sexy, quick process that we want to think. The Astros and the Cubs spent years building their farm systems and selling deadline after deadline to get to a position where they were able to contend. Most of those trades didn’t bring back Kris Bryant or George Springer.
Furthermore, an effective rebuild requires a competent general manager. The 2015 mini-rebuild was piloted by one of the most competent general managers of our era, Dave Dombrowski. He leveraged two months of the best hitter and best pitcher on the market into multiple high-upside, MLB-ready prospects. It isn’t hard to envision him similarly leveraging Martinez, who is probably worth somewhat less than Cespedes was in 2015, and appeared to have a somewhat weaker market. Dombrowski would likely have gotten some serious talent for Martinez.
Al Avila has done little since taking over in 2015 to show that he is capable of performing the same sort of rebuild. His roster decisions have been baffling for two years now, and the decision to stand inactive at the 2016 trade deadline is looking worse and worse in hindsight. I have lost my faith in Avila to competently run the Detroit Tigers, especially through something as difficult as a deadline rebuild. Trading Martinez for three middle infielders who have a combined minor league OPS of .698 is one of the most troubling signs yet.
Without a doubt, the Tigers are making the correct decision to trade away expiring contracts and rebuild for the future. They have no chance of contention this year, and probably next year as well given the organization’s direction lately. Unfortunately, with the wrong man at the helm, the rebuild process will be less glamorous than the Tigers’ fanbase was hoping for.