The offseason has just begun, but the rumors have already started up. Earlier this month, we learned that the Detroit Tigers had “scouted the Phillies extensively over the final weeks of the season,” according to a report from NBC Sports Philadelphia. Somewhat speculatively, the article went on to connect the Tigers to third baseman Maikel Franco, who appears running out of time in the Phillies organization.
Franco, 27, debuted in 2014 and has been the Phillies everyday third baseman since early in the 2015 season. Through 80 games that year, he batted a tidy .280/.343/.497, which tallied to a 127 wRC+. Regarded as an excellent prospect at the time, those numbers appeared to be confirmation the Phillies had a good future major leaguer on their hands. Unfortunately, he has been less than stellar in the four years since. Although he’s inhabited the hot corner full-time for the club during that timeframe, he has only been worth 1.8 fWAR over the past four seasons.
October marked the end of another disappointing season for Franco, who played below replacement level for the second time in three years. His offensive output graded as 30 percent below league average, according to wRC+. While his 17 home runs would have led the Tigers, it’s still not what you would like to see from a player with double-plus raw power playing a power position like third base.
Due $5.2 million for his services in 2019, Franco is projected to receive a $6.7 million salary in 2020 by Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors. Between his poor performance and multi-million dollar price tag, the Phillies are rumored to have designs on unloading their veteran third baseman, and were reported on Friday to have interest in Josh Donaldson. And while the Tigers already have a few players on the roster capable of playing third base, Franco could be a big upgrade, making the two teams a natural trade partner.
A deal between the two clubs could take a variety of forms. While it’s impossible to predict trades with even a modicum of accuracy, we can get at least a fuzzy picture of a variety of types of deals the two clubs could pursue.
Possibility 1: Salary dump for the Phillies
This is a no-nonsense option; the Tigers would receive Franco and a low-level prospect in exchange for some organizational fodder. It’s the scenario that presents the fewest complications for either team. It’s also pretty consistent with Avila’s previous roster construction strategy from the past couple years of acquiring castoffs and veterans to plug holes in the lineup.
While much of the league has promoted a more heavily fly ball and pull power approach, Franco may be a case of too much of a good thing. The Tigers may be able to help himtap into his once lofty potential by emphasizing a line drive approach that uses the whole field. Swing changes aren't a cure-all, but in this case, there could be a match. Franco’s batted ball profile shows a balanced spread between ground balls, fly balls, and line drives, but he is very pull-centric and has a tendency to get under a lot of pitches, leading to a 24.1 percent infield fly ball (pop-up) rate in 2019 that helped crater his offensive value despite solid strikeout-to-walk numbers. These might be issues that the Tigers are positioned to improve despite the lack of progress offensively within the organization.
At this point, this type of deal seems like most likely of the potential options. However, it doesn’t have much upside for the Tigers. In a vacuum, having more prospects is better than having fewer. However, instead of tying up payroll with a below-average player already in his 30s, Franco provides at least a little upside, More likely, it just cements a different mediocre player at third while we wait for more prospects to reach the majors. More interesting options are still on the table, though.
Possibility 2: Tigers make a prospect grab
Another possibility involves the Tigers essentially taking the opportunity to “buy” a decent prospect by taking on Franco’s contract. The idea in this scenario is that instead of simply sending a player the other way as a placeholder, the Tigers could send Philadelphia a piece with moderate value. In exchange, instead of a lottery ticket from Low-A, the Phillies include a prospect with a decent shot at the majors.
For example, the Phillies may decide to address their somewhat shaky bullpen and ask for someone like Buck Farmer. Farmer was already mentioned as a trade chip in July, and finished the 2019 season strong. He also still has three years of club control remaining. As part of the deal, though, the Tigers may ask the Phillies to part with a better prospect than could be obtained in the first situation, adding value to what they would have received just for taking Franco’s contract.
This is probably the situation most compatible with the Tigers’ current direction. As badly as we would like them to be putting together their core for the next World Series winner, the Tigers are still trying to build their foundation — at a much slower pace than most would like. They have all but said they won’t be spending much this winter, at least until Jordan Zimmermann’s contract expires after the 2020 season. If the Tigers can get an MLB-ready player back by parting with a useful but expendable piece and taking on Franco’s money, they absolutely should.
Possibility 3: Phillies pursue most substantial trade talks
Let’s venture after bigger game for the third possibility. In this scenario, Franco becomes a secondary part of a larger deal to not only address payroll concerns, but also improve the Phillies roster. The Tigers front office has stripped the team down to its bones over the last few seasons, but there’s still a little meat left on the carcass.
The Phillies pushed in all their chips last winter by signing Bryce Harper to a staggeringly large contract, but they still failed to make the postseason. One of the culprits was difficulty assembling a complete outfield. They may see this as a low-key opportunity to improve their outfield situation by making an offer on Niko Goodrum or JaCoby Jones, both of whom have 2 WAR upside and could help them make the leap into real contention simply by removing a replacement level player from the starting lineup.
Another possibility is that the Phillies retain interest in Matthew Boyd. They scouted Boyd extensively near the trade deadline, but did not pull the trigger on a deal. The Phillies rotation was a disappointment in 2019, and they seem unlikely to want to invest big money in another veteran starter. Boyd would give them a durable lefthander to slot in the middle of their rotation, one under club control for a few more years. Philadelphia would be betting on Boyd’s substantial gains in strikeout rate over the past two seasons, and hoping to trim some of the home runs from his profile.
Of course, the involvement of Boyd, Jones, or Goodrum — or someone else of interest — would require commensurate return from the Phillies beyond Franco. Undoubtedly, they would have to up the ante to make a trade like this work. While this is the least likely of the three trade scenarios presented here, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility.
In the end, this rumor doesn’t have a lot of traction yet.
The Phillies and Tigers have both done quite a bit of scouting on each other in recent months, so while many of these scenarios require a substantial escalation in talk, there is at least mutual interest involved as the hot stove season gets underway. This could be an opportunity to address holes on the roster and add a little something to the farm system in the process — and just perhaps, this interest could expand into a more substantial deal between the two clubs.