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Does Theo Epstein’s exit from Chicago signal an opportunity for the Tigers?

The Cubs seem on the verge of at least a partial teardown. The Tigers could potentially speed up the rebuild with a trade.

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MLB: Chcago Cubs-Workouts Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

An era came to a close on Tuesday as Chicago Cubs general manager Theo Epstein stepped down from his position with the club. Epstein came to Chicago from the Boston Red Sox back in the 2011-2012 offseason with the goal of ending the longest streak without a title in baseball history. In just four seasons he was able to accomplish that goal. The Cubs mortgaged the future to win now, and in 2016 they got it done, winning the first World Series for the Cubs in 108 years. Unfortunately for them, sustaining that success proved impossible over the last four seasons.

Now, Epstein’s long-time lieutenant Jed Hoyer will step into the GM role for the first time since his two-year stint running the San Diego Padres in 2009-2010. Epstein is thought likely to be pursuing a role in assembling an ownership group, possibly even in the soccer world, so no, don’t expect him to be installed in Al Avila’s place. The real interest for the Detroit Tigers rests on the possibility of a major sell-off as the Cubs turn to a rebuilding process.

There are a whole host of Cubs players the Tigers could have interest in trading for, but let’s assume that Cubs owner Tom Ricketts is looking mainly to cut payroll here, not simply to move every bit of the club’s talent. We’ll focus on players under long-term deals or in their arbitration years. As it turns out, there are a few options that could help turbocharge the Tigers return to prominence.

Yu Darvish

Of all the potential high end players the Cubs may try to move in trade, Darvish is probably the least attractive to the Tigers. Coming off a Cy Young caliber season, his value as a player is certainly at an all-time high, but his age and substantial contract make it unlikely that a rebuilding team would be interested in taking on the cost. Far more likely would be a lateral move to a high payroll contender like the New York Yankees, San Diego Padres, or possibly a return to the West Coast either with the LA Dodgers or the San Francisco Giants.

The Japanese born superstar and social media delight is still owed $59 million over the next three seasons. That’s not exorbitant for an elite starting pitcher by any means, but at age 34 there is still substantial risk to a trade partner, particularly a team that needs more than one high end starter to put them over the top.

Per Baseball Trade Values, and assuming the Tigers would take on Darvish’s full salary, a package of Daniel Cabrera, Dillon Dingler, and Parker Meadows looks to be enough to land him. Something like Isaac Paredes and Alex Faedo as a package seems a little more likely, but really the Tigers just have no business getting involved here. Darvish was outstanding this year and his fastball velocity jumped over a mile per hour, so there’s good reason to think he has a few more great years ahead of him, but in the Tigers case it just doesn’t make much sense right now.

Kris Bryant

The Cubs third baseman is another one who represents a luxury item, but he’s certainly available. It makes all the sense in the world for the Cubs to deal him now in order to meet Ricketts desire to cut payroll. Bryant is headed into his last year before free agency, and is likely to earn in excess of $20 million next season in arbitration.

Bryant burst on the scene with three near MVP caliber seasons from 2015-2017. A 2018 shoulder injury limited him to 102 games, though his 125 wRC+ still represented very good production. He was back to roughly his old self in 2019, staying healthy and producing a 135 wRC+, but cratered with a 76 wRC+ in 2020’s short season and required an anti-inflammatory injection in his left wrist. He also missed a few games with back tightness and elbow soreness. He’s still just 28 years old and if healthy there’s every reason to believe he’ll rebound, but it’s still going to make prospective suitors in trade a bit wary of overpaying for him.

Certainly the Tigers would have to come to terms on an extension as a condition to a trade, but at a position where the need isn’t great, Bryant is somewhat risky coming off a poor season and having battled injuries the past three seasons that have hampered his production and playing time. On the other hand, Bryant wouldn’t cost a whole lot in terms of trade currency. They wouldn’t have to give up one of the club’s top prospects to make it happen.

Still, paying Bryant $20 million a year to play third base is a bit of a luxury with needs at more crucial positions like shortstop, catcher, and center field. Don’t expect the Tigers to be involved here, but if they believe Bryant has more All-Star seasons ahead of him we wouldn’t hate it either.

Javy Baez

Ok now we’re talking. Whether Willi Castro’s offensive outburst this season was real or not, his defensive issues haven’t improved and it seems likely that the Tigers will consider a move to second base where his throwing issues might be mitigated by a little more time to set and throw accurately. Adding Baez would give the Tigers a quality defensive shortstop with plenty of power at the plate and could set up a powerful middle infield of Baez-Castro for years to come.

Baez is positioned in much the same place as Bryant. Headed into his final year of arbitration, the Cubs have to decide whether the 27-year-old shortstop is going to be a long-term part of their future. They seem unlikely to extend him however, as the club is staring down a team reset. Baez made $10 million in 2020 before the pro-rating of salaries, and will presumably get a bump of two or three million in arbitration. Just as in the case of Kris Bryant, the Tigers wouldn’t be interested unless they could get an extension done as a condition to a deal going through.

The reputation as a defensive wizard is backed up a whopping 33 defensive runs saved at the position over the past two seasons. Of course, Baez hasn’t reached the heights that Bryant has achieved as a hitter. Baez packs plenty of power, but he swings and misses a lot and holds a career OBP of just .297.

Teams aren’t as obsessed with infield defense in recent years because fewer balls are being put in play, and the shift has helped moderate the flaws of less gifted defenders. Overall, the emphasis defensively has moved toward the outfield, where preventing extra base hits is crucial to run prevention. Still adding a brilliant defensive shortstop who should hit you 25-35 home runs would go a long way toward filling one of the key holes in the rebuild.

In trade Baez would require no more than Bryant, allowing the Tigers to keep their top prospects. If a five year extension for say, $80 million is enough to land him long-term this would be a crowd pleaser that would get them a good deal closer to having their infield set for a return to contention.

Willson Contreras

Now we’ve come to perhaps the most intriguing option of the bunch. The catcher position is mired in a pretty bleak era in the game’s history. Teams have heavily emphasized skills like receiving and working with pitchers, and the pool of players who can perform well behind the plate and still hit like a major league batter has grown quite shallow. Contreras hits better than most, and while the other skills are less polished, the rarity of his offensive production makes him the most interesting of the Cubs likely trade chips.

Contreras does a solid job controlling the running game, but his receiving has consistently been well below average. He improved this season under the tutelage of new Cubs catching coach Craig Driver, so maybe there’s hope on this front. Perhaps A.J. Hinch and his staff can build on those improvements.

Per quotes from Driver in an article in The Athletic by Sahadev Sharma from July—paywalled—there is at least no concern about Contreras’s willingness to improve.

“You’re not going to find guys that are going to outwork Willson Contreras,” Driver said. “With him, it’s a matter of being pointed with what he’s doing. He’ll do as many reps as anybody in Major League Baseball, I’m certain of that. We’re just trying to find the right places to focus. This is an ongoing process for not only Willson Contreras, but for most major-league catchers.”

At the plate, Contreras holds a career 116 wRC+ so the offensive production is quite good for a catcher. His career on base percentage is .351 and he steadily posts quality strikeout to walk ratios, all of which make his offensive game reasonably consistent.

In short, any team in the game would like to have him. Of course that is the problem in considering a trade to Detroit. Contreras is 28 years old and has just two years remaining under control before reaching free agency. Yet he’s certain to cost one of the Tigers top five prospects plus another quality prospect further down their list. We’d all like to have Contreras, particularly as all the Tigers hopes are currently pinned on 2020 second round pick Dillon Dingler at the catcher position. But Contreras is probably the Cubs best trade chip, and they’re under no pressure to move him this offseason.

It would be nice to add him and finally have a solid two-way catcher, but the Tigers probably aren’t going to trade Casey Mize or Matt Manning to get it done.

Kyle Schwarber

The previously mentioned names are a little too rich for the Tigers’ blood at this point. Schwarber is a bit different case as he’s only under team control for one more year and wouldn’t cost much at all to acquire. He’s also more obviously available than a Baez or Contreras. Schwarber made $7 million in 2020, and will presumably make over $10 million in 2021, his third and final year of arbitration. There isn’t enough meat on the bone here for the Cubs to ask for any more than they sent to Detroit for Nick Castellanos, for example.

Schwarber would provide the power bat from the left side that the Tigers have lacked since the days of Prince Fielder. Unfortunately, Schwarber’s utility in the field isn’t much better than Fielder’s skills were. He’s a somewhat below average left fielder who can’t play any other position on the field. Still, he’s liable to hit you 30-35 home runs with at least league average OBP.

The Cubs would presumably love to shed Schwarber from their payroll. He’s fairly costly for a player who profiles like a DH. The problem is that the Tigers aren’t likely to contend for a playoff spot next year, and if they want to lock up a power bat to mash righthanded pitching for the next few years, free agent outfielder Joc Pederson fits that bill even better and plays better defense. He may cost a little more on a yearly basis in free agency, but he’s worth it. Beyond Pederson or the other free agents available, the Tigers have no need to force a Schwarber deal, and they should be wary of a long-term extension for a player who may soon be limited to the DH role, particularly with Miguel Cabrera occupying that spot at great expense for several more years to come.

Baez, Contreras or bust

Ultimately it’s tough to see the Tigers getting too involved here. If they could deal for Javy Baez or Willson Contreras and lock them into an extension, they would certainly have a neat solution at their respective positions. The cost for Contreras is just likely to be prohibitive unless the Tigers make it worthwhile by spending what’s required to put a winner on the field at all positions starting in 2021. That’s highly unlikely.

Generally speaking, the Tigers have little business trading for anyone they aren’t going to have around for the next three or four years. Considering the potential expense involved, they could potentially do just as well in free agency without spending any trade capital. If the Cubs go into a full on firesale, the Tigers definitely should be engaged, but from this vantage point, Baez and Contreras are the two most interesting possibilities and the Cubs are under no pressure to move either of them just yet. The Tigers should feel no pressure to rush things this offseason either.