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Tigers 2020 player preview: Buck Farmer might be the Tigers’ next big trade chip

Farmer enjoyed a breakout 2019 season, and could find himself on the move if he continues to pitch well.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s fast forward several months. The July 2020 trade deadline is approaching, and the Detroit Tigers are once again nowhere near the playoff hunt. The Tigers, who have already sold off most of the premium talent that brought them four consecutive division titles in the last decade, are still fielding calls on lefthander Matthew Boyd, but, as they have for the past couple seasons, still aren’t getting anywhere.

Do they stand pat?

Or does another player generate interest from clubs looking to bolster their squads for the final two months of the season?

Righthander Buck Farmer was nearly that player last summer. The Tigers reportedly fielded a few offers for the former fifth round pick at the 2019 deadline, but did not come to an agreement. Farmer, who drew little fanfare after underwhelming 2017 and 2018 seasons, had forced his way into the conversation by holding opponents to a 3.48 ERA with over 10 strikeouts per nine innings up to that point. His numbers slid back ever so slightly after he stayed put in July, but he still finished the season with a solid 3.72 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 67 23 innings.

If we see more of the same from Farmer on the mound this year, expect the demand for him at the deadline to skyrocket.

First, let’s look at how Buck got here.

It feels like Farmer has been around forever. That’s because... well, he kind of has. Farmer was first called up way back in 2014 when the Tigers were seriously starved for starting pitching. The then-23-year-old Farmer had blitzed the Midwest League earlier that season, holding opponents to a 2.60 ERA with a strikeout-to-walk ratio just under 5.00. He made a pitstop at Double-A Erie before joining the Tigers for a mid-August debut. He didn’t last long that year, throwing just 9 13 innings with an 11.57 ERA, but that alone was a lot to ask for someone who started the year in A-ball.

Farmer found himself aboard the Toledo shuttle for a while over the next several years. From 2015 to 2018, he totaled 187 innings across 105 appearances at the MLB level, including 18 starts. The results were substandard, but Farmer showed some promise at times, including 49 strikeouts in 48 innings as a starter in 2017. He didn’t last in the rotation, however, and moved to the ‘pen full-time the following season. Though his peripherals weren’t all that pretty, he managed a decent 4.15 ERA in 69 13 innings, and found a way to cut his home run rate in half.

Figuring out how to limit home runs was crucial for Farmer, and helped fuel his best season to date in 2019. His strikeout touch returned, and he found the strike zone more often, leading to career-bests in ERA (3.72), WHIP (1.27), strikeout rate (25.4 percent), walk rate (8.3 percent), ERA+ (130), and rWAR (1.4).

Farmer got here in a few different ways, but here are the big picture items.

  • He found a way to both add vertical drop (i.e. less downward movement) on his fastball while also increasing its ground ball rate, helping him to maintain his lower home run rate. Opponents also beat the slider and changeup into the ground more than 50 percent of the time, which helped.
  • He started using his off-speed pitches more often, and wasn’t afraid to mix in both his slider and changeup when ahead in the count.
  • While all of his pitch velocities have ticked upward since he moved to the bullpen, the slider has not seen the same jump as the fastball and changeup, leading to three distinct velocity bands to work from.
  • He further fine-tuned the slider to make it his out pitch; opponents hit just .185 and slugged .278 against it last year, and he generated whiffs 22.2 percent of the time he threw it.

Let’s get back to the trade talk.

For Farmer to generate real trade buzz in July, he needs to replicate what he did in 2019. Assuming he does — none of his peripherals scream immediate regression, even if projection systems are skeptical — he will be a reliever who throws in the mid-90s in the prime of his career with two years of club control remaining beyond the 2020 season. Those years could be valuable for the Tigers as they progress towards returning to contention, but they could also translate to a lot of prospect value in a trade.

Take last summer’s Shane Greene trade, for instance. The Atlanta Braves parted with lefthander Joey Wentz, a sleeper prospect I’m rather high on, and outfielder Travis Demeritte for Greene, who only had one more year of club control remaining. Farmer might not have the same gaudy ERA Greene did when he was dealt, but the two finished the year with similar peripherals (3.79 FIP to Farmer’s 3.88, though Greene’s walk rate was a hair better).

If the Tigers are able to land a similar prospect return for Farmer this summer, it would be in their best interest to take the deal. Farmer has turned himself into one of, if not the most reliable arm in manager Ron Gardenhire’s bullpen, but the surplus value generated by a couple of prospects, even ones in the Wentz/Demeritte mold, could dwarf what Farmer is able to produce as a reliever while the Tigers continue to find their way back to contention.