The 2020 season has presented any number of unique challenges to the game of baseball. The August 31 trade deadline is not one of the larger ones, but for general managers around the league, figuring out how to position themselves, and how aggressive to be in either buying or selling, are more difficult questions than they usually are.
Normally, things are pretty simple, at least in terms of big picture strategy. A team in contention looks to acquire players to fill weaknesses, while teams that aren’t contending look to add young talent for the future. This season, there are quite a few additional factors impacting those decisions.
Start with the expansion of the playoffs to eight teams per league. More teams have hope of landing a postseason berth, but the effect may not be as expected. Maybe teams around the .500 mark will move aggressively to acquire players, or at least be less apt to sell. However, the top teams may feel comfortable that they’re going to get in no matter what, and may not regard this as the season to spend prospect capital in a big push to win now. You can position yourself to win a World Series, but you can never guarantee it.
On the other hand, a lower payroll team like the Tampa Bay Rays, looking to finally win the big one, might be more aggressive than normal in a season in which their playoff odds look outstanding atop the AL East. Perhaps they’ll be more willing than usual to trade big pieces from their farm system. Rumors have the New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs all hunting for starting pitching. The loss of Stephen Strasburg for the year will send the Washington Nationals to the trade market for a starter as well.
Complicating all this, is the fact that teams have faced unique financial difficulties this season. A high payroll team who is struggling, like, say the Los Angeles Angels or the Texas Rangers, will be more willing to move players with money still owed for very little in prospect return. That may impact what other teams can ask in exchange for their players.
Another factor, is that teams haven’t gotten to scout the farm systems of potential trade partners. Young ballplayers can radically transform in a year’s time, but gathering intelligence on them hasn’t really been possible through normal means. There may be clips of workouts showing that a given pitcher’s velocity or stuff has improved, but that’s no substitute for seeing them in games. That shifts power in trades to the buyers, as they’ll have far more up-to-date information at their disposal.
All in all, it’s just really hard to know what to expect, despite a few small deals already done, and the rumor mill warming quickly.
The Tigers’ farm system is strong, although set to slip as prospects reach the major leagues, but the amount of real assets under team control at the major league level remains rather meager. Meanwhile their competition in the AL Central looks destined to be tough for years to come. In order to gain ground and become a threat once again, the Tigers need to make the right decisions on who to keep and who to deal going forward, and they need to keep acquiring young talent in ways other than the draft.
Let’s take a look at a few of the Tigers most desirable assets, and whether trading them really makes sense for the club as the buildup phase for the organization gets underway.
The veteran reliever is the most obvious trade piece on the Tigers roster. He’s hit his stride in the bullpen over the past year and a half, and his value may never be higher. The problem is that, while he’s likely to get some calls, you’re not going to see a bidding war here.
While not a dominant relief arm, Farmer does have quite a bit to offer as the type of reliever who can really tie a staff together. He’s shown the ability to hold leads in close games, and a nasty changeup makes him effective against hitters of either hand. His starter experience and durability may also intrigue a team looking for someone who can give them multiple innings, although he didn’t really find his stride until the Tigers gave up on that idea and stuck to a one inning setup role.
Farmer isn’t going to draw much of a return, but the Tigers should have little trouble landing a little more depth for their farm system. They could also choose to wait and see if he can establish himself a little further with an eye to dealing him next year.
With one year of team control remaining beyond this season, and resurgent fastball velocity, Norris is a good target for a lot of teams looking to shore up their pitching staff. Unless a surprise deal for Matt Boyd or Gregory Soto is in the works, the 27-year-old southpaw is likely the Tigers most interesting trade piece.
A high spin fourseamer up to 95 miles per hour from the left side is really tempting to a lot of the more analytically focused teams expected to make a postseason run this year. Norris also brings some versatility as he can make starts, handle right-handed hitters, and still give a prospective buyer solid innings out of the bullpen as well. The Cubs and Braves have both struggled with left-handed hitters thus far. Other teams are down a starter and just need solid, versatile depth. There are quite a few solid fits for Norris out there.
Frankly, this would hurt, as Norris is a staff favorite. Seeing some redemption after the former high-end prospect was written off for a couple of years has been great. He could be a really valuable, and flexible, pitcher for the Tigers next year, but odds are he’s at maximum trade value right now. Unless the Tigers see him filling this role in a future pitching staff when they’re actually pushing to contend, and would consider a rare extension, the timing is right.
Gregory Soto/José Cisneros
For a club, and a fanbase, that have agonized over the bullpen for so long, with so few reprieves, it’s pretty difficult to contemplate breaking up a good thing. So far in 2020, the Tigers bullpen has show off surprising depth and competence. Yet we’ve also seen rebuilding teams turn into contenders by becoming the league’s arms dealer at the trade deadline in a given year. The club doesn’t have an experienced, dominant reliever of the likes of Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman, but it’s worth thinking about more reasonable possibilities.
In terms of trade value, Soto and Cisneros are pretty far apart and would represent two different types of acquisition by a team willing to trade for them. However, as the Tigers have tons of team control over them both, a team is going to make a solid offer. That fact makes a deal for either more unlikely.
The reason you trade José Cisnero? The career journeyman is 31 years old already, and was in the wilderness for a half decade after a promising start in the Houston Astros’ organization. Cisnero underwent UCL reconstruction surgery back in 2014 after a May 6 appearance against the Tigers in Comerica Park. He hadn’t played affiliated ball since 2015, when an eye-popping reappearance in Dominican Winter League action earned him a minor league deal and an invitation to spring training in Lakeland.
The rest has been a low-key great story as the veteran has found velocity he didn’t have in his youth and took advantage of his opportunity. Sitting comfortably 96-97 miles per hour with good life, and a more consistent breaking ball, he’s looked like a potential replacement for a struggling Joe Jimenez in the ninth inning.
Cisnero’s command could go sideways on him again at any time. Either way he’s not exactly a strikeout artist, and his age and injury history say he’s not a long-term bet. There should be some interest based on his excellent opening month, and Cisnero does have an option and four years of team control remaining. What he lacks of course, is track record. There’s no reason for the Tigers to just give him away, but if a team will part with a decent prospect, the Tigers should probably cash in their chips.
Gregory Soto’s case is obviously very different. There aren’t a lot of lefties slinging darts up to triple digits around the league. His conversion to a one-inning reliever has been spectacular so far. His velocity isn’t unfamiliar to Tigers minor league fans, but the ability to spot the fastball consistently is. He’s flashed a harder, more effective breaking ball at times as well. The ingredients for a truly dominant relief weapon with some proven durability are all in place. The key thing missing is a track record of fastball command.
It’s certainly tempting to imagine years of this dominance, extending well into a window in which the Tigers are at least would-be contenders. But pitchers, and especially relievers, have a way of disappointing long-term plans. If the Tigers are offered a blue-chip position player, they would certainly have to consider it. But nothing else will pry Soto from their paws at this point. The necessary cost would indicate quite a bold move by a team on the other end of the deal, so don’t hold your breath. Probably we’ll be able to enjoy young Mr. Soto for a while.
Teams have price checked Matt Boyd at seemingly every trade cycle over the past three seasons. And as mentioned, teams do need starting pitching, and several would like to add a strong lefty into the mix for some postseason insurance in any role.
Unfortunately the left-hander is off to a pretty rocky start. After a good outing against the Cleveland this weekend, probably teams are still willing to value Boyd for what he is, a career league average starter who will occasionally give you glimpses of another level. With two years of team control remaining beyond 2020, a team is going to have to give up a solid prospect and a kicker to acquire Boyd, but it’s not impossible that the Tigers will find an acceptable deal.
More likely, the Tigers will hold out for a good prospect, and hope for better, or at least career average performance in 2021 if they don’t get an offer they like. There really isn’t any need for general manager Al Avila to force a deal like this right now. But there certainly is a need for the Tigers to decide what their future plans for Matt Boyd are, and position themselves accordingly.
Austin Romine/Jonathan Schoop
The circumstances are pretty similar for this pair of veterans. Romine has overachieved in his first year as a bona fide starter, while Schoop has done his thing, swinging freely and hitting for power. Neither will get major interest over the coming week, but there will probably be teams willing to part with a minor prospect should the Tigers go that route.
The Tigers may be better served by hanging onto Romine in particular. At very least you’ve got to make it worth their while. While his bat is due to regress pretty severely based on his peripherals, his ability and leadership behind the plate have been very valuable so far, and it’d be nice to see catching prospect Jake Rogers get a chance to work with him this season as well. With the club’s prized pitching prospects getting their feet wet, Romine may be worth a good deal more to the Tigers than to anyone else.
If we put our GM hat on, the time to have a serious conversation with Romine and his representatives about a one or two-year extension is immediately. If his interest in sticking around is light, and you can get an interesting prospect with potential for him, perhaps as part of a package with a Tigers’ reliever, that probably has to happen. But his value to the young pitching staff gives the club’s front office plenty of incentive to hold out for a return they really like.
Schoop may not draw much interest. The Atlanta Braves are missing second baseman Ozzie Albies, and there are several other teams who could use a power infusion, even if they don’t have a specific need at the keystone. Would the Braves turn over Johan Camargo for one month of Jonathan Schoop? Unlikely, but the Tigers should certainly be listening.
What to expect
Ultimately, it’s hard to expect a frenzy of trades made under such unusual circumstances. While the Tigers do have a few likely candidates, the odds of a really consequential deal seem slim.
Would they shock us by trading Spencer Turnbull? Probably not, although he’s an interesting arm with unique home run suppression abilities that have more value than his career averages might lead one to suspect. He’s also about to turn 28 years old, and has never put it together for more than a month or two at a time.
There a plenty of good reasons the front office should be shopping Turnbull, but it will take a reach from a buyer to make such a deal possible right now. The club better be convinced Turnbull has another gear in terms of command and composure, however, or they may be left holding magic beans where the mercurial right-hander is concerned. Ultimately the Tigers will probably wait to see if the right-hander can be a more consistent force and really worth the kind of price it would require to land him.
Would they bother moving a player like JaCoby Jones, who is probably at his peak in terms of value right now? Perhaps, but again there’s no need to trade him unless you’re getting back an interesting piece in return. Like Niko Goodrum, for example, Jones is still more valuable to the Tigers than to anyone else.
The names mentioned will each have some interest, and if the Tigers choose to be aggressive, there will be opportunities available. Just don’t expect any large scale sell-off for major pieces. Ultimately the Tigers will probably be involved in a small transaction or two for spare parts and developmental projects. Those types of deals are still important, so hopefully Avila and his staff can find a diamond in the rough somewhere.