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Quiet hot stove brings the Tigers immediate future into sharp relief

If you aren’t selling, and you aren’t buying, you better have a good third path in mind.

MLB: General Managers Meetings Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past month, Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila has made it quite clear that the club is done rebuilding. They won’t be dumping expiring contracts. They won’t be dealing away anyone not tied down. In short, we can probably expect a very quiet week until the trade deadline on Friday, July 30th. Of course, as the old saying—I just made it up—goes, if you’re not selling, and you’re not buying, you’re probably wasting time.

In this particular scenario, however, that’s not really an issue, assuming the Tigers mean what they say regarding the future.

The real issue impacting the Tigers posture over the next week, is the fact that several of the players they would have liked to deal are on the injured list, or haven’t been notably effective. Daniel Norris will be a free agent at year’s end, but he hasn’t been very good this season. Matthew Boyd is rapidly getting more expensive, and he and Michael Fulmer will both hit free agency after the 2022 season. With both on the injured list, neither is going to be getting calls even from teams in dire need for pitching help to shore up their chances of contending.

That leaves roughly five key players who will draw interest and make at least some sense as trade chips.

Jonathan Schoop

The 29-year-old veteran infielder has been a big part of the Tigers’ relative success this season. After dealing with COVID protocols and Visa issues that made him several weeks late to spring camp, Schoop endured a brutal April before flipping the switch entirely over the last 10 weeks. Currently, Schoop has 17 homers and a 116 wRC+ in 96 games.

There will no doubt be some interest in Schoop, as he can handle second base—a point of weakness for several contenders—as well as first. He adds a strong bat to any lineup, and his reputation as a leader and positive clubhouse presence allays any fears as to team chemistry.

The problem? He just isn’t worth all that much with no years of team control attached. The Tigers could probably get a pair of arms in the 40 future value tier, but those are longshot starter candidates and bona fide relief prospects. That could certainly help the Tigers bolster their depth, and we’ve seen how important pitching depth is this season. However, the Tigers seem more likely to want to keep Schoop around long-term. Burning that bridge for a pair of possible relief arms at best doesn’t make a lot of sense in that case.

What’s required here is a conversation between Avila and Schoop to determine his interest in the Tigers long-term, and his interest in getting a crack at a ring. He’s going to be a free agent at season’s end either way, and has just hired Scott Boras to represent him. If they can deal him for some help without dinging the relationship—assuming they really do intend to sign him to a multi-year deal—it still may be worth doing. With the improved pitching development in the Tigers system, adding more arms with a chance to contribute is never a bad idea.

Robbie Grossman

The Grossman situation is similar, except that he is controllable through 2022. Currently the corner outfielder is having a career year, with 15 homers and a 111 wRC+, and that alone may argue for making a deal if the right buyer comes along. Selling at peak value is rarely a bad idea. But once again, the issue is that the return isn’t going to be substantially greater than a Schoop trade would get them.

Grossman was a key recommendation of manager AJ Hinch this offseason, and he’s been a big part of the glue holding the Tigers lineup together. Since the Tigers are signaling that they’ll be trying to win in 2022, dealing Grossman just doesn’t make sense unless someone is really willing to give up an excessive prospect package to make it happen. We don’t expect a deal here.

Jeimer Candelario

The Tigers third baseman is another low key trade candidate that gets little buzz. He is getting more expensive however, and still hasn’t been able to break out much beyond average MLB third baseman status. He’s on pace for another 2-3 WAR season in 2021, and certainly a stabilizing force in the Tigers lineup, if not a real impact bat.

Candelario’s great strength is producing consistently good on base percentages and some versatility as a defender. The power, particularly for a third baseman, just has not showed up yet. Only a few months from turning 28 years old, it gets harder to expect a breakout at this point.

We don’t expect to see Candelario traded, but as he enters his arbitration years in 2022, he’s on track to find himself in a similar situation to starter Matthew Boyd. The lefty is going to command something like $9-10M in arbitration and could be replaced for less. His injury means he won’t be traded, and the Tigers will have a tough decision whether to tender him the full arb amount for 2022 this offseason. The same will eventually be true for Candelario, but he’s still far enough away from free agency that for now he’s presumably a hold.

Jose Cisnero and Gregory Soto

This is where the Tigers posture is really telling. Relievers do not last long. There are obviously elite relievers out there who get it done year after year, sometimes for a decade. However, those are rare birds. For the most part, relievers have a relatively short prime before injuries start to take their toll. That same inconsistency and risk makes them key trade pieces every July. The Tigers have a pair of good ones here, and they come with plenty of team control.

Cisnero in particular makes a pretty good trade chip. Now 32 years old, with Tommy John surgery in his past, the time is now for the big righthander. Cisnero has three years of inexpensive team control remaining. His FIP in 2020 was 2.65. This season, it’s 3.04, with a combined ERA under 3.00 for those two seasons. In short, he’s not quite elite, but he has a developing track record as an excellent late innings reliever who can handle either handed hitters.

Good teams trade relievers like this all the time, trusting themselves to develop new options from year to year, while only retaining the absolute elite tier relievers on long term deals. The Tigers need to weigh the injury risk, and the offers made for him over the coming week. The odds that Cisnero is still a high end relief option from 2022-2024, when the Tigers window of contention will hopefully be open, are not very good.

The case is a little trickier with Gregory Soto. He’s only 26, and the Tigers will have his services for five more seasons. While his occasional bouts of wildness keep his numbers in the solid tier, rather than the elite tier, this is the kind of arm any GM desperately wants to add to his bullpen in July. There are not a lot of triple digit lefties with good breaking balls kicking around.

For the Tigers, it would presumably take a big offer, a top 100 prospect for starters, to bother dealing Soto right now. He’s still young and under long enough control that even a major injury wouldn’t necessarily erase him from their long-term equation.

What it all means

We’ve heard Avila’s comments on this subject with keen interest of course. The crux of the situation is pretty clear. The Tigers say they aren’t rebuilding anymore, and are planning to start building up a winner. Great, but that is going to require a serious commitment by ownership this offseason to fill key holes in the lineup and bolster the pitching staff. However, if that commitment isn’t forthcoming, and the Tigers aren’t planning on trying to win the division next season, then hanging onto any of these players, with the exception of Soto, makes little sense at all.

We’re not talking about just bringing back Schoop and adding some pitching depth next season either. That isn’t going to get it done. As constructed, even the most optimistic scenarios for Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson aren’t going to carry them over the powerhouse Chicago White Sox. Much more will be required.

Here then, is where we’re taking Avila’s statements as a guide. If they decide to hang onto everyone, there better be big-time moves coming this offseason. Turning down addition depth in the farm system only to do little this offseason and fail to compete in 2022 would be a pretty sketchy start to the “building” part of their organizational rebuild.