Five years after finally tearing down the Dave Dombrowski-built Detroit Tigers in the wake of Mike Ilitch’s passing, the club isn’t supposed to be a bottom feeder any longer. Unfortunately, the way the 2022 season has progressed, general manager Al Avila will once again be in seller mode to some extent as the August 2 trade deadline approaches.
The Tigers clearly aren’t going to start over from scratch here, trading everything not nailed down for the long-term. They’re in deep enough now that the decisions are becoming more difficult. We’ll have to wait and see how the Eduardo Rodriguez resolves, but along with Javier Báez, the Tigers finally got a lot more pot committed in terms of spending on talent in the offseason. Most of their top draft picks over the last five years have reached the major leagues. The farm system still has several good prospects and quality depth in pitching, but they aren’t loaded with blue chip guys any longer. They aren’t without assets, but no one is coming to the rescue either.
As we’ve discussed at length on podcasts and articles over the years, this is where building a team finally becomes really difficult. The league gives the worst teams a good amount of help to get out of the league’s cellar, from draft picks to bonus pools to waiver priority. That’s the easy part, though the Tigers are struggling with it, but beyond that most rebuilding efforts still stall out as the team tries to get to the .500 level and beyond. Somehow, they’ve got to deal the right pieces and get good returns, without gutting themselves for 2023 just to acquire more depth pieces in the system. Their needs are pretty obvious heading into the midseason trading extravaganza, but few have any confidence they’ll be able to start solving them here in July.
Without a history of trading aggressively, we’ll go into this presuming that Avila won’t be as busy in the trade market as most would prefer. In the right hands, the amount of pitching talent available to trade would be the likely path to some real solutions. But the club still has designs on putting together a good pitching staff and trying to compete in a fairly weak AL Central next season. So they’re unlikely to consider a major deal involving someone like Tarik Skubal to acquire a good position player.
That leaves them playing in the kiddie pool, hoping to acquire more prospect depth in return for one of several good relievers they have to offer. This front office has a long history of struggling to find hitting talent at every level, so hoping for a solution to one of their lineup holes is a big reach. Certainly this would be a real good time to alter that perception with a clever trade that solves one of the numerous issues facing the 2023 Detroit Tigers. More likely, they swap players who will be leaving anyway in trades for prospect depth, with modest impact on the future at most.
Obvious buyers to consider are basically any and all potential contenders. Everyone is going to need pitching help in the second half, and the attrition leaguewide early in the season is going to focus smart teams on making sure they’re loaded with a deep stable of arms the rest of the way. The Toronto Blue Jays, San Francisco Giants, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers, and plenty of others make sense as trading partners. These are not easy teams to deal with even for a good general manager.
We’ll start with the player fans will probably miss most as he’s also the most likely player to be traded. Fulmer is having a uneven season in his first full year of relief work, but has found a pretty good groove after a shaky start. He’ll be a free agent this offseason anyway, so the Tigers will find a buyer for his contract in the coming weeks.
As the longest tenured Tigers player other than Miguel Cabrera, Fulmer’s career traverses the length of the Al Avila’s time as GM. Originally acquired from the Mets for Yoenis Cespedes days before Dave Dombrowski was fired, the former Rookie of the Year has seen everything but a playoff appearance over the past seven years. We’ll be sad to see him go, but baseball careers are short, and Fulmer should be pleased to get a shot at the postseason with a contender. Nothing says the Tigers can’t bring him back as a free agent this offseason.
Fulmer currently holds a 3.19 FIP and a 1.93 ERA. He was wild early in the season, and his strikeout and walk rates are actually still a bit ugly, he’s only surrendered a single home run this season in 32/2 innings of work, and that isn’t much of a fluke looking through his contact data. That was the only barrel he’s allowed. Since developing what I will term “the plunger”, his 91 mph power slider, last season after converting to relief, hitters are struggling to do anything against him. He is throwing the slider almost 65 percent of the time this season, and right-handers in particular have been totally overwhelmed.
Fulmer has been on a roll lately and may be peaking at the right time. Smart teams may already be calling about him trying to get ahead of the game, as another handful of good outings could really send his value up.
As it stands, the Tigers should be able to get a solid return for Fulmer, but they probably won’t be landing a top-100 prospect unless they can work out a multi-player deal. Still, he should be at least as valuable as Shane Greene in 2019, for example. And of course, we aren’t at all averse to bringing Fulmer back on a short free agent deal this offseason. The Tigers are going to need a deep bullpen again next year to get things back on track.
As we saw last summer, sometimes having a good left-handed reliever available can produce outsized value. Avila did really well to land RHP Reese Olson for a few months of Daniel Norris at the 2021 trade deadline. And Norris wasn’t even pitching very well. Andrew Chafin, on the other hand, is throwing the best ball of his career right now and should be much sought after.
Avila’s most effective move of the offseason was inking the 32-year-old southpaw to a two-year, $13M deal this spring. Chafin does have an opt-out this offseason, and considering how well he’s pitching he’ll be using it to re-enter free agency. The Tigers have a pretty valuable player here and expectations should be pretty high. Chafin is potentially the best left-handed reliever available this side of Gregory Soto. And he’s more consistent.
Chafin currently holds a 2.45 ERA with a 2.21 FIP. He’s posting the highest strikeout rates of his career while remaining very stingy with the free passes. The lefty has been particularly good of late, and has seen his fastball velocity ticking up after the groin issue early in the year led into a sluggish start. A.J. Minter of the Braves and Josh Hader of the Brewers are really the only two left-handed relievers who’ve clearly outshined Chafin around the league, and neither of those two are available. There should be plenty of serious interest.
The other option for the Tigers, is to make it worth Chafin’s while to forego the opt-out, perhaps by adding a year onto his deal. You certainly can’t just hold onto him only to see him walk this offseason. The veteran lefty probably has a no-trade clause of some extent to complicate matters a bit. Let’s just say that if they trade him, they better get someone good. If there’s a reliever the Tigers might be able to leverage a solid young position player or prospect with, Chafin is probably the guy.
Next most likely to go is former closer of the future, Joe Jiménez. I’ve always held the faith with the mercurial right-hander, and it’s finally about to pay dividends. Unfortunately, it took a few years, as Jiménez and his coaches worked through some tough seasons to finally get him to this point. This year we’ve seen it all come together with much more effective strike throwing, more whiffs, the whole power pitcher package finally coming together. Teams have always eyed Jiménez for his fastball extension and spin, but finally, the Tigers have managed to maximize a players’ effectiveness before he leaves. Hopefully they’ll be rewarded.
The Tigers don’t have to trade Jiménez, of course, but it’s probably time to cash in their chips here before something goes wrong. He won’t reach free agency for another year, and does have an option remaining. So a team buying on him is getting more than just a rental.
Jiménez’s numbers are really, really good and he’s looked especially dominant of late. His strikeout rate of 33.3 percent is the highest of his career, but more importantly, he has really cut the walks out of his game, holding a stellar 5.5 percent walk rate through 32.1 innings of work. Even better, he’s done a solid job limiting the home runs. The combination of better fastball command and a sharper slider have really kept hitters off balance.
Again, Joe Jiménez isn’t going to draw a blue chip prospect by himself, but the Tigers should not be parting with him easily. He’ll be a good addition to a contending team that needs help in their pen, and they should be buying with confidence the way he’s pitching right now. The right-hander does have closing experience and has been through the grinder some in parts of six seasons in the major leagues. Teams will be interested, but the Tigers need to get something good in return here. Adding another depth starter or relief prospect isn’t remotely good enough. If they can’t do any better, Avila might as well hang onto the 27-year-old and at least keep the bullpen in line to be solid again next season.
Here we come to the precious jewel that the Tigers should be loathe to relinquish. Yes, I’m just trying to irritate Tigers fans who met Soto’s All-Star Game nod with scorn. Sure, Soto spends every third outing walking someone and throwing the ball all over the place, but almost always he finds enough of a groove to overpower hitters and shut them down. And when he’s on? There are few more dominant relief arms in baseball right now.
It’s just a bit funny watching a fanbase with the bullpen history of the Detroit Tigers scoff at a fireballing lefty who has saved 35 of 38 chances over the past two seasons and at his best is close to unhittable.
There better be one heck of a good player coming back if the Tigers decide to deal Soto right now. Teams just do not trade an arm like this, with plenty of team control remaining, without demanding a premium. Soto in some kind of package deal for a top position prospect would make sense. Dealing him for a decent assortment of prospects just outside the top 100 would not make much sense. The Tigers don’t need that much in the way of depth. What they need is legit hitting talent. If Soto’s wildness continues to keep teams scared of overpaying for him? Fine, there’s no reason to let him go.
So far this season, Soto’s issues with control have left his peripherals in the good rather than great territory. He’s saved 17 games with two blown saves, and he has a 2.57 ERA/3.47 FIP, but while he’s actually got the lowest walk percentage of his career and very rarely allows a home run, the lack of command of his slider in particular has limited his strikeout rate, and left him more reliant on weak contact that teams like to see from a top tier reliever.
Of course, even with three years of control attached, Soto isn’t worth a high end prospect yet. He’s not exactly prime Aroldis Chapman or Andrew Miller just yet. It’s going to be hard to get his potential value right now, and no real reason to rush unless a team makes it worth the Tigers’ while. A team has to pay for the pitcher Soto is at his best. If they won’t, Al Avila should walk away.
Could he be traded? Sure. Will he? Probably not.
Wielding a superb power curve, with a good fastball-changeup combination to back it up, this former first rounder has evolved since his conversion to relief and come into his own as a viable high leverage reliever in 2022. This year Lange ditched the fourseam fastball entirely in favor of his twoseamer, and has used his changeup more while turning the curve into his main offering, using it 47 percent of the time.
Lange almost certainly won’t be dealt, but we have to mention him because of his potential value. His 2.38 ERA/2.49 FIP are very strong, and with a dominant breaking pitch that he can lean on heavily, his profile isn’t dependent on throwing 97 mph gas to the degree it is with most high leverage relievers. Lange is racking up a ton of strikeouts, and rarely gives up any power. The one flaw in his game is a tendency to issue more walks than is ideal, but the strikeout-to-walk ratio is still pretty close to three to one.
The Tigers have five years of team control over the 26-year-old Lange remaining, so unless a team desperately wants him, he isn’t going anywhere. Instead, Lange will be looked at as a pitcher to take a bigger role in the late innings after the Tigers deal Fulmer and/or Jiménez.
Expectations are low
Beyond the relievers mentioned, it’s not impossible that the Tigers could make other moves, but they won’t be getting anything much in return. A team in need of veteran catching help could ask about Tucker Barnhart, for example, but there isn’t going to be anything really notable coming back in return. Such a deal would open a spot for Jake Rogers, who should be returning to action over the next month.
The Tigers could also get to work sorting their 40-man roster by cutting loose Robbie Grossman or one of their backup outfielders. Perhaps a team might flip the Tigers a little something to put Derek Hill’s wheels on their bench. As bad as they’ve been, we’d be surprised to see Jeimer Candelario or Jonathan Schoop released. The Tigers will probably just hope one or both turns things around in the second half. In short, little of consequence is going to happen, and the Tigers are bound to enter the offseason with most of the same issues on the roster they have right now.
It would be amazing to see a big time, transformative move that works out and kickstarts the club’s climb toward contendership in the years to come, but don’t hold your breath. If Avila gets solid returns for the relievers likely headed for free agency, the Tigers will have a little more pitching depth added to their growing stockpile of solid arms. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t brighten the team’s future either.