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Tigers trade Gregory Soto to Philadelphia for a package of role players

Scott Harris didn’t move the needle in a big way, but the Tigers position player group has a lot more options to work with.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Chicago White Sox Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers have made another trade. Saturday afternoon, Jon Morosi of FOX Sports reported that the Tigers and Dave Dombrowski’s Philadelphia Phillies have agreed on a deal that sends left-handed reliever Gregory Soto to Philly along with utilityman Kody Clemens for a package of three position players. The finalization of the deal is pending medical reviews per Morosi, but appears in agreement otherwise.

From the Phillies’ perspective, they’ll hope this deal goes like the addition of a very similar player to Soto, flame-throwing lefty reliever José Alvarado. Alvarado had a similar reputation, but proved a major component of the Phillies bullpen during their late season run to the World Series. They’ll hope to improve Soto’s strike-throwing and land an impact bullpen arm who can be dominant when he’s on.

However, the Tigers aren’t easy pickings in the pitching department anymore. If Chris Fetter couldn’t dial in Soto’s control, the Phillies are going to be hard pressed to do much better with him.

Of the group coming to Detroit in exchange, right-handed hitting outfielder Matt Vierling and left-handed hitting infielder Nick Maton are both interesting role players with more potential than the prior group that consisted of Harold Castro, Victor Reyes, and Willi Castro. This should allow for quality platoons and better late innings bench options. Nothing here is terribly exciting, but does strengthen the overall positional group considerably.

Harris has addressed a lot of needs in one deal here. If he can then proceed to build a good bullpen in the wake of Jiménez, Fulmer, Chafin, Soto, this is overall a minor win with potential for more if they can develop Vierling and Maton a bit further.

Nick Maton

Maton is a 25-year-old utility infielder who hits left-handed and has a penchant for controlling the strike zone well. This makes him more of a Harris-type player and an upgrade over Harold Castro, while filling Harris’ stated goal of adding a left-handed hitting infielder. Castro was a sub-par defender everywhere, with no speed or power, and a willingness to swing at anything. He did have the hands to put just about any pitch in play, whereas Maton isn’t as good a contact guy but brings better skills in all other areas.

Maton has only 216 major league plate appearances, so it’s difficult to take much from that. There are some hints that he might strike out too much to ever be more than a part-time player, and that’s probably what we should expect. As a minor leaguer, he walked a lot while striking out an average amount. He’s not a power hitter, but would probably be good for 10-15 home runs playing full-time.

The key to Maton are changes he made to his setup midway through the season to help him adjust to the high fastball. He lowered his hands and crouched more after the change, setting him up to hit and lift pitches down to the pull field, which is his bread and butter, while still being in position to climb the ladder better to handle high heat. There were some signs of progress late in the season that may have intrigued Harris and the Tigers.

The fact that he lifts the ball to the pull field gives a chance to hit for more impact that his max exit velo readings might suggest, but he’s not going to be a power hitter. The real upgrade here is that he has some speed and can play anywhere on the infield while providing solid defensive ability as a left-handed hitter.

Nothing here is particularly exciting, but paired with Ryan Kreidler at third base, while filling in at SS/2B when required, Maton should tie the Tigers’ infield together more effectively. This whole deal in fact feels like the Big Lebowski’s rug of trades.

Matt Vierling

26-year-old Matt Vierling is probably the most interesting of the trio coming back for Soto and Clemens. A 2018 fifth-rounder out of Notre Dame, Vierling is a corner outfielder who hits right-handed. You’ll recall Harris saying he wanted a right-handed hitting corner outfielder to pair with the group already on hand. This may not be quite what you had in mind, but Vierling could well fit the bill as a lefty masher who can play all three outfield positions, and like Maton comes with five years of team control.

Vierling has a limited amount of major league plate appearances, but he walked a good amount in the minors, doesn’t chase an inordinate number of pitches out of the zone, and keeps the strikeouts well under control. What he adds is a lot of hard contact, as indicated by his 2022 Statcast numbers.

Matt Vierling 2022 Statcast

Vierling got 357 plate appearances with the Phillies last year, and while the results weren’t that good, he did hit the snot of the baseball. There’s potential for some serious lefty mashing there, with the hope that he can continue to improve a bit overall. He also provides some high-end speed to the bench though he’s never been much of a base stealer in the minor leagues.

Defensively, Vierling is probably an upgrade over the current corner outfield options, but was basically a neutral defender in 2022 while playing all three outfield positions. He’s not really cut out for center field perhaps, but does have the speed to handle the position capably when needed. He also has a good throwing arm, meaning we may see him in right field a good bit as the group of Meadows/Carpenter/Baddoo do not throw well.

Donny Sands

The third man in the deal is 25-year-old catcher and designated hitter Donny Sands. Sands appears to have solid defensive skills behind the plate, though he’s likely going to function as the third catching option playing out of Toledo. He does have two options remaining, which is part of the attraction. There is some power to work with here, but he’s never been able to tap into it through eight years of pro ball, so don’t expect much.

Sands was drafted out of high school by the New York Yankees way back in 2015 and was dealt to the Phillies as depth in 2022. He walks a decent amount and doesn’t strike out much. As a hitter his problem is that he hasn’t been able to translate above average raw power into flyballs. Perhaps the Tigers think there’s something there that the rebuilt hitting coaches throughout the system, including Sands’ likely manager, new Toledo Mud Hens’ skipper Anthony Iapoce, can work with.

In the end, Sands is probably nothing more than a decent backup catcher to provide some support in the case of injury or ineffectiveness from Eric Haase and Jake Rogers.

Final verdict

We’ll go into more detail on Vierling and Maton individually in separate pieces, but what Harris has done here is convert a wayward but very talented reliever into a completed bench that gives the Tigers solid platoon options. Vierling in particular has potential for more, while Maton brings a better compliment of tools to the table that the Tigers previous utility infielder options. Sands is probably fine as a third catcher type.

Assuming that Harris can address the bullpen, there’s a high degree of likelihood that this trade makes the team better in 2023. Some, including myself, might have preferred to try and sort Soto out again this season, because if he throws more strikes you suddenly have a pretty valuable reliever capable of returning a solid prospect in return. However, after four major league seasons with a walk rate of 12 percent or more, I admit that it isn’t likely to ever come together.

What this deal seems to indicate, is that Chris Ilitch has a cap of around $130-135 million on the payroll right now. That left only a few million to spend after the additions of Matt Boyd and Michael Lorenzen, and the Tigers needed a third baseman and a corner outfielder to put a solid positional group on the field. Instead, Harris has opted to convert Soto into a deeper, better bench with both Vierling and Maton having plenty of team control, a little upside left, and the proper fit into the team’s platoon possibilities.

Not an inspiring deal, but probably a wise one under the circumstances. We’ll assume Alex Lange is now the likely closer, and that could go well. Add some relief help and the bullpen will be fine.

Overall, this is a team that should be more stable and resistant to injury and under-performers now. Hopes for them to be significantly better were always going to ride on Austin Meadows and Jonathan Schoop providing more offense this year, and Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson improving. That seems like a good bet, but it remains very frustrating that they couldn’t add one good position player to lock up a spot in the lineup and give them a outsider’s shot at a wild card spot if everything broke right.

As for Gregory Soto, he’s been maddening at times, but also incredibly impressive when he’s dialed in. With an elite fastball, there’s always the chance the Phillies help sort him out a bit further and he’s very effective for them. We won’t hold our breath on that one. We’ve enjoyed him quite a bit and wish him well, but if he’d been the closer on teams that were actually competitive he would’ve driven us crazy. Best of luck in Philly.