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Detroit Tigers trade deadline: Don't sell the farm

While Tigers fans have been clamoring for a big name to fill the closer's role (or left field, or catcher), making a big, splashy move at the deadline isn't such a good idea. Here's why.

Let's hope that Papelbon keeps the Phillies jersey on. Or at least let's hope that he doesn't put on a Tigers one.
Let's hope that Papelbon keeps the Phillies jersey on. Or at least let's hope that he doesn't put on a Tigers one.
Len Redkoles

Hi. I'm David Tokarz, and as Jordan pointed out in his TPR post a while back, I'm the Senior Curmudgeon on the staff of Tigers Prospect Report. That means that I'll be chipping in every once in a while with an analysis piece and helping out the young whippersnappers here or there on scouting reports.

I'd like to start, however, with a piece that addresses the organization writ large. In particular, I want to talk about the trade deadline and the rush to sell off prospects for a pennant run. While a lot of folks support moves such as trading top prospects (or young players) for bullpen help, a new left fielder or a new catcher, I'm here to be the contrarian. Doing so 1) won't really help the Tigers this year, 2) has a chance of actually hurting the Tigers chances in 2013 and 3) will damage the long-term health of the organization.

In doing so, I'll be making three arguments: the marginal utility of a win, the value of depth and the value of young, cost controlled players. Consider this to be your warning: this post will contain math (not much, but some) and scouting reports. Have you mentally prepared yourself? Fantastic- -- let's go!

1. Trading the farm for a big name (e.g. Mike Stanton or Jonathan Papelbon) is a bad idea because the Tigers will not benefit in 2013.

This argument is predicated on something called the "win curve." For those of you interested in the in-depth sabermetric argument, Vince Gennaro wrote a really good piece in 2007 that explains it in detail. For those of you who want the Cliff's Notes, read on.

Basically, the idea behind the win curve is simple. Wins have what economists would call "marginal value," which is a fancy way of saying that the value of a win depends on how many other wins you have. Imagine, for instance, that you're the Miami Marlins, and you're on pace to win 59 games this year. Adding an extra three wins onto that total does virtually nothing for you; you're not going to sell many more tickets if you can promise a 62 win season to your fans, and you're certainly not going to be in contention for a playoff spot.

However, imagine that you're the Baltimore Orioles. You're on pace to win 88 games this season, which is pretty good, but probably not good enough to win your division or a wild card. The value of a win goes up for you, because the odds of getting to the playoffs increase with each win. Assuming 92 wins gets you into the playoffs, all you need are four extra wins. Four wins over the course of a season is nothing in baseball -- that could be random variation, and knowing that 1) flags fly forever, and 2) you have a chance of dramatically increasing revenue by making the playoffs, it makes sense to sell prospects for established players.

Of course, the Tigers are neither the Baltimore Orioles or the Miami Marlins. The Tigers lead their division by a solid margin, and just by using the winning percentage as it exists, are pace to win the division with 90 games compared to Cleveland's 84. If you look at first, second or third order wins (which control for luck, essentially), the gap is even bigger. This means that adding wins in the regular season probably won't matter to the Tigers' future. But what about stacking the roster for the postseason?

Again, we can look to the concept of marginal utility. Let's say the Tigers acquire Papelbon, the best closer available on the market. Papelbon will probably cost a top prospect (which means either Castellanos or Garcia). Compare Papelbon with the current closer, Joaquin Benoit:

Pitcher Season FIP xFIP SIERA
Papelbon 2013 3.43 3.95 3.27
Career 2.69 3.11 2.5
Benoit 2013 2.21 2.72 2.41
Career 4.11 4.17 3.72

Papelbon is a better pitcher over his career by a significant margin, sure, but Benoit has been better this year (much better, if FIP and xFIP are to be believed). But even if you're inclined to throw out 2013's numbers in favor of career numbers, acquiring Papelbon might not be such a good idea. Let's take Jose Veras, for instance. The Tigers would be able to get him by throwing a few B prospects at Houston, and he might provide the Tigers with more value.

Pitcher Season FIP xFIP SIERA
Papelbon 2013 3.43 3.95 3.27
Career 2.69 3.11 2.5
Veras 2013 3.61 3.62 3.04
Career 4.1 4.16 3.7

Sure, Veras is worse over his career. But he's been better this year, and acquiring him means the Tigers get to keep Castellanos and we add another arm that's on par with Joaquin Benoit's career numbers (and 2013 season numbers, to a lesser extent) to the bullpen. This option is cheaper and, in terms of marginal benefits, the Tigers improve the bullpen by adding a setup guy. In short, the Tigers bolster an area that's been weak while still maintaining depth. Which is important because ...

2. Trading prospects for a superstar is a bad idea because it might hurt the Tigers in 2013.

Imagine, if you will, that the trade deadline passes and Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski pulls off a deal for an elite reliever that costs one of the organization's top outfield prospects. Then, on Aug. 2, Torii Hunter trips and falls over a sprinkler in the outfield at Comerica Park, tearing his leg off (it's hyperbole, bear with me). How do you replace him?

One of your top guys is gone. That means either Castellanos or Garcia can't fill the slot. The other one might be able to, but that player might also be needed to slide into left field to bail out the Dirks-Tuiasosopo platoon (Dirks cant hit and Tuiasosopo might turn back into a pumpkin). So what do the Tigers do?

They could call on Ben Guez, a minor-league lifer who doesn't have any tools that can play in the major leagues. They could call on Daniel Fields, a breakout star at Double A who has good fielding instincts and good tools, but horrible contact skills, a player that will top out as a second division starter or fourth outfielder. They could call on Tyler Collins, another Double A player who rode a pretty incredible hot streak in April only to begin struggling as the year went on (who also, by the way, has a ceiling of fourth outfielder).

You see where I'm going here, of course. Losing a key prospect, especially one in the upper levels, at a position where the Tigers might be a bit fragile in terms of depth (outfield, relief pitcher, starting pitcher) has a chance to haunt them this year. Of course, this might not hurt the Tigers tremendously; after all, Hunter is only a two win player and the Tigers are on pace to win by seven games.

Except that because Hunter's being replaced by a replacement level player (at best), the Tigers are now only on pace to win by six games, which puts Cleveland even closer to striking distance. Sure, you might have increased the ability of the Tigers to win the division by acquiring Papelbon, but if anything goes wrong, that becomes a lateral move without the depth to cushion blows to other key players.

The Tigers have seen this happen this year with the bullpen. Due to ineffectiveness on the part of Rondon, Villarreal and Alburquerque, the Tigers are left scraping the bottom of the barrel for effective players. Their right-handed reliever depth consists of Luke Putkonen and Jose Ortega, players who have little working for them besides velocity. Want to replace Coke or Downs? Tough. The left-handed reliever depth is Matt Hoffman, a guy who doesn't even rank on Jordan's Top 30 prospects (in a weak system). Now you're left trying to fill holes, and if your solution to these holes is to make new ones, eventually the boat's going to sink. That, of course, gets us to...

3. Trading prospects now will severely damage the ability of the Tigers to keep their competitive window open past 2013.

Pop quiz (to make sure you're still reading): What do the following players all have in common?

  • Max Scherzer
  • Rick Porcello
  • Doug Fister
  • Austin Jackson
  • Alex Avila

All five of these players (yes, even Avila) form the young nucleus that surrounds the Tigers' stars. All five are also due big raises in arbitration.

The Tigers are a team willing to spend money. Owner Mike Ilitch really wants a World Series, and he's willing to shell out for one, to the tune of $149 million dollars. I understand the arguments made by some that Ilitch will keep spending to get what he wants, and I'm not here to disagree with those arguments. What I am here to do is to inject some reality into the conversation. First, Ilitch won't spend past the luxury tax, which sits around $190 million dollars. Second, you're betting the future of the franchise on Mike Ilitch's willingness to spend up to that amount. Arbitration raises for these five players might take up $20 million, and even with money coming off the books, it's going to be tough for the Tigers to maintain salary at $150 million next year.

And that's before we go to free agency. On the market, you're paying a premium for player talent. A player like Torii Hunter gets paid $13 million dollars to be a two-win player for the Tigers. Now, I like Torii a lot, but having to fill multiple gaps in free agency will hurt the Tigers financially, even if we're willing to spend more than $150 million long-term.

Now, assume you have young, cheap players to fill roles in the outfield and the bullpen. If one of Garcia or Castellanos can play an outfield corner long-term, and if Bruce Rondon can pitch at the level of a setup man, you've saved some $10-$20 million per year. That's money you can throw at Max Scherzer or Austin Jackson. Even if you're absolutely convinced that Ilitch is going to spend $190 million on this team long-term, wouldn't you rather roll the dice on the prospects (admittedly running a risk) and guarantee that you get to keep quality starters like Scherzer and Jackson on this team? I know I would.


Long story short, the Tigers aren't in a position where they're in a dogfight for the division. While the team certainly has weaknesses, and while Cleveland is still a threat, this team is not in a place where selling the farm is going to help. Instead, making smaller moves for quality pieces to bolster weak spots on the team will help the Tigers succeed, not only in 2011, but beyond.

Oh, and by the way, the last Astros closer to get traded to a contender cost almost nothing in terms of prospects. So set your sights a bit lower. It might mean more than one flag in Comerica.

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