1/10/18: This article has been updated to reflect the current market facing the Tigers and a possible trade of Michael Fulmer.
With pitchers and catchers due to report (usually the week of February 13-15) soon, time is winding down on the Detroit Tigers offseason. Since entering a rebuild in the midst of their 2017 season, the Tigers have moved on from older, pricier players for talent in their minor leagues with some upside. Opinions vary on the quality of those players, however. With the hot stove of the offseason cooling off, one name continues to surface as a movable player for the Tigers: Michael Fulmer.
Now, previously I had written that the trade talks for Fulmer were just a “bunch of hot air,” but a man knows when to admit he was wrong, and I was wrong. In the heat of the season, it did not seem to make sense to trade our young ace. Now after seeing the underwhelming returns we've received for some of our better and more beloved players, it seems parting with Fulmer may be in the best interest of the Tigers.
Our underwhelming returns –
Let's get one thing clear: you never want to be the team trading away proven players for prospects that are unproven. But, nonetheless, this is where we find our Detroit Tigers. During the 2017 season, we saw J.D. Martinez, Justin Wilson, Alex Avila, Justin Upton, and Justin Verlander traded away. This offseason, fan favorite Ian Kinsler was shipped off to Anaheim in the latest player-for-prospect swap.
These deals fall into two categories: I can live with that and what the hell was he thinking.
The “I can live with that” trades –
The trade of closer Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila to the Cubs netted the Tigers two pretty solid prospects: Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes. Candelario for all intents and purposes would be a top 10 prospect in our system had he not exceeded his rookie limits in 2017. Side note on that, he also loses out on a long-shot chance for Rookie of the Year because of his 138 career MLB at-bats. Paredes slots into the top 10 (9th according to MLB.com) in a traditionally weak farm system.
The second trade that Tigers fans can live with was the trade of long-time ace, Justin Verlander. In the waning moments of August, the Tigers shipped the face of their franchise to Houston — who went on to win the World Series — for three top-tier prospects, all of which entered the Tigers top-10 immediately. Right-handed pitcher Franklin Perez (1st in both Baseball America and MLB.com; 32nd, in BA's top 100, 41st in the MLB's top 100), catcher Jake Rogers (5th in Baseball America; 7th in MLB.com), and outfielder Daz Cameron (6th in Baseball America, 5th in MLB.com).
Both of these hauls should have Tigers fans excited as these players have high ceilings and a lot of promise.
The “what the hell was he thinking” trades –
For the two good trades that Al Avila made there were three others that left each fan thinking, what the hell. These deals all had one thing in common: they were done in haste and literally came out of nowhere. Sure, Martinez, Kinsler, and Upton were names that were tossed around constantly — each of them nearing the end of their tenure with the Tigers — Upton was likely to opt out after 2017, Martinez was a free agent at year's end, and Kinsler was on the last year of his contract. But there was legitimately surprise when these deals were announced.
J.D. Martinez to the Arizona Diamondbacks —
On July 18th word came down that slugger J.D. Martinez was headed to the desert for three prospects: Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King. 13 days before the trade deadline Avila pulled the trigger on a deal that netted the Tigers their 15th overall prospect (8th according to Baseball America) in Lugo, their 22nd overall prospect according to MLB.com in Alcantara, and a young “sleeper” in Jose King who's calling card is his speed.
The question must be asked (and will be asked again) shouldn't Avila have held onto J.D., especially given the deals that happened during the waiver trade period, for a better return? Each of these guys are .265+ hitters with some upside. They aren't the caliber that was returned in the above-mentioned trades, with Lugo having the highest upside. But something must be said about the fact that none of them cracked the top-10 organizational prospects, especially when they were the first deal done this past season.
Justin Upton traded to the Los Angeles Angels –
This was a deal that was the biggest surprise of the waiver deadline. However, it isn't one that you can place too much blame on. That's why it's sandwiched between these other two. Upton, in a stand-up way, hinted that he'd be opting out at the end of the season, and thus, Al Avila did what he had to do.
For Upton, the Tigers received Grayson Long, a pitcher, and Elvin Rodriguez — eventually as the player to be named later. Long became the Tigers 14th overall prospect according to MLB.com, but still seems to be an underwhelming get for a guy like Upton.
Ian Kinsler traded to the Los Angeles Angels –
This may have been the worst deal of the three. Avila did not have to trade Kinsler when he did. It was hasty, it was irresponsible, and it was unproductive. By playing his hand too early, Avila lost any leverage he could have possibly had and traded Kinsler — who had value — to a team that stole him right out of the Motor City.
Why the Angels were our trade partners for two of these deals, the fact that they have one of the worst farm systems in the Majors, is the real rub of this entire head-scratching section. The best we could get for a guy we didn't need to trade was Troy Montgomery, an outfielder that slots in at number 26 in our top-30 prospects. For a veteran second baseman, who had a very team-friendly contract, Avila definitely missed the boat on this one.
The real problem with these trades —
In order to have a successful rebuild, it is imperative that teams get organization-altering prospects (remember this for later). You need to have “that guy” that everyone looks to as the cornerstone that your future is built around. Sure, we have great pitching depth, but those guys will have an impact one out of every five days. We need and should have pursued, with either Wilson/Avila or definitely Verlander, someone who could've been our Mike Trout, or Bryce Harper, or Kris Bryant. But we didn't.
We received some nice prospects, Candelario for sure as well as Paredes, but are they organization changers? No. They are great pieces to have, but not elite. They are the guys you put around an organization-changer that helps you achieve that main goal of a championship. We needed that and didn’t get it, which brings us to Michael Fulmer.
Trading Michael Fulmer is the right move –
Michael Fulmer has been nothing short of great in his short time in Detroit. Arguably he was the Ace, even when Justin Verlander still wore the Old English “D”. In his two seasons with the club, Fulmer has accumulated a record of 21-19, sports a 3.45 ERA, and an 8.3 WAR. Pretty good for a kid who is only 24 years old.
His age alone, along with his stellar performance on the field, and his amoung of controllable years has led many to call trading Fulmer nothing short of treason. However, I ask you, name me one starting pitching prospect who has been an organization changer? Noah Syndergaard? Stephen Strasburg? Clayton Kershaw? Sure all great names, but none of them could win a championship on their own. Strasburg owns a career WAR of 24.3, Syndergaard 9.3, and Kershaw 59.4. Sure, Kershaw's looks good, but that's only if he were to win every start. Hell, our very own Justin Verlander only owns a 56.6 WAR, and he was a type of organization changing prospect.
Pitching is our Minor League strength –
According to Baseball America, and anyone with a brain, the strength of our farm system lies in our pitching. Here's what they had to say,
“Strengths: The Tigers have targeted pitchers at the top of each of the past three drafts, and it's paid off with Alex Faedo, Matt Manning and Beau Burrows. Add in trade acquisition Franklin Perez and the organization has its best group of arms in years. Detroit now has future starters to go with its always deep group of potential power relievers.”
If one of those four mentioned above turns out to be a Kershaw or Verlander we can expect about 50-60 wins above a replacement player — over their career. In an average season, if they were to win every game you're looking at 30-ish wins. Not enough to contend for sure. That would require 15 wins from your other four pitchers just to hit 90 wins on the season.
We lack an elite position prospect –
Every organization that has rebuilt successfully — Chicago, Kansas City, Houston, and Cleveland — has coupled good pitching prospects with an elite, can't-miss position player. Right here you should be thinking: Correa, Hosmer, Lindor, Bryant. Fulmer could bring us that. But not by himself.
Check out what Baseball America says about the weakness of our organization,
“Weaknesses: Paced by Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, the Tigers' lineup has been potent for years. The foundation of the next great lineup isn't here yet. Detroit does have some up-the-middle prospects who could be big league regulars, but there are few players in the system who project as potential above-average hitters. Outfielder Christin Stewart is the best slugger in the system but most of the team's top positions prospects lack star power.”
If Al wants to really get this rebuild going in the right direction he needs to package Fulmer, with another younger arm (Funkhouser?) to a team for one of their top prospects. We're talking pitching the Yankees a Fulmer/Funkhouser for Torres/Player B/Player C (maybe) type deal. This is the only way that a trade of Fulmer should happen, if Gleyber Torres, Baseball's #2 overall prospect is part of the return. This may seem like a crazy haul for Fulmer, but his value lies in the controllable years left on his contract — 5 years of team control according to Spotrac.
If a deal like this were to be made, you could easily replace the younger arm you traded away, and possibly the ace in Fulmer as well, by drafting Brady Singer #1 overall in this June's draft. Coupling a guy like him, who projects to be a can't miss pitching prospect with the other arms in our Minor League system, and the organization-changer brought in a trade of Fulmer greatly impacts the speed and direction of the rebuild.
Our plethora of pitching prospects, along with the value that Fulmer currently has — which Fangraphs argues is at its highest point — has to net you an organizational prospect that forever changes the face of your franchise. A deal could get done, but the question is Is Al Avila savvy enough to do so?
Who’s “Jake Rodgers”?
There is no way you could pry Torres and two other players for only Fulmer and PTNBL. That’s the kind of trade sixth-graders think is possible. I know a team’s fans generally live in a bubble, but thinking that kind of trade is possible in the real world reflects an obviously impermeable bubble.
Blind Red Hat,
The third player in that suggested trade was a (maybe), and while I agree with you that Torres would be a tough get, it is the only place the Tigers should start when discussing a trade. Sure, Torres is a great prospect, but don’t undervalue what we have in Fulmer either. A solid, innings-eating Ace, with five years of control. Simply, it makes sense to try and trade Fulmer for the right price, to get a prospect that changes the face of your franchise — which Torres would do.
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