When you evaluated the Detroit Tigers roster as the trade deadline approached, there were a number of opinions on where help was necessary; most of them focused on a struggling bullpen. The Tigers acted decisively to attempt to address that need, acquiring Rangers’ closer Joakim Soria in exchange for a pair of top ten prospects in right-handers Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel.
Some felt that move, coupled with the existing group of relievers, just deployed differently in a more targeted fashion, would be enough to sustain the Tigers in October. (Ed. Note: That case was made on TigsTown on Sunday here: Do the Tigers Need Another Reliever?). Others felt that the Tigers were in need of another bat, preferably a left-handed hitter that could possibly contribute in one of the corner outfield spots.
If you had polled a group of interested Tigers fans, or analysts, or media members, pretty much none would have said that the Tigers were in need of an upgrade to their starting pitching. After all, through 104 games, the Tigers starting pitching had contributed 11.6 fWAR to the club, the best of any rotation in baseball, and more than two wins better than the next best team in the AL, the Tampa Bay Rays.
"The Tigers... created an intimidating rotation... But they did so by opening up a gaping hole in center field, and at the expense of providing further upgrades to the bullpen."
That doesn’t sound like a unit in need of an upgrade, and yet, the Tigers came with a big one, landing four time All-Star and 2012 Cy Young winner David Price. He will immediately slide somewhere into the top of the rotation, among the 2011 Cy Young winner, the 2013 Cy Young winner, the 2013 ERA champ, and a 25-year old groundball machine with an ERA in the low 3’s.
As you could imagine, the acquisition of a Cy Young winner just entering his prime doesn’t come cheap. The Tigers gave up a trio of players including two members of the current big league club, left-hander Drew Smyly and center fielder Austin Jackson, along with highly touted shortstop prospect Willy Adames, who checked in at #10 on the 2014 TigsTown Midseason Top 50.
Giving up Smyly of course makes sense. In a move where a club is trading a veteran starting pitcher, the club getting a younger, cheaper and less effective but still good version of that pitcher is to be expected. Smyly has been solid in the rotation, with a 3.93 ERA for the year.
The inclusion of Adames also makes sense. A youngster that’s a good fielder and shows plenty of promise at the plate and is one of the top position players in the farm system is a valuable commodity, and if the Tigers farm system has one area of depth, it’s in the middle infield. Already at the big league level there’s Eugenio Suarez and Ian Kinsler, plus Jose Iglesias poised to return next year. On top of that group, you’ve got Hernan Perez, Devon Travis, Javier Betancourt, Harold Castro and Domingo Leyba all among the top 30 prospects in the organization. Adames is a player with plenty of potential to be sure, but is also a guy the Tigers could afford to give away.
But Jackson being a part of the deal was a shock to many. A quality center fielder having a bit of a down year, it’s not terribly surprising a young, quality big leaguer would be included in a deal such as this. Leading up to the deal, many were speculating that rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos might be included in such a deal. So the sort of player was to be expected; just not the actual player they gave up.
And herein lies the problem. The Tigers strengthened an already strong unit, creating an intimidating rotation no one in baseball will want to face. But they did so by opening up a gaping hole in center field, and at the expense of providing further upgrades to the bullpen, where the Tigers relief corp. sits ranked 28th in ERA in MLB.
As it concerns the bullpen, some writer (Ed. Note: This one) seems to think that this group of relievers, that hasn’t figured it out in four months, suddenly will come October. There is some truth to that, however, it’s missing one key component. The belief that this current group could suffice was contingent on having Smyly return to the bullpen, where he was excellent in 2013, and would provide a left-handed complement to the late inning trio of right-handers; Joe Nathan, Joba Chamberlain, and Soria.
Now however, that option is off the table, and the Tigers will have to pick one of the aforementioned five to stick in the bullpen. Could a groundball-inducing pitcher like Rick Porcello really help in relief? Would it shock everyone to move Justin Verlander to the pen? And where does the left-hander come from – Phil Coke? For whatever gains the Tigers made in improving their rotation, there is an argument to be made that they weakened their bullpen in the process. And even if they didn’t weaken it, they made no further move to improve it, something many pundits still felt was necessary.
Of course, if Soria settles into his new role, and Nathan can find his form of old, it becomes less of a concern.
But center field is now a huge concern, no matter how you slice it.
The Tigers solution for now will be to platoon Rajai Davis with recently-promoted Ezequiel Carrera. Davis for his career has been inconsistent in his time in center, but hasn’t seen substantial time there since 2011, when he posted a DRS of -9 and a UZR/150 of -18. For comparison sake, Miguel Cabrera had a UZR/150 of -19 at third base last year. So, yeah, that’s bad.
Carrera meanwhile has limited time in the outfield at the big league level, so the numbers aren’t overly useful in his case. But, he’s regarded as a player with good speed that came up with above-average defensive grades, but hasn’t necessarily displayed that in recent years.
That’s not even accounting for the fact that the Carrera, while hitting .307 in Toledo, did not hit much in his previous tours of MLB duty (career wOBA .286), and so it’s highly unlikely he’ll come close to matching Jackson’s offensive output, even if he’s adequate defensively, which is not a certainty either. Davis has hit over his head in the first half of the year, Carrera hit well in Toledo but never has in the big leagues, and neither player projects to be the sort of defender Jackson is, even if he hasn’t been as good as he once was.
Given all that, did the Tigers, as Dombrowski claimed in the postgame press conference today, give the team a better chance to win a championship? Possibly. There’s no question having a trio of Cy Young winners on your pitching staff gives you a strong case to be a contender in October. Among qualified AL starters, all five of the Tigers starters rank among the top 25 in the AL by fWAR. Basically means the Tigers fifth starter is better than some teams second starter.
But in their quest to build the most dominating rotation in baseball, the likes of which arguably hasn’t been seen since the Braves in the mid 90’s, did they create a bigger problem in center field and forego addressing a need in the bullpen? It’s possible as well.
The Tigers made a good trade from a value standpoint – they gave up a lot, but the price was fair given what they acquired. But did they make a good trade as far as improving the club’s chances of winning in October? This writer isn’t convinced.