Explaining Tigers’ inaction at trade deadline, and what the choices mean moving forward

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Tigers stuck to simplicity as Monday’s 4 p.m. MLB trade deadline passed. Their approach was expected, but it’s a bold move for a team that entered the 60-game season with little odds of making any noise.

The perspective: win and rebuild.

Typically, that’s an impossible task. The ebbs and flows of a 162-game campaign iron out about the midway point, setting fire to a mass of teams hoping to snag the No. 1 overall draft pick.

Yet the Tigers have a 16-16 record with 28 games remaining in the shortened season, presenting general manager Al Avila with an unforeseen question: to buy or to sell at the trade deadline? There was no reason for him to go big, especially when trading a few prospects could squander a future the franchise feels so close to obtaining.

“We were very hesitant to do a trade for a player or players that we feel are not going to upgrade us as we move forward,” Avila said Monday, “rather keep the players now and keep on winning as much as we can. We’ll make adjustments as we go as we get into this winter and into next year.”

[ Detroit Tigers make one trade at deadline, keep roster intact for playoff push ]

This year’s trade deadline market was unlike past seasons because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A player on a one-year contract is only a 20-30 game rental, and the uncertainties of the 2021 season — including payroll — make long-term contracts tough to evaluate. Teams aren’t supposed to trade from outside of the 60-man player pool, but the “player to be named later” tag provided a loophole.

So Avila didn’t acquire big-name players to strike fear into his opponents. Now is not the time. Remember, Detroit called up prospects Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Isaac Paredes only two weeks ago.

He didn’t sell the core of the .500 Tigers, either. He made one trade in last-minute fashion: sending outfielder Cameron Maybin (and his one-year contract) to the Chicago Cubs for 25-year-old infield prospect Zack Short — the No. 21 prospect in a depleted farm system.

[ Want to know more about new Detroit Tiger Zack Short? Just listen to his podcast ]

Avila decided to keep second baseman Jonathan Schoop and catcher Austin Romine, each of whom will become a free agent at the end of the year. He also shied away from moving left-handed reliever Daniel Norris, even though his career value could be at its peak.

“We’ve talked to all 30 (teams) over a period of time,” Avila said. “The conversations actually got less and less as we got closer to the trade deadline. There was some interest from other clubs inquiring, and we did explore some situations, but nothing to that extent came to fruition.”

He closely watched the San Diego Padres (21-15) surge under the leadership of general manager A.J. Preller, adding catchers Jason Castro and Austin Nola, designated hitter Mitch Moreland, starting pitcher Mike Clevinger and relievers Austin Adams, Dan Altavilla, Greg Allen, Trevor Rosenthal and Taylor Williams.

The Padres did all of this without giving up top prospects, rather pulling from players in the middle of their organization’s rankings. The Tigers still don’t have enough minor-league depth to do the same.

However, that’s a blueprint for the future.

“You try to accumulate as many good prospects as you can for your own needs to create that nucleus at the major-league level and, at times, to make a trade when it can upgrade your major-league club,” Avila said. “At the end of the day, we have to be very careful with prospects until they get more proven.” 

For closer comparison, look no further than the 18-14 Blue Jays, who are the AL’s eight and final team in the playoff picture — one spot ahead of the Tigers. With the core of their young talent already in the majors, the Blue Jays made a slew of moves to better themselves now.

Here’s what Toronto did at this year’s trade deadline:

  • Acquired INF Jonathan Villar from Marlins; traded OF Griffin Conine (No. 16 prospect).
  • Acquired RHP Ross Stripling from Dodgers; traded two PTBNL.
  • Acquired LHP Robbie Ray (plus $300K) from Diamondbacks; traded LHP Travis Bergen.
  • Acquired RHP Taijuan Walker from Mariners; traded PTBNL.

The long-term answer to these trades is hidden within the “player to be named later” tag. But the Blue Jays had to give up Conine, who hit .283 with 22 homers and 64 RBIs in Single-A Lansing last season, for a month-long rental of Villar.

The Tigers just weren’t willing to part ways with a high-upside prospect like Conine at this point in the rebuild. They have big-league needs at the corner outfield positions and could use a short-term starting pitcher or slugging first baseman.

But to fulfill those desires for a recent second-round pick who mashed, such as Conine did? If that’s the case, then the Tigers made the right move by avoiding an upgrade for the remainder of the year.

After all, they aren’t actually in a position to win right now.

It just so happens the Tigers may have found the right group of misfit toys to make a push for the playoffs while continuing the rebuild with Mize, Skubal and Paredes in the majors.

“We’re trying to keep a winning culture and a winning team now,” Avila said. “If we would have been able to make one trade or two trades that, in the organization’s opinion, would have made us better even next year, and the year after that, then the trade would have been made.

“We just didn’t feel that trade was there.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content. 

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