Where do prospects from Justin Verlander trade fit in Detroit Tigers’ future?

Detroit Free Press
LAKELAND, Fla. — The Houston Astros craved a championship.

General manager Jeff Luhnow — fired more than two years later, along with future Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch, for his role in the well-documented sign-stealing scandal — needed right-hander Justin Verlander to make a run at the franchise’s first World Series title.

On Aug. 31, 2017, the Astros acquired Verlander from the Tigers, led by general manager Al Avila. That year, the likely future Hall of Famer won all five of his regular season starts for Houston, earned the ALCS MVP and finally got his World Series ring.

“It was a lengthy conversation between the Astros and the Tigers, because of the complications with a waiver (deadline) trade,” former Astros assistant general manager Mike Elias told the Free Press this spring. “They had been talking since the July (trade) deadline. Jeff Luhnow and Al Avila were working on the trade all month of August, the finances, the players, all those things.”

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Unlike the ready-to-win Astros, the Tigers — without a postseason appearance since 2014 — accepted, and fully embraced, the beginning of the rebuild. Avila needed to tear down, restart and develop the future from within.

“If we didn’t do this now, it would be impossible to continue to sustain a winning team,” Avila told reporters the day after the Verlander trade. “In reality, there was no choice. The other choice was to keep on adding, and it would have been suicide.”

[ Anatomy of Verlander trade: Inside Tigers’ deal as deadline neared ]

The return for Verlander: right-hander Franklin Perez, outfielder Daz Cameron and catcher Jake Rogers.

At the time, the three prospects ranked Nos. 3, 9 and 11 in the Astros’ farm system, respectively, according to MLB Pipeline. Entering the 2021 season, Perez is ranked No. 17 in the Tigers’ organization, while Cameron is No. 11 and Rogers is No. 16.

Nearly four years after picking up Verlander and winning a World Series, and one season after getting fired and suspended, Hinch will attempt to develop these players on the other side of one of the biggest trades in franchise history.

“I joked earlier with a friend of mine that I got the better part of the Verlander trade,” Hinch said in November. “I got the best of Verlander in Houston, and now I get the trade pieces that came back from Verlander in Detroit.”

Here’s where Detroit’s pieces stand:

Age: 25.

Minors experience: 4 seasons. Majors experience: Rookie status.

2020 stats: None.

The buzz: Rogers made his MLB debut in 2019 but hit .125 in 35 games, accompanied by 13 walks and 51 strikeouts. He didn’t return to the majors last season; the organization kept him at the alternate training site in Toledo. Going forward, Rogers — he turns 26 in mid-April — needs to fight for every opportunity. He already struck out once in 2021 by losing this year’s backup job to 28-year-old Grayson Greiner. The Tigers have 22-year-old catcher Dillon Dingler, a second-round pick in 2020 from Ohio State, preparing to climb his way through the minors. Early signs project Dingler as a much better hitter than Rogers. Although offense isn’t everything, the lack of competitive at-bats is keeping Rogers from earning a role with the franchise. He is a strong defender but must show some ability at the plate to get back to the majors.

What Hinch said: “Behind the plate, I love the adjustments he made this spring. I thought he cleaned up his catching and some of his, and I don’t want to say bad habits, but his habits behind the plate. He was a very clean catcher. He blocked well, he received well. He did everything behind the plate that we asked. We’ve got to find a way for him to contribute offensively, and that comes with the swing. He knows the strike zone. He generally swings at the right pitches and takes the bad pitches, but with his contact rate and his kind of one-dimension style as a hitter, you either got to get really good at it and do some damage, or you’ve got find a way to move the ball back into the field of play and be a more productive all-around hitter. He’s been going through swing changes pretty much his whole professional career, and we need to simplify it.”

Age: 24.

Minors experience: 5 seasons. Majors experience: Rookie status.

2020 stats: 17 G, 57 AB, .193, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 19 SO, 2 BB.

The buzz: The Tigers don’t think Cameron is a finished product, and they’re expecting a season of growth in 2021. He made his MLB debut last season but won’t start this year in the majors for two reasons: One, the 24-year-old sustained a lingering elbow injury this winter playing in Puerto Rico and wasn’t cleared for full activities, like playing the outfield, until the last week of spring training. Two, the Tigers have a logjam of outfielders ahead of him, considering Rule 5 draft pick Akil Baddoo made the team. These situations give Cameron time to develop in the minors. He needs to cut down on strikeouts and get back to occupying center field. Still, the Tigers still view him as a long-term part of the outfield, roaming the Comerica Park greens next to top prospect Riley Greene.

What Hinch said: “His athleticism as he’s grown, and he’s maturing. His strengths are going to be well-suited for centerfield and see if he can do it. It’s awfully early in his progression in his development to simply push him to the corner. You push him to the corner, you got to hit a little bit. Even though Daz can hit, it puts a ton of pressure on the one aspect of his game. It may be better suited to leave him in center and use his speed and usefulness out there. We just need to continue to evaluate while these guys are developing and not make too many decisions too fast in their careers on what they care.”

Age: 23.

Minors experience: 5 seasons. Majors experience: None.

2020 stats: None.

The buzz: Since coming to the Tigers organization, Perez has dealt with a slew of injuries, with only 27 innings pitched across nine games. He became the top-ranked prospect in Detroit’s system after the trade but has slipped significantly. He used to reach 95-96 mph with his fastball and fool opponents with his curveball. Now, he struggles to get into the 90s, leaving his nasty curveball as his only plus-pitch. He was negatively impacted by the loss of the minor-league season’s cancellation in 2020, but has been healthy since last year’s spring training. And the lack of positive results is concerning, considering he pitched at summer camp in July and at the alternate training site in August and September. If his fastball velocity never recovers, he might be better used as a reliever. Regardless, the Tigers should consider themselves lucky if Perez becomes a sustainable big leaguer.

What Hinch said: “It’s going to be a slow climb. I was happy with his fastball uptick (maxing out at 91.6 mph in his second outing). I think if we can build on that and slowly but surely get his velocity back, it’s not going to come in three days, five days, seven days. It’s going to be a work in progress. He’s working his tail off, which is really important. … For us, we would just be happy with getting him on the field and getting him acclimated to competing every five days, or whatever it’s going to be. He missed a lot by both injury and the COVID year. He more than anyone probably needs the season to start.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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