Henning: Tigers need a big deal to fuel rebuild; Spencer Turnbull could be the fire

Detroit News

Spencer Turnbull pitches a no-hitter and the Tigers cosmos finally has something to celebrate.

It’s been a while for fans weary of having to go to You Tube and Magglio Ordonez’s 2006 home run to remember the last time they felt good about a baseball moment in Detroit.

Now for the tough news: The Tigers probably need to trade Turnbull.

What he did Tuesday night in no-hitting the Mariners made clearer, nationally, why Turnbull for the past year has been the Tigers’ chief trade piece, and the best way for them to bring aboard a sparkling hitting prospect they can plug into manager AJ Hinch’s everyday lineup.

That prospect, that hitter, ideally would be a shortstop for a team which can’t count on Niko Goodrum or Willi Castro to be a daily blue-chip presence.

This isn’t a happy scenario for fans who suddenly see Detroit’s young pitching as its way out of the past five years of squalor. But it’s absolutely necessary, a big 2021 deal, if the supposed rebuild has a chance of taking flower.

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The Tigers have nowhere near enough bats necessary to stock a playoff lineup. Riley Greene is moving closer to the day he’ll be a force at Comerica Park, while Turnbull will be gaining steam, as well, and soon. Dillon Dingler at catcher, Isaac Paredes somewhere in the infield, Daniel Cabrera and maybe Bryant Packard in the outfield alongside Greene —  these are legitimate talents who can fuel a maturing, contending roster.

But without one more prime-time bat, this long Tigers reconstruction has no chance, no matter how many millions or billions you care to spend on free agents.

It still begins with your home-grown, trade-obtained roster, with free agents as the cake’s frosting —  not as its foundation.

Viewing Turnbull as the likely trade chip is not new speculation. Even last year, after he finally got healthy and made it to Detroit fulltime, it was evident Turnbull had the power arm and repertoire that would excite opposing scouts and front offices.

He throws a fastball-slider combination of fury and high-spin metrics, which best bust bats. Other big-league contenders, looking for a difference-maker down the stretch, know this now and will know it more acutely by the time trade-season begins to boil in June, July, and into August.

If he stays healthy, Turnbull —  more than Matthew Boyd, a long-time trade candidate who doesn’t excite opposing clubs the way Turnbull does —  has the capacity to bring Tigers general manager Al Avila the heavy attraction he never really has had at his disposal at mid-season.

It was different when Justin Verlander and J.D. Martinez were on the block four summers ago. Other teams had been infected with Hang On To Your Prospects Fever then attacking MLB front offices. They wanted no part of Verlander or Martinez, who merely had the talents, respectively, to win a World Series (Verlander for the Astros) and push a team single-handedly into the playoffs (Martinez for the Diamondbacks).

But they were the lone —  lone —  suitors for each player, which was ridiculous. Avila had no leverage. He made a proper deal with the Astros.

Franklin Perez ran into a cavalcade of injuries. He got what he could from the Diamondbacks for Martinez moments before the D’backs were about to shop elsewhere.

This time it will be different, and not only because Turnbull, if he remains physically intact, will be a hot ticket. Michael Fulmer is rapidly turning into a bullpen monster and could also have teams scrambling to add him as July and August and playoff dreams draw nearer.

The Tigers can afford to deal either man when pitching remains their organizational muscle and when more arms than bats can be mustered in the months and seasons ahead.

What’s needed, primarily, is a potent everyday hitter who plays preferably an up-the-middle infield position. You can make that brand of player —  probably a high-level minor-leaguer —  part of a package that could end up as a blockbuster, particularly if people like Fulmer, or even Jeimer Candelario, are ultimately part of the haul.

The idea that Avila can’t make these deals is a popular critique among Tigers fans convinced he’s incompetent. But it’s essentially nonsense. Any of the big-leagues’ GMs, all 30 of them, can make trades, good trades, if they have inventory other teams need.

Avila’s problem is at the heart of Detroit’s descent since its old playoff era: The Tigers haven’t had talent other teams cared to add, not at retail prices that would make deals beneficial to Detroit.

About the only time Avila has had competition for Tigers flesh was that same summer, 2017, when Justin Wilson and Alex Avila were being hunted by multiple teams. Avila made a good trade, getting Candelario and Isaac Paredes from the Cubs.

He’ll make a fair exchange this summer, should Turnbull’s stock hold up, when teams looking for a power arm down the stretch see a 28-year-old, one-time second-round draft pick with a dynamic arm as the kind of pitcher who can help them plow deep into October.

The reason such a deal is a high-percentage bet to be made is that all parties will need to pull off that very brand of swap. Avila knows his rebuild isn’t going anywhere without adding a bat best obtained by trade. Other teams understand Turnbull has the moxie now to be a down-the-stretch and beyond weapon.

There will be doubts, naturally, that the Tigers need to sell off parts as potentially helpful as Turnbull. Why not make him part of your rotation foundation? He’s the brand of lightning-bolt right-hander a team can expect to beat good-hitting teams, with regularity.

Here’s why such thinking isn’t practical.

Remember the summer and autumn of 2009. The Tigers were solid but needed help, on both the pitching and hitting ends. It was proposed here that the only way out of their clear-cut roster stew was to trade Curtis Granderson.

This was, well, not a popular notion, as “feedback” made clear.

But by December a trade came together. The Tigers netted Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer.

Those two players became invaluable to a playoff run, which soon was to begin.

The Avila-must-go camp will say, yes, Dave Dombrowski was able to make that kind of trade but Avila can’t.

Of course, he absolutely can make that brand of deal.

In fact, it’s mandatory that he make it.

And, within 90 days or so, don’t be surprised if word comes down the Tigers have just made the biggest swap of the Avila era, and that it involves a pitcher they will hate to lose, Spencer Turnbull.

It will be another confirmation of that old adage, applicable to baseball or other avenues of commerce:

You get what you pay for.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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