2021 free agent targets: SS Trevor Story

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While there are several high end shortstops available in free agency, finding the perfect fit for the Detroit Tigers needs is complicated. This is a crucial point for the organization, as they need to boost themselves into playoff contention without over-committing themselves in a single offseason. The Tigers don’t have much in the pipeline at the position. So their need is long-term at this point. However, while they could comfortably afford to do it, outbidding big market teams and locking in a decade-long deal isn’t necessarily the ideal solution either. There are other needs to attend to, particularly in the starting rotation.

Carlos Correa fits perfectly as a player, and brings everything one could want in a starting shortstop and middle of the order bat. However, as we’ve discussed, he’s also going to command a huge, long-term deal that will require the Tigers to engage in a potential bidding war with some of the biggest spenders in the game. They could certainly afford him without breaking the bank, but it is a major commitment. Corey Seager should be somewhat less expensive and packs equal offensive punch to Correa, but he doesn’t really profile well defensively at the shortstop position going forward. I

If we look for wisdom from the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, then former Colorado Rockies shortstop Trevor Story could be the one that is just right for the Tigers. However, he does have some issues that will need to be thoroughly explored before a team is comfortable handing out a nine figure deal.

Trevor Story 2018-2021

Season PA wRC+ K% BB% HR LD% fWAR
Season PA wRC+ K% BB% HR LD% fWAR
2018 656 128 25.6 7.2 37 22.7 5.1
2019 656 122 26.5 8.8 35 24.3 6.0
2020 259 118 24.3 9.3 11 22.7 2.5
2021 595 100 23.4 8.9 24 18.9 3.5

Profile

Trevor Story turns 29 years old today. The shortstop was originally selected by the Rockies out of high school as the 45th overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft. He debuted in 2016 and has spent his entire career with Colorado. At six-foot, two inches tall, and listed at 213 pounds, he’s not quite Correa’s size, but he is a pretty big, physical player whose speed on the bases and defensive ability can make him appear like a more prototypical small, quick shortstop.

Early in his career, Story showed outstanding defensive abilities and power potential, but he was also a free swinger who struck out an awful lot. Starting in 2018, he cut his strikeouts from well above 30 percent, down to a much more palatable number, averaging close to a 25 percent strikeout rate since, slightly above league average, while posting roughly league average walk rates. His peak offensively came in 2018-2019, when he mashed 72 home runs and stole 50 bags across two full seasons, posting an average wRC+ of 125.

Typically, Story is a good fastball hitter who handles offspeed pretty well but can really struggle against good breaking balls. Story has generally used the whole field pretty well, and posted good line drive rates until the 2021 season, when all of his numbers backed up significantly. He crushes left-handed pitching, but better right-handers can really work him over with sliders down and away. Throughout his career, he’s been basically a league average hitter against right-handed pitching, while making most of his hay against left-handers to the tune of a career 146 wRC+ against southpaws.

Certainly playing in Coors Field has helped him offensively. He’s unlikely to top 30 home runs per year playing in Comerica Park for half his games. However, his average and maximum exit velocity numbers say there is plus power there, regardless of how the ball flies in the mountains. He’s also been in a tough division facing a lot of tough pitching from the likes of the Dodgers, Padres, and Giants over the years. Assuming the injuries played some role in his offensive decline this year, Story would certainly be a nice upgrade for the Tigers’ offense in 2022.

Story backs the hitting profile up with high end overall athleticism. He’s stolen 20 or more bases—adjusted for 2020’s short season—for four years straight. According to defensive runs saved (DRS), Story peaked with a monster 21 DRS in 2019, but was worth plus six runs in 2020, and plus nine runs in 2021. Statcast doesn’t agree though, and according to Outs Above Average (OOA), Story was a negative in terms of defense in 2021. As noted by FanGraphs, DRS tends to really love Rockies’ infielders to excess for some reason, while OOA may be doing a better job showing the effect of Story’s arm trouble this year. Essentially, if he’s healthy, you can expect plus defense at shortstop for years to come. If not, a big contract could end up underwater pretty quickly, as defense is a major component of Story’s value.

His walk year was his worst

The fundamental question with Story is whether his 2021 campaign was a blip, or a much more ominous sign of decline setting in. Two years older than Correa, the fear is that in avoiding the need for a nine or ten year contract, they might make the mistake of buying into a shorter term deal with Story only to find that his prime is already long gone. To answer that question, the Tigers need to consider his medicals closely, as several injuries may have wreaked havoc with Story’s game this season. Overall, he’s had relatively minor injury issues in his career, and they generally haven’t been enough to keep him off the field.

Back in April, Story experienced pain in his elbow making a throw to first base. The diagnosis was inflammation, but we know well how ominous such a benign diagnosis can become. This isn’t the first time Story has suffered from a right elbow issue either, though it’s always been minor inflammation that resolved pretty quickly. This year, Story adjusted his throwing motion, utilizing less of his snappy, sidearm release, and instead making an effort to transfer the ball from glove to hand more quickly, and to step toward first and engage his shoulder more to get enough on his throws. The change was noticeable, but most of the time he made it work.

Around the same time, on May 2, Story was drilled on the right index finger by a pitch. Imaging showed no fracture, but the two issues combined had to be difficult to deal with. Story battled through, avoiding the injured list until a two week stint on the IL became a reality in late May and early June. An MRI showed no structural damage within the elbow, and he was able to pick up where he left off when he returned. Still, his throwing motion continued to be compromised by the elbow throughout the rest of the season, and presumably that issue accounts for some of the disparity between defensive metrics.

Story also took a fastball off the left wrist while facing Shohei Ohtani on July 26. He didn’t go on the injured list for that one, but no doubt it hampered him at the plate for a little bit until the bruising and inflammation there subsided. While he continued to tough it out through these issues, it’s certainly possible that his diminished numbers this season were a result of being banged up at multiple points. We can take some comfort in the fact that his overall production rebounded significantly in August and September, where he produced a good deal more like his old self.

That he was reticent to spend time on the injured list is a credit to him, as his team was going nowhere and Story was in his walk year and needing to put his best foot forward to finally earn the big payday he deserves. However it’s just really difficult from this distance to sort out how much of his season was a function of injury, and how much the elbow in particular might be a problem going forward.

Throughout his career, Story has posted nice line drive rates. This season his line drive rate dipped pretty dramatically, and he exchanged the line drives for grounders. That is not a good tradeoff. His average and max exit velocities were still in line with career norms, so if the repeated injuries to his right elbow, wrist, and index finger were the cause of him rolling over on more pitches, we can expect a healthy Story to recapture line drive rates that would play very well in Comerica Park when combined with his raw power and speed. After all, this is still a guy who crushed a 475 foot home run this year, though altitude aided.

What will he cost?

FanGraphs estimates a contract of five years, $115M for Story, paying him $23 million per season over the next five years. Their crowdsourced estimate is a little higher, roughly just adding on a year to the term of the contract.

Obviously the key attraction here is the much shorter commitment and total cost associated with Story as compared to Correa or Seager, in particular. However, those savings are going to come with substantially less offensive production, and the risk that ongoing elbow troubles could put him on the shelf for an entire season at some point, and may suppress his defensive value in the meantime. On the other hand, if his elbow is alright, Story’s speed and overall athleticism argues for him holding up better than many shortstops over 30 years of age.

Should the Tigers bite?

We’re fans of Trevor Story, and even badgered the Tigers a bit to deal for him prior to the 2021 season. He’s a gritty, durable sort who carries a strong, diverse set of tools to help his teams win. If the Tigers get a good long look at his medicals, confer with their team physician and other medical personnel, and are convinced he’s not going to need UCL surgery and will recapture the velocity on his throws, Story makes for a strong fallback option.

However, as things stand he’s also more risky than either Correa or Seager in the short-term, and he’s two years older. A lot of our readership has expressed concerns about paying either one in the neighborhood of $30M well into their mid-30’s at the back of a long-term deal. However, paying Story $23-24M a year, when he’s going to reach that expected decline much sooner, is even scarier without assurances that his bat and defense aren’t already in the process of declining. At least with Correa and Seager, you have a very good shot at a half decade of 4-6 WAR seasons before the cookie starts to crumble.

If Story is healthy, he could be a bit of steal for the Tigers, and a great fit for their needs. The Colorado Rockies are well behind the curve as an organization in terms of modernization. It’s possible that a healthy Story could recapture some of the magic of his prime in a winning environment with better coaching.

We can also take some encouragement from the fact that Story put together the best stretch of his season in August and September. He may have just finally gotten beyond the injuries down the stretch, which would bode well for his return to typical offensive production in 2022. It’s just very hard to assess the risk/reward calculation with so much dependent on his medicals right now. If the Tigers go this route, we’ll just have to hope they get it right.

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