Analysis: Should Tigers consider using Matt Manning as a trade chip?

Detroit News

Detroit —- Question: If you were the Tigers, if you were, more specifically, general manager Al Avila, would you consider trading a big-league ready prospect (say right-handed pitcher Matt Manning) for a more proven right-handed starting pitcher (say either Frankie Montas or Luis Castillo)?

With baseball shuttered and awaiting tangible movement in the labor talks between owners and players, we are left to dive into these hypothetical debates, as speculative as they might be.

Avila has already indicated he didn’t feel the club was in a position where he’d be comfortable trading off top prospects.

“I’m still very sensitive to that,” Avila said in October when asked about the possibility of trading a prospect for a proven big-league player. “I’ve said this all along, we’re not looking for a quick win and we’re out. We’re looking to sustain this.

“’ll be very sensitive to trading guys we feel can be part of this winning organization in the future.”

More: A Tigers shopping guide, should they seek to upgrade an already solid bullpen

Avila did use a prospect to acquire catcher Tucker Barnhart from the Reds, but it was a lower-ranked infielder —- Nick Quintana. Avila left the window open, just a crack, to the possibility of using a top prospect as a trade chip.

“I’m not going to rule it out,” he said. “If it makes sense, I will look at it.”

So, would it make sense to trade Manning, who just turned 24 and cut his teeth in the big leagues last season, for a young-ish, affordable (for now) and more proven right-handed starter?

Reasons it does make sense:

►Both Montas and Castillo are entering their age-29 seasons and have two years of team control left. Montas made $1.8 million with the Athletics last season and Castillo $4.2 million with the Reds. Both of those teams made it clear they are shedding salary and looking to rebuild.

Both, certainly, offer an immediate and significant upgrade to the Tigers’ rotation.

Montas made 32 starts, went 13-9 with a 3.37 ERA, a 1.18 WHIP averaging 10 strikeouts and 2.7 walks per nine innings. Castillo battled uncharacteristic control issues last season (National League-high 75 walks), but he still made 33 starts and limited hitters to a .209 average with a 33% swing-and-miss rate with his filthy change-up, which he throws off a 97-mph four-seam fastball.

In a rotation with essentially one proven arm, Eduardo Rodriguez, either Montas or Castillo would provide much-needed stability and length —- Rodriguez, Montas-Castillo, Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal.

►The Tigers still aren’t quite sure about Manning’s upside. Big league hitters, and the fact that he essentially missed all of 2020, forced him to reinvent himself on the fly last year. It took him 10 or so starts to get his fastball velocity back up to the mid-to-upper 90s.

Granted, his poise and mound presence were impressive. He never flinched, even in his first bunch of starts when he was getting pounded on the regular. He just kept grinding, making adjustments and by his 18th and final start, when he blanked the White Sox on two hits over five innings, his two-seam and four-seam fastballs were hitting 97 and 98 and he was mixing change-ups, sliders and curveballs effectively.

There is upside here, no doubt. But can the Tigers confidently pencil him into the No. 4 spot in the rotation next year and count on 30 starts? Having Skubal in that fourth spot, behind Rodriguez, Montas-Castillo and Mize seems a more secure bet.

►The Tigers, though not as deep as they perhaps once thought they’d be with starting pitchers, can afford to part with a player like Manning. Joey Wentz and Alex Faedo, both top prospects at one time, are coming off Tommy John surgeries and could factor into the big-league plans this season.

Knocking on the door, too, perhaps as early as this season but certainly for 2023, are Reese Olson, Beau Briskie and Elvin Rodriguez. And after that comes another crop of highly-prized draft picks, including first-round picks Jackson Jobe and Ty Madden, and third-rounder Dylan Smith.

And lest we forget, the rotation is going to get a significant boost in 2023, the Tigers believe, when Spencer Turnbull returns from Tommy John surgery.

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Reasons it doesn’t make sense:

►Long-limbed, 6-foot-6, cocky-in-a-good way pitchers who can throw 97-mph heat, with three fast-improving secondary pitches don’t grow on trees. In two years, Manning could well be better than Montas or Castillo.

That’s always the risk you take in trading prospects (see John Smoltz trade for Doyle Alexander and others).

►But this is the key question: Would acquiring one more proven starter make the Tigers sure-fire playoff contenders next season? Probably not. As it stands now, the Tigers, even with the quality additions of Javier Baez, Barnhart and Rodriguez, still have offensive deficiencies and uncertainties around the diamond.

Compare the Tigers’ starting eight to the defending Central Division champion White Sox:

Tigers: C Barnhart, 1B Spencer Torkelson or Jonathan Schoop, 2B Schoop or Harold Castro, 3B Jeimer Candelario, SS Baez, LF Akil Baddoo, CF Riley Greene, RF Robbie Grossman, DH Miguel Cabrera.

White Sox: C Yasmani Grandal, 1B Jose Abreu, 2B Leury Garcia, 3B Yoan Moncada, SS Tim Anderson, LF Eloy Jimenez, CF Luis Robert, RF Adam Engel, DH Gavin Sheets or Andrew Vaughn.

One more proven starter isn’t likely going to be enough to offset that gap in offensive talent. So, what’s the point of dealing Manning? Especially since …

►Manning alone might not be enough to entice the Reds or A’s to make a deal. They may also ask for a younger prospect, Madden or Jobe, and that, you have to believe, would be a non-starter for Avila.

On balance, it seems the safe play, maybe even the smart play, is to roll with Manning. Maybe, if the playoffs expand to 14 teams and the Tigers find themselves in the hunt ahead of the trade deadline next summer, maybe we can revisit this debate, or another one similar to it.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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