Tigers reportedly checking on A’s starters Frankie Montas and Sean Manaea

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It was reported Wednesday night that the Tigers have had trade discussions with the Oakland Athletics regarding starting pitchers Frankie Montas and Sean Manaea. Detroit had been making waves in free agency before MLB’s lockout, but even rumored involvement in the trade market for big targets has been nonexistent. Now, with a new CBA in place, teams are hurrying to finalize an offseason’s worth of activity in a few weeks before the season begins. Montas has become the final marquee pitcher openly available this offseason, though Manaea is no slouch either.

Evidently, for the Tigers, finalizing means shoring up their pitching staff, and the Oakland sell off could be a great place to find the finishing piece for the rotation.

Oakland finished the 2021 season with a middling record, nine games back of the Houston Astros. Stuck in a division with the ever present threat of Houston and the surging Mariners, the A’s shot-callers decided to pull the trigger and dive into a rebuild. So far, they’ve traded off star infielders Matt Olson and Matt Chapman as well as solid starter Chris Bassitt.

It’s no surprise to see Montas and Manaea on the chopping block as well. Starting pitching is at a premium this offseason and there are few candidates left in free agency worth getting excited about. Thus, the A’s duo presents an exciting opportunity for anyone willing to belly up and pay in prospects. For Oakland, there’s little value in hanging onto traceable assets when they are in a seller’s market and the team no longer looks like it can be competitive while they are under club control.

Frankie Montas

Montas took a winding road to his eventual five-season stretch with the Athletics. He passed through the Red Sox, Dodgers, and White Sox farm systems and was always praised for his arm strength, but it took him a few tries to get a foothold in a major league rotation. He exploded on the scene with a 2.63 ERA, 3.0 fWAR season in 2019 and has remained a force to be reckoned with in the seasons following. Last year, he continued to strike out hitters en masse and demonstrated the ability to maintain that performance over 160 innings, resulting in the best season of his career.

Perhaps even more notable for the purposes of this discussion is his fastball mix. Brace yourself, nerdery approaching.

His fourseamer is a weapon in the traditional sense, a freight train averaging 96.4 miles per hour in 2021 with a heavy, dropping motion. The same can be said of his sinker, which also is thrown at an average velocity of 96.2 miles per hour but drops over 15 inches. Both pitches hover around 90 percent active spin, but even better, they present with the kind of diverging movement profiles the Tigers’ coaching staff like to tinker with.

Screenshot via BaseballSavant

We can identify pitchers the Tigers may be confident in bringing onboard by comparing their fastball movement profiles to those of pitchers who the team has prioritized since hiring Chris Fetter as the pitching coach. This is a topic I dug into a little in a speculative article about Jakob Junis, who was recently signed by San Francisco. Eduardo Rodriguez, Spencer Turnbull, Wily Peralta, and Jose Urena share a common characteristic with Frankie Montas — fastballs with similar spin-projected movement and diverging observed movement data.

If the Tigers are attracted to one of these players over the other, I’d suspect it’s Montas. The two years of club control remaining before he hits free agency line up neatly with the opt-outs on Javy Baez’ and Eduardo Rodriguez’ contracts. He’s a year younger than Manaea and has been an indisputably good starter for a larger percentage of his career. He matches the team’s coaching preferences. He’s the bigger fish.

Sean Manaea

The one-time top prospect has had a largely unremarkable career in the major leagues. He operates with a three-pitch mix, a sinker, changeup and curveball, and is the rare starter who relies on his cambio as the primary off speed offering. Most fans will remember him for his 2018 no-hitter thrown against Boston. He threw it into high gear during the 2021 season and wound up with 3.3 fWAR accumulated over a career-high 32 starts.

Manaea is more of a simmer burner than most pitchers in the game today. His sinker doesn’t crest the low-90s too often and his other two pitches are parked in the low-80s. Instead of blowing batters away, he wins with finesse. He’s basically average at inducing ground balls and preventing home, but he walks hitters at a significantly lower rate than the league.

What changed for Manaea that led to his best season so far? For one thing, he was able to consistently strike out opposing batters at a high rate for the first time in his career. In 2021, he reached 9.74 strikeouts per nine innings. That total far eclipses the rates he managed in 2016-2018, the other MLB seasons in which he threw 100-plus innings.

Oddly enough, that wasn’t accompanied by a hike in the whiff rate or putaway percentage on any particular pitch over the rest of his career like most performers with a spike in productivity. Instead, he appears to have found an edge by pounding the strike zone. He throws in the zone significantly more often than the average pitcher, but hitters make contact with his pitches thrown inside the zone less often than average despite swinging at them more often than average. The percentages aren’t large, but the cumulative effect seemed to have taken hold last season.

Viability of a trade

Oakland is going fully pedal to the metal purging tradable assets. Anything on their roster worth having is attainable for the right price. They pulled down a haul for Olson, and the return in the Chapman deal was lighter, but he has some really scary peripherals. Only the Bassitt deal was met with uniformly raised eyebrows. The Tigers could easily meet pretty much any asking price, but whether they really should be willing to do so is not such an easy question.

Entering the last year of his contract, Manaea is at his highest trade value ever and the team who acquires him will have to be certain of his ability to roll through the season with little maintenance required to make a trade worthwhile. He was definitely a weapon last year, but whether he can keep it up is an entirely different matter, and one that I find suspect.

Montas has put up big numbers over the past three seasons, but his injury history is troubling. Sure, pitchers get hurt a lot, but 2021 was the first fully healthy season of his MLB career. A lengthy injury history is hardly a rosy indicator for future health. The Tigers can’t afford to throw away talent on someone who won’t be able to take the field at this vital crossroads. That’s not to mention that a moderate lack of innings pitched skews the dependability of previous seasons’ data.

General Manager Al Avila has been reticent to trade away minor leaguers at any point. The optics of whiffing on a high profile trade as a buyer are beyond horrible when the team isn’t in contention for a playoff spot. On the flip side, Detroit is starting making a real push this year. The addition of another competent starting pitcher could push them over the hump and into a place where they can put a scare into good teams who come their way. Manager AJ Hinch would never admit it publicly, but this team looks a lot better with Tyler Alexander as the bullpen’s Swiss Army Knife than the fifth starter.

It’s also tough to admit sometimes, but the prospects Detroit would likely be in a position to trade away only have a chance to become what Montas and Manaea already are — major league contributors. It’d sting to give up, say, Jackson Jobe in a deal for Montas after drafting him third overall, but what are the odds that Jobe ever puts up a 4.0 fWAR season? They’re unquestionably lower than the odds of a repeat performance by Montas, who totaled 4.1fWAR in 2021. The fact is that prospects just don’t always work out the way you hope. On the other hand, trading someone like Matt Manning, who is far from proven as a major league starter, but is also just getting started and has six years of team control remaining, is arguably pushing too hard for what could ultimately be just a modest upgrade, or one that just doesn’t really alter the equation that much for the 2022 Tigers over a mix of depth options and a stronger bullpen.

Of course, that’s not to say that we should return to the Dombrowski-era thinking that prospects have no value outside of what major league players they can return. Don’t walk into a swindle just because an attractive player is on the other side. And don’t play fantasy baseball trying to force the rotation when the real Tigers might upgrade in other ways for substantially less cost. Just don’t lose sight of the fact that a fair trade hurts both sides. It won’t be fun to part ways with the prospects we lost so many games to earn, but the Tigers are starting to get to a position to be spending out of their farm system, though that system isn’t particularly strong beyond the dynamic duo at the top. If they can hang onto most of their top prospects while doing it, and still find a quality upgrade for the rotation that would be ideal. Whether that’s possible with Montas or even Manaea, remains to be seen.

Detroit decided the time is right to renter the player acquisition market, and there’s no excuse for half-measures. They’ve pushed hard to improve the roster by adding three major contracts and firming up the catching situation. Adding another high value piece to the puzzle makes good sense while the Tigers still have their best young talent under cost-controlled contracts. Making that piece a starting pitcher seems to be the route Detroit wants to pursue, and evidently, one of Montas or Manaea could be the manifestation of the idea. Just expect that the competition to land them is liable to be fierce.

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