Detroit Tigers may be drafting better, but rebuild needs better trading, too

Detroit Free Press

Earlier this month, the Detroit Tigers looked like the team so many envisioned back in the spring: timely at the plate, fundamental in the field, sturdy on the mound. And though the combination didn’t blow up the stat sheet, it led to a six-game winning streak that was enough to cause a second look.

Or, in the Tigers’ case, a third, fourth and fifth look.

But then, losing followed the winning — eight of nine after Saturday’s drubbing by the Guardians — and we returned (once again) to whatever backup plans we had this summer.

Yay?

Give the Tigers credit, I suppose, for not extending the winning streak further and fooling you into thinking a renaissance awaited down the stretch.

And if there is more winning than losing the next couple months, well, think of last year’s fine play in August and September, and the tease that turned out to be.

THE TENURE: Why Al Avila’s MLB drafts with Tigers have been better than you think

JEFF SEIDEL: How Tigers went from drafting like ‘zombies’ to finding late-round gems

MOCK IT DOWN: Local prep star, catcher linked to Tigers in Round 1

We can talk about injuries; that would be fair, because they’ve decimated the team’s rotation and nicked the lineup around the edges. Injuries aren’t an excuse, though. They happen. They matter. They can swing titles no matter what sport you watch.

The Tigers’ injuries don’t fully explain their summer of discontent, though. A lack of hitting does.

As the draft runs Sunday-Tuesday, and the trade deadline approaches on Aug. 2, it’s a good time to remember why we’re seeing the team we’re seeing this summer.

The front office, led by Al Avila, has drafted better as of late, especially in the later rounds documented here by my colleague Jeff Seidel. Yet the rebuild has slogged through another season because the fire sale begun in 2015 hasn’t yielded a single difference-maker.

Oh, there have been a few solid additions through trades — Jeimer Candelario, for one — and if Austin Meadows can get healthy and produce as his résumé suggests he can, Avila might finally have a true win.

Meadows, you’ll recall, arrived just before the season began via a trade with Tampa Bay. The Tigers acquired him for Isaac Paredes, a young infielder who has mashed 13 home runs for the Rays (and the No. 71 pick in this year’s draft). And though that homer total is painful — Meadows has yet to hit a single homer for the Tigers —Paredes struggles to make contact and doesn’t get on base often.

It’s all or nothing for Paredes. Yeah, you’d take those home runs. But let’s see what Meadows does before we declare a winner in the trade; the 27-year-old has played in just 36 of the Tigers’ 92 games this year.

Avila was able to trade for Meadows because he sent his son (catcher Alex Avila) and a surging reliever (lefty Justin Wilson) to the Chicago Cubs for Paredes, Candelario and cash in July 2017. The trade remains Avila’s high-water mark; it will only inch higher if Meadows eventually performs.

In a vacuum, it was a solid move. But rebuilding a team doesn’t happen in a vacuum. And when a general manager spends almost seven years in the big seat and Candelario and Paredes/Meadows is the best return he’s found?

You get the 2022 Tigers, on pace to lose 97 games.

And the 2021 Tigers, who lost 85 games.

And the 2020 Tigers, who struggled at a 97-loss pace.

And … you get the point.

No general manager sells off stars — or near-stars — and gets future stars in every deal. Additionally, Avila had to deal players in the last year of their contract — as he did with J.D. Martinez — further limiting his leverage and returns: Only a handful of teams in any given year are in the market for two-monthrentals.

Still, when Avila sent Martinez to Arizona in mid-July 2017, he was one of the best hitters in baseball, and he remained in that realm for several more seasons. In return for Martinez, the Tigers got Sergio Alcantara, Jose King and Dawal Lugo.

I’ll wait while you look them up on the Tigers’ roster …

It’s not surprising when a team trades an impending free agent and gets prospects who don’t pan out. Every GM whiffs.

What stings is when almost every other trade returns little, too. The most obvious example is Justin Verlander.

The Tigers traded him to Houston in August 2017, six weeks after they dealt Martinez. Perhaps you remember.

Verlander won the World Series that fall. He won the Cy Young in 2019, adding a third no-hitter to his résumé. He’s an All-Star again this season.

Does that sound like a player that should garner at least one prospect that develops? But Daz Cameron, Jake Rogers and Franklin Perez have all been duds to date.

Perez, who has struggled with injuries, was pitching again earlier this week in the Tigers’ organization. Maybe, with good fortune, he will stay healthy.

But he was the prized prospect in the trade. What was tantalizing potential at age 19 is now, five years later, tortured performance at 24 in the Florida Complex League.

There have been some OK trades: Avila flipped Leonys Martin (with minor-league arm Kyle Dowdy) to Cleveland for Willi Castro, and that could be considered a nice win … a year ago. While neither Martin nor Dowdy have played in the majors since 2019, Castro has been inconsistent this season for the Tigers. Still, for a season, Avila got the better of a division rival.

Then again, he traded Nick Castellanos for minor-league arms Alex Lange and Paul Richan in July 2019. Lange has helped the bullpen this season and has good stuff. Richan was cut loose earlier this season without ever rising above Double-A.

Castellanos, meanwhile, raked for the Cubs for half a season and kept it up in Cincinnati for two seasons, earning a $100 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies last offseason. The trade doesn’t look good.

Prospects are difficult to evaluate. It’s baseball’s nature and human nature. But at some point in the rebuilding process a front office needs to get lucky.

The Tigers’ has not.

This summer is yet another reminder.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.     

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