The Tigers have lots of uncertainty with their lineup and rotation but they still have some interesting hurlers in their bullpen. That’s leading to a great deal of interest on the trade market, with Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic noting that the bull market for relievers so far this offseason has only added to the interest.
Back in July, MLBTR’s Steve Adams wrote about the many intriguing relievers that could make for interesting trade chips for Detroit. After the trade deadline came and went, they traded only one of them: impending free agent Michael Fulmer. Since then, they lost Wily Peralta and Andrew Chafin to free agency, the latter declining a player opt-out. But they still have plenty of talent back there, with Rosenthal listing Joe Jiménez, Gregory Soto and Alex Lange as some of the candidates, though there’s also Jason Foley, José Cisnero and Will Vest.
Trading from this group will likely be a balancing act for Scott Harris, the club’s new president of baseball operations. Subtracting talented arms from the roster will undoubtedly hurt the club’s chances at competing in the short term. However, the odds may be stacked against them anyway. The rotation will be without Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal for at least part of the year, as they are both coming off of surgeries that will keep them joining the club to start the season. Spencer Turnbull should be healthy but he missed all of 2022 recovering from Tommy John surgery and will be an unknown going into next year. The lineup will be looking for bouncebacks from Javier Báez, Jonathan Schoop, Austin Meadows and Akil Baddoo, while hoping that struggling youngsters like Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson and Ryan Kreidler take steps forward. There’s a lot that needs to break right for short-term success and the club may think about sacrificing some of the present for the sake of the future.
If the club views their circumstances through this lens, each reliever will be a unique case when it comes to the calculus of considering a trade. Jiménez, for instance, has between five and six years of MLB service time. That means he’s slated for free agency one year from now. 2022 was his finest season to date, as he threw 56 2/3 innings with a 3.49 ERA, 33.3% strikeout rate, 5.6% walk rate and 33.1% ground ball rate. He might have actually been better than the ERA indicates, with his .328 BABIP well above league average. His 2.00 FIP, 2.90 xERA and 2.30 SIERA all suggest he was unlucky to have his ERA settle where it did. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projected him for a salary of just $2.6MM in his final pass through arbitration before reaching the open market. Cisnero is also just one year away from free agency, though he’s in the opposite position statistically. He posted a 1.08 ERA in 2022 but with a sky high 18.1% walk rate. A .242 BABIP kept him from really feeling the consequences of all those free passes. He’s projected for a $2.2MM salary next year.
Contracts for free agent relievers have been pricey so far, with Edwin Diaz getting $102MM for five years, Robert Suarez $46MM over five and Rafael Montero getting $34.5MM over three, making Jiménez and his modest salary quite appealing. From Detroit’s point of view, it might help them in the long run to turn their single year of control over Jiménez into prospects that can help them six or seven years down the line.
Where the calculus gets a little trickier is relievers who aren’t as close to the open market as Jiménez. Gregory Soto has just over three years of service time, meaning he’s not slated for free agency until after 2025. That means he’s much more likely to be able to help the Tigers to compete in the future but also means he could net a greater trade return. He posted a 3.28 ERA this year with a 22.8% strikeout rate and 48.1% ground ball rate, but a 12.9% walk rate. The control issue has long been present for him, as he’s never posted a walk rate below 12%. For reference, this year’s league average for relievers was 9.1%. Trading him would be somewhat akin to the Orioles moving on from Jorge López at this year’s deadline. Lopez had 2.5 years of control remaining at the time and netted the O’s four prospects, but also cost them a proven reliever who could have stayed with them down the stretch and for 2023 and 2024.
If the Tigers are willing to consider trading a pitcher with even more control, they have some options in Lange, Foley and Vest. All three of them have between one and two years of MLB service time, meaning they have five years of club control remaining. Lange had a 3.69 ERA in 63 1/3 innings this year, along with a 30.3% strikeout rate and 55.6% ground ball rate, though a high 11.4% walk rate. Foley tossed 60 1/3 frames with a 3.88 ERA, 16.8% strikeout rate, 4.3% walk rate and 57.1% ground ball rate. Vest got 63 innings of action with a 4.00 ERA, 23.2% strikeout rate, 8.1% walk rate and 49.7% ground ball rate. These guys have yet to reach arbitration and have years of cheap control, which makes them valuable to other teams but also potentially valuable to the Tigers as well.
As for the Orioles, Rosenthal mentions them as another team stacked with relievers that could garner trade interest. However, most of them are in the latter category of still having years of cheap control remaining and are thus less likely to be moved. Félix Bautista, for instance, is not on the table in trade talks.