Tigers trade Gregory Soto, Kody Clemens to Phillies for three high-upside players

Detroit News

Detroit — President Scott Harris told anyone who’d listen that he would not be risk averse. He wasn’t going to be afraid to take calculated risks.

And sure enough, in his first major trade with the Tigers, he traded lefty closer and two-time All-Star Gregory Soto and second-year utility man Kody Clemens to the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies for three young, unestablished players with high upside.

“I think this trade is a variant of one of those calculated risks I’ve talked about,” Harris said after finalizing the deal Saturday, “You’re never entirely confident that young players are going to hit in the big leagues. But you are a little more confident when you see flashes of their performances in the big leagues already.

“It makes you feel better when you are getting players who have already done it at a high level. It increases your confidence that they will be able to help us in 2023 and beyond.”

The Tigers got back three players entering their age-26 season, two of whom played supporting roles in the Phillies pennant race and playoff run last season.

Matt Vierling, an extremely athletic, right-handed hitting outfielder played in 117 games in his rookie season last year (.246 average, six homers 32 RBIs) and was on the Phillies postseason roster, seeing action in 12 games.

Nick Maton, a left-handed hitter can play anywhere on the diamond except catcher. He was on the Phillies World Series roster after slashing .250/.341/.514 with an .855 OPS in 34 games last season.

▶Donny Sands, a right-handed hitting catcher, was the No. 19-rated prospect in the Phillies system. He slashed .308/.413/.423 in Triple-A last season before making his big-league debut late in the season.

Harris went into the offseason looking for a left-handed hitting corner infielder and right-handed hitting corner outfielder and certainly Maton and Vierling check those boxes. But Harris didn’t want to limit them to those roles.

“They are capable of performing in those roles,” Harris said. “Two of them already have performed them in the big leagues. But we think there is more in there for all three of those players. I wouldn’t limit their upside to the roles I articulated earlier in the offseason.

“We’re just excited to be able to get these players and we look forward to seeing what they can do in Lakeland.”

Vierling and Maton might also be in the fight for the third-base job, Harris said. Though both played all over the diamond for the Phillies last season, Vierling has played mostly outfield and Maton mostly infield in their careers.

“Vierling is a tremendous athlete,” Harris said. “He has a track record of controlling the strike zone. We also think him being athletic, versatile, his speed can really enhance our overall offensive unit.”

Vierling’s sprint speed ranks in the top third percentile in baseball.

“That speed component could be of greater importance with the new rules,” Harris said, referencing new limits on pitchers being able to throw over to hold runners. “It’s nice to be able to add more speed to our offense.”

Vierling also feasted on left-handed pitching last season, hitting .295 with a .760 OPS. That would make him a good platoon candidate with left-handed hitting corner outfielders Akil Baddoo and Austin Meadows.

“He was a high-level athlete in high school and has maintained that athleticism all the way up to the big leagues,” Harris said. “It’s difficult to go from playing outfield your entire career to all of a sudden playing infield positions in a pennant race in the big leagues. But that’s what Matt did last year.”

Maton, too, showed the ability to make major adjustments at the big-league level. Not only did he add outfield play to his resume last year, he also underwent a swing change during the season without missing a beat.

He did most of his damage against right-handed pitching, slugging .539 with an .877 OPS. That sets up as a potential platoon at third base with Maton and Vierling if the Tigers choose to go that route.

“Nick also has a history of controlling the strike zone and he has the track record of hitting right-handed pitching throughout his pro career,” Harris said. “He feels comfortable both on the grass (outfield) and in the dirt (infield). He and Matt both do. Those types of players are hard to find and we feel we’ve added two who have already performed in the big leagues.”

As for Sands, Harris said he’s always been a solid defensive catcher but the bat has started to perk up the last couple of years.

“We’re confident in his ability to help our pitchers in the strike zone,” Harris said. “And we’ve seen more flashes of juice in the bat at Triple-A last year and we feel there’s more there.”

Sands will come to camp competing with Jake Rogers and veteran, non-roster invitee Andrew Knapp, another ex-Phillie, to back up presumed starter Eric Haase.

“These trades are always tough, especially for players who’ve never been a part of another organization,” Harris said. “This is a Saturday afternoon and Gregory Soto and Kody Clemens just got a call saying they’ve been traded. That’s hard for anyone, especially two players who have been Tigers the duration of their professional careers.

“We thanked them for their contributions to our organization and we wish them well in Philadelphia.”

Soto, who will turn 28 in February, had been in the Tigers organization for 10 years. He converted 48 of 52 save opportunities the last two seasons but he also struggled with his command. Last season he became just the sixth player in major league history to lose 11 games while saving at least 30.

In December, Harris traded late-inning reliever Joe Jimenez to the Atlanta Braves and with lefty Andrew Chafin opting for free agency, the back end of the Tigers’ bullpen has been thinned.

“The bullpen was an area of strength for us but we have to address areas of weakness, too,” Harris said. “We’ve done a lot of work to add to our pitching and defense to stabilize this group. And we have to reshape the offense. I’ve been talking about it since the day I got here.”

Alex Lange, Jose Cisnero and Jason Foley will likely come to camp as the back-end reliever trio but Harris said it was too early to start handing out roles.

“There is still a lot of offseason left,” he said. “We want to see how all of our pitchers perform when they get to camp. I think we’re going to be open-minded. I know AJ (Hinch, manager) has been open-minded about that in the past. Also, I think there are roles beyond the closer that are critically important to a high-performing pen.

“We will see what it looks like in Lakeland and start making those decisions then.”

Harris did say he was working to add a left-handed reliever to the mix. With Soto gone, Tyler Alexander is the lone lefty reliever on the roster.

“We are hard at work on that,” he said. “It may not be a major league deal (an indication the Tigers aren’t re-bidding on Chafin), but someone we’re excited about. We also have some pitchers in the minor leagues who are on the verge of taking a step forward.”

Among those who will be in the fight include Jake Higginbotham, Sean Guenther and Zach Logue.

Harris said there were internal discussions about holding Soto’s trade chip until the trade deadline. But in the end, he felt he got the deal he wanted now.

“We felt like this deal was over the line for us,” he said. “We wanted to make the deal now. Performance next year, even in the first half of next year, is never a certainty. That would be another risk that we would’ve taken. That’s not a comment on Gregory as a pitcher, it’s just a reality of performance in this industry.

“We felt like if we could get a deal that was over the line for us we should be prepared to take it. And we’re thrilled that we got back players who have a chance to help us in 2023 and beyond.”

The agreement, first reported by MLB Network’s Jon Morosi and confirmed to the News, is pending physicals.

Twitter@cmccosky  

Twitter: @cmccosky  

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