The Tigers swung a trade with the Phillies earlier today, landing outfielder Matt Vierling, utilityman Nick Maton, and catcher Donny Sands in exchange for one of Detroit’s biggest trade chips. Gregory Soto’s emergence as the Tigers’ closer resulted in two All-Star appearances in as many seasons, but the left-hander and the versatile Kody Clemens are now both part of Philadelphia’s organization.
Soto was arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter, so the Tigers weren’t necessarily in any immediate rush to ship him elsewhere. Back at the trade deadline, the Tigers put a high asking price on any Soto deal, and those demands didn’t change even after Scott Harris was hired as the team’s new president of baseball operations in September. With the Phillies finally stepping up to satisfy Detroit’s ask for younger, controllable, and MLB-ready players, the trade was made.
“We felt like this deal was over the line for us,” Harris told reporters, including Chris McCosky of the Detroit News. “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….And we’re thrilled that we got back players who have a chance to help us in 2023 and beyond.”
Rival teams’ interest in the Tigers’ relief corps naturally continued into the winter. Soto represents the second major reliever traded away from Detroit’s bullpen during Harris’ brief tenure, as Joe Jimenez was also dealt to the Braves in December. Andrew Chafin is a free agent, but it doesn’t seem like a return to Detroit is in the cards, as Harris implied that a further left-handed addition to the pen could be a minor league signing.
“We are hard at work on” this new acquisition, Harris said. “It may not be a major league deal, but [it’s] someone we’re excited about. We also have some pitchers in the minor leagues who are on the verge of taking a step forward.”
Jake Higginbotham (acquired in the Jimenez deal), Sean Guenther, and Zach Logue are three of the left-handed relief options in the farm system who could be competing during Spring Training for a bullpen job. Tyler Alexander is currently the only southpaw penciled into a spot on the Opening Day lineup. As for the bullpen as a whole, Harris said the Tigers will use Spring Training as a testing ground to see which incumbents or new faces could fill particular roles in the depleted bullpen.
The Tigers are betting they have enough relief depth to make up for losing so many prominent names from their 2022 bullpen, and naturally there is some risk involved is trading from what was basically the club’s only bright spot in an otherwise disastrous season. While the relievers by and large did their job, the rotation was crushed by injuries, and the position players almost entirely failed to hit. The result was a 66-96 record, and a huge setback for a team that invested a lot of money last offseason into a return to contention.
Former general manager Al Avila was fired by the Tigers in August, and Harris has now been tasked with filling a lot of holes up and down the roster. To this end, trading from the bullpen depth was the new PBO’s most logical move.
“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.”
Vierling and Maton each made their big league debuts in 2021, and have been used in part-time roles throughout their two MLB seasons. The duo stand out as possible everyday additions to Detroit’s lineup, though their versatility allows either player to be used almost anywhere on the diamond. Vierling played mostly outfield in Philadelphia, but in all positions, and also saw some work as a first baseman, second baseman, and third baseman. Maton has mostly been a middle infielder, but he has also seen time in both corner outfield positions and at third base. As noted by Harris, Vierling and Maton are “comfortable both on the grass and in the dirt….Those types of players are hard to find and we feel we’ve added two who have already performed in the big leagues.”