DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers are off to a solid start this season, and while that has given fans some much-needed meaningful baseball to watch, it shouldn’t distract the team from its ultimate goal: winning a World Series.
As we noted just before the season began, it’s not impossible for the Tigers to make the 16-team postseason this year. They wouldn’t even necessarily have to finish with a winning record, and they’ve already played .500 baseball through one-sixth of the schedule.
But compare the Tigers’ roster to the New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians or Houston Astros. Making a playoff push would be a great step in the right direction, but there’s no chance this team could win the World Series.
The Tigers are nearing the end of the rebuild, but that doesn’t mean everything they need is already in house.
Tigers pitching depth
Earlier this week, MLB Pipeline released its updated prospect rankings and named the Tigers’ farm system the best in baseball, according to its “prospect points” rating system. All six of the team’s 2020 draft picks are in the organization’s top 30 prospects, and few teams have the combination of high-end players at the top of the rankings and depth throughout the top 30.
Times are about to get a lot better, but Al Avila can’t be satisfied. He has to keep improving for the future as much as possible.
If all goes according to plan, some combination of Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal, Alex Faedo, Franklin Perez and Joey Wentz will lock down at least three-fifths of the starting rotation in the next few years.
The Tigers also have some sleepers, such as Elvin Rodriguez, Paul Richan and Wilkel Hernandez, who could turn into back-end starters.
The problem is the organization is still a little thin offensively, though this year’s draft certainly helped. Aside from Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson and Isaac Paredes, question marks surround the future offense.
That’s not to say all the team’s pitching prospects will work out, either. The Tigers would be lucky if two or three of them become true above-average starters.
But the need for position players is obviously greater. Who will join Greene in the outfield if Daz Cameron, Parker Meadows and Derek Hill continue to struggle? Where will the Tigers get production on the infield if Jeimer Candelario isn’t the answer or Paredes struggles?
As it stands, the entire future Tigers’ lineup is unproven, and they could use a couple of MLB-ready players.
Why Yankees make sense
The Yankees are the perfect trade partner because they’re currently dealing with a massive logjam of position players and getting by with a shaky pitching staff.
On Thursday, the Yankees optioned Miguel Andujar to their alternate training site, where he’ll join former top prospect Clint Frazier in intrasquad games and workouts.
It’s crazy to think that two players who would both be the Tigers’ best hitter can’t even make the 28-man roster in New York. The moves were justified, though. Aaron Judge, Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, Mike Tauchman and Giancarlo Stanton have the outfield and designated hitter spots more than locked down.
Gleyber Torres, Gio Urshela and D.J. LeMahieu are everyday players on the infield, and Luke Voit and Mike Ford have first base covered. Throw in Tyler Wade, who can play every infield spot, and there’s just no room for Andujar and Frazier, even with expanded rosters.
That’s not going to change anytime soon. Judge, Hicks, Tauchman, Stanton, Torres, Urshela, Voit and Ford are all signed at least through 2023, and most for much longer. Brian Cashman isn’t going to let LaMahieu walk without making a move this offseason, either.
The pitching staff is another story, though. Behind Gerrit Cole and Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees are shaky in the starting staff.
James Paxton, who was supposed to be an ace-level No. 2, has returned from an offseason injury and allowed 12 hits and six earned runs in four innings. J.A. Happ has allowed 15 base runners and eight earned runs in seven innings. Nobody knows what the Yankees will get from Jonathan Loaisiga or Jordan Montgomery.
Is there a scenario where this starting five works out for the Yankees? Yes. But aside from Cole, nobody on this list is a sure thing, and Cashman isn’t going to stand pat and risk missing this World Series window because of shaky starting pitching.
The Yankees are among the World Series favorites this year and in the near future, but that starting rotation could be an Achilles heel, especially in a short playoff series. For example, an Indians rotation of Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger and Carlos Carrasco could easily take out the Yankees in a three- or five-game series.
The Yankees’ elite bullpen has also taken a couple of hits, with Tommy Kahnle undergoing Tommy John surgery and Aroldis Chapman yet to throw a pitch. They could use some depth to support a starting staff not known for working deep into games.
Who might the Yankees be interested in? Well, the Tigers have a few starters and relievers that would improve the Yankees for the next several years.
Matt Boyd was on their radar at the deadline last season, and though he’s had two poor starts so far in 2020, that doesn’t change the fact that he struck out 238 batters last season and has been extremely durable since joining the Tigers’ rotation in 2015.
Boyd is under contract for two additional seasons after 2020, so the Tigers have leverage in any trade discussions involving their ace.
Spencer Turnbull is also off to a hot start. The Tigers might be reluctant to deal him because he’s showcasing an elite fastball-slider combination and backing up last season’s breakout. But every player on this roster should have his price.
Turnbull was the best Tigers pitcher in spring training and summer camp. He’s missing bats with 63.2% of his sliders and averaging 95.2 mph on his sinker. Those are excellent signs.
In the bullpen, Gregory Soto, Buck Farmer, Jose Cisnero and Joe Jimenez could all draw some trade interest.
Jimenez is off to a nice start after striking out 12.4 batters per nine innings a year ago. Farmer has allowed one walk and no hits in five cleaning innings as the setup man. Cisnero has been excellent in the middle and late innings.
Soto has outshined them all, though, retiring 17 of 20 batters, including eight strikeouts. He hasn’t allowed a run and is missing bats at a 14% clip.
The Tigers won’t want to give up any of these players, but it would make sense to try to bring in some hitters who have already had success in the majors.
Boyd, in particular, makes sense because he will be coming up on free agency right as the Tigers are starting to come into contention. They need to decide if they’re going to pay up to extend him as a 32-year-old in 2023, and if not, they should try to bring in pieces for the future.
The Tigers will have to give up good players to get good players in return, even if the Yankees don’t have room for the players they’re targeting.
Just because Andujar and Frazier can’t break the Yankees’ starting lineup doesn’t mean they’re scrubs.
Frazier was the No. 15 prospect in all of baseball before he got promoted to the Yankees in 2017, while Andujar was in the top 70 before his first full season in 2018.
In that full season, Andujar hit 27 home runs and 47 doubles in 149 games with a low strikeout rate and a .297/.328/.527 slash line. He was insanely productive and finished with 2.9 WAR.
Frazier appears to have fallen out of favor with the organization and has never really gotten regular at-bats, but in 123 career games, he’s hit 16 home runs, 26 doubles and four triples while slashing .254/.308/.463.
With the Tigers, both players would be in the heart of the lineup regularly, with Frazier likely starting in a corner outfield spot and Andujar at second or third base. Andujar has shown what he can do in a full season, and Frazier deserves a chance to validate his prospect pedigree.
Both players are 25 years old, which is still young, but it’s about time for them to be locked into everyday roles. Andujar is under team control until 2024, and Frazier until 2025.
Adding two powerful bats to the lineup just as the top pitching prospects are ready to break into the rotation would put the Tigers in a better position to contend by 2022.
Avila would likely need to add a pitcher via free agency, assuming all the prospects don’t pan out. But with Miguel Cabrera’s contract the only post-arbitration deal on the books after this season, the Tigers have plenty of money to spend.
The rebuild is on the right track. The next few years will show if the Tigers can close the deal and make the transition into a legitimate World Series contender.