Officially, the Tigers sale started on Wednesday when Dave Dombrowski told the media that the team was going to look to “reboot” for 2016. In reality, I think it started much earlier. The team got off to a great start over the first few weeks of the season, but they haven’t played well since and their epic loss on the Friday before the break, followed by two more ugly games clearly signaled to the front office they might not have a shot this year. This is not, and was not, a championship caliber team.
According to the official story, they didn’t get ownership’s approval to pull the trigger until early this week, but this was always the path they were going to take. This was an okay team, playing bad baseball. It wasn’t so much that they were really far out of it, it’s that they were so far removed from fielding a quality roster that pushing all in wouldn’t have been wise. The cost would have been high and they still would have faced an uphill batt.e
And so Dombrowski and his staff went to work. I won’t make you wait for the conclusion, they nailed it. The Tigers haven’t really had a chance to execute this type of rebuild since the renaissance, but they didn’t show their inexperience. The Tigers got it started by trading Price to the Jays Thursday morning. They added Soria to the list Thursday night, sending him to Pittsburgh. And then they finished with Cespedes to the Mets on Friday afternoon.
All three of those players are free agents after 2015. Cespedes couldn’t get a qualifying offer. It would have made no sense to give one to Soria. So the Tigers could have kept the team together and earned a draft pick for Price while taking a 10% chance on the season, or they could have traded off the free agents with an eye on the future. They chose the latter course.
Once that decision was made, the task shifted to identifying the right trade partners and the right players on each roster. For Soria, there wasn’t a ton you could do. He’s a rental reliever in the middle of a rough season, so while I’m sure they called around to other teams, it’s hard to imagine there was a huge market. I said in the analysis of that deal that I’d prefer to have gone with a higher floor/lower ceiling guy compared to JaCoby Jones, but Jones was the right quality of player for Soria.
When it came time to trade Price, the Tigers had plenty of dates to the dance. It’s hard to say who was offering what, but the Blue Jays were certainly a team with a lot of prospects and were quite desperate to add talent to their 2015 roster. The Dodgers and Giants were involved, but the Blue Jays seemed like a clear match once they indicated they were going for it with the acquisition of Tulo.
Daniel Norris was the obvious target because he’s an upper tier prospect and checks all of Dombrowski’s boxes, but grabbing Matt Boyd was the part that really caught my eye. Anyone would have asked for Norris. If Stroman was off the table (and I’m sure he was), Norris is the guy you’d ask for in the Jays system. Not to take anything away from the Tigers here, but any idiot could get Norris back when trading Price to Toronto. So the deal starts there for anyone’s rebuild, but Boyd is exactly the kind of prospect the Tigers should be targeting as they shift toward the next couple of seasons. Boyd’s velocity has ticked up this year, but he’s also a much more polished pitcher than Norris even if all of the prospect hounds haven’t quite caught up.
Jairo Labourt is fine third piece, but the deal hinged on Boyd for me. Price wasn’t going to return someone like Julio Urias or Corey Seager, but the fact that the Tigers were savvy enough to pick up a name-prospect like Norris and an under-the-radar-basically-as-good-Norris Boyd with their second slot signals to me that they did their homework. Anybody can get the right guy at the top of the deal, but getting the right guy at every point in the process is the separator. It’s not so much that I think Boyd is going to be an amazing pitcher, it’s that I think his failure rate is very low.
The Cespedes deal took longer. The Mets had their Gomez deal fall through, and then couldn’t finalize something with the Reds for Jay Bruce, so Cespedes became their best option. Michael Fulmer was the arm Dombrowski wanted, and realistically, with Cespedes as the only piece going to the Mets, he was the best arm they were going to get. The Mets have better prospects, but they don’t have better prospects to trade for Cespedes alone. Cessa is a nice piece, but he’s more like Labourt than Boyd.
If there was a failure at all here, it’s that the Tigers didn’t try to shoot higher than Fulmer by sweetening the pot. The Mets probably would have enjoyed Dixon Machado and they certainly wouldn’t have minded shedding Michael Cuddyer’s contract, so a Cespedes-Machado-salary relief package to the Mets might have pushed the offer into the Wheeler + range rather than the Fulmer + range.
It wasn’t a bad outcome. Maybe the Tigers tried it and the Mets didn’t bite, or perhaps Dombrowski preferred Fulmer outright. Either way, the still have Machado and the money they could have spent on Cuddyer, so it’s not like they’re out of options.
The Tigers traded away three players with basically no value to them for the rest of 2015 and they got back three very legitimate prospects and three guys could very easily have some future in the majors despite some limitations. Norris and Boyd will likely slot into the 2016 rotation, and could stay there through 2021. Fulmer is probably more likely coming for 2017, and anything that shows up along the way from Cessa, Labourt, and Jones is gravy. Not every prospect will pan out, but the three main additions are knocking on the door of the show already. Maybe one turns into a reliever, one winds up a #5, and one becomes a #2/#3. That might seem like a disappointing outcome, but it’s actually pretty outstanding. And there’s a decent shot things go a little better.
The Tigers gave up on 2015, but they are now positioned much better for 2016 and into the later years of the decade. People might quibble with my exact rankings, but there’s a pretty legitimate case to be made that from draft day to Friday at 4pm (46 days), the Tigers acquired their four best prospects. And Labourt, Cessa, and Jones are all top 15 guys in the system.
At the expense of punting on an already doomed year, the Tigers became an organization with a farm system, and it’s a farm system that will start churning out players over the next twelve months. The future of the organization got a lot better in the last 48 hours. I’ll have something on their path forward in the next few days, but for now, we can appreciate what has just occurred.
The Tigers went into the week as disappointing as any team we’ve seen in the city since 2008 and came out with the wind at their backs. There is work left to do, but a ton of groundwork was laid.
Don’t get me wrong, pitching prospects break your heart. A very long line of pitching prospects have broken our hearts. The point isn’t that the Tigers acquired a bunch of can’t miss prospects, it’s that they acquired a large collection of pitchers with a realistic potential to contribute in the MLB rotation. Some of them will bust, but you have to have 5 good prospects to get 1.5 good players. The Tigers now have some depth and quality in their system.
It’s hard to give up on a season, but it’s also liberating. This is a hard team to fall in love with because they just can’t prevent runs, but now that hope is gone, we can cheer for the individuals and be content with a draft pick. We can’t predict the future, but after a productive week, the cavalry is finally coming.