There can be a flip side to being good.
You can get traded. All because other teams so badly want to add you and your exceptional skill to their high-flying team as a key, or maybe final, piece in winning a championship the trading team isn’t close to sniffing.
There were your two polarized realities Sunday night as the Tigers sent one of the deadliest relievers they’ve owned in years, Justin Wilson, to the Cubs. They tossed in backup catcher Alex Avila and got two solid infield prospects, one of whom, Jeimer Candelario, could be next season’s starter at third base.
The Tigers had little choice. They’re trying to tear down the existing team and build a better long-term baseball product at Comerica Park. The Cubs are trying to win another World Series and might well have gotten their difference-maker in the fabulous Wilson.
The Tigers’ motivation for dealing a pitcher so distinguished was simple. They need young talent after their farm system dried up due to a combination of crop-killing demons. Bad drafting, forfeiting blue-chip picks as their penalty for signing billboard free agents, trading prospects, selecting deep in the draft when the team was winning — everything conspired to wipe out Detroit’s hatchery, at least on the position side.
The bare-bones Tigers' minors merged with another glitch the Tigers needed to fix. Their payroll. It has been massively out of proportion to Detroit’s market size. It had gotten so top-heavy the Tigers were socked for luxury-tax penalties only penthouse teams from the East Coast or from Los Angeles were in shape to sustain.
The combination of a dead farm and an overweight salary scale was simply untenable.
The problem for general manager Al Avila is a different market walloped the Tigers at the very point they needed to slim down and pump fresh blood into the bushes.
Avila was set to trade Justin Wilson last offseason. Wilson was one of the few Tigers players who was affordable and talented and who carried trade cachet.
Not one club was interested. Not at an appropriate price. It was the same with J.D. Martinez, a terrific hitter and game-breaker. He had a fat salary ($11.75 million) and was headed for free agency this autumn.
There was a relative glut of power-hitters on the market and the Tigers were left with no defensible deal for Martinez, let alone for Ian Kinsler, or Jose Iglesias, or even for Justin Verlander, whose $56 million in guaranteed paydays in 2018 and 2019 discouraged shoppers last year, and again this month, with hours to go before Monday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline cutoff.
Avila, fortunately, has a new owner, Chris Ilitch, who realized his late father, Mike, had racked up massive bills during a compelling but unfulfilled push to win a World Series for Detroit.
Chris Ilitch understood, as well, what his front office had learned. Teams had suddenly begun treating their young, affordable prospects almost parentally. No one was stealing their kids. Especially not for some overpriced guy with gray in his hair.
The Tigers were cooked. For the most part.
The market eased only slightly this month. Avila had one serious suitor for Martinez, the Diamondbacks, and spun him off for three infield prospects, at least two of which the Tigers believe will play in the big leagues, as starters or backups.
They had multiple bidders for Wilson and finally concluded Sunday night that the Cubs, who have had a star-studded farm to flash alongside their 2016 World Series ring, offered the most appealing freight for Wilson and Avila.
The more seasoned prospect is Jeimer Candelario, a 23-year-old switch hitter and third baseman who already has had a couple of get-acquainted call-ups to Wrigley Field.
He was playing at Triple A Iowa on Sunday when word came that he was headed for Detroit.
It is a reasonable bet Candelario will get every chance in 2018 to start at third base. The Tigers love Nick Castellanos’ bat and future as a deadly mid-order hitter. But his defense at third is beneath acceptable levels, while his arm has mysteriously dissipated to a point too many ground-ball outs are becoming infield hits.
Castellanos seemingly will be headed for some combination of work at first base or at designated hitter as the Tigers come to grips with Miguel Cabrera’s slump and Victor Martinez’s age.
The Tigers got another prospect prize from the Cubs, an 18-year-old from Mexico, Isaac Paredes, who is swinging a serious bat for a teenager and whose defense could combine to make him an eventual star shortstop.
The price, though, was heavy. It came primarily in the person of Wilson. This man who has been torching hitters so steadily, who introduced to Tigers fans their first no-worry ninth innings in what seemed like an age or more, is no longer Detroit’s to enjoy.
He’s headed to Wrigley Field. The Cubs know the power of a shutdown reliever in October’s postseason duels and Sunday night got a pitcher who could help Cubs general manager Theo Epstein pull off a World Series repeat.
The other Tigers half to Sunday’s dealing, Alex Avila, was a practical throw-in. Avila is headed for free agency and was expendable when the Tigers have backup catchers at Triple A Toledo.
The bad luck for Al Avila is that his son, who carried surprisingly heavy trade cachet a month ago, has had a miserable July. Alex’s fade might have cost the Tigers an extra prospect, either from the Cubs, or from another team that earlier would have been hot to add a left-handed power hitter, with a big on-base percentage, who could also help at first base.
That didn’t appear to materialize, the Alex Avila trade bonus. And so it leaves Al Avila to hunt another deal or two ahead of today’s 4 p.m. store close for inter-league trading.
Might a team decide Verlander is too good, too steeped in playoff savvy, to ignore, even if his paychecks are what teams generally pay two seasoned All-Stars?
It’s possible. But there were no signs Sunday night Verlander was being ogled by teams that, in other years, might have ignored dollar signs and gone for the dividend a man of Verlander’s talent and moxie might deliver.
No matter what does, or doesn’t happen, ahead of 4 p.m. today, the Tigers will remain in tear-down, build-up mode, which isn’t always a short-term process, not in baseball.
But they have good young pitching on the farm. And that’s one way to keep a team reasonably competitive through some lean, green years of reconstruction.
Hitters and position help is still required. Avila has gotten some athletes into the mix with his two July deals. There will be more to come, for sure, if not today, later on, as a team from Detroit will make anyone and everyone available for meaningful discussion.