For years, the Detroit Tigers’ offseason was nearly as exciting as the regular season. You could salivate at the thought of which big-name free agents the team would get, while knowing the unexpected drama of a trade could occur at any minute.
And now? Nothing’s happening.
Well, that’s not entirely true. There have been minor league deals – some frowned upon because of how they look, others because they appear to have all the excitement of replacing that thing under the sink you’ve been meaning to get to.
In fact, the most exciting news lately has been what the Tigers chose not to do: trade Michael Fulmer to the Yankees for young outfielder Clint Frazier and some other prospects.
The other names, according to Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, were infielders Thairo Estrada and Tyler Wade. Baseball America named Estrada the ninth-best prospect in New York’s system. Frazier was a top-40 prospect overall per BA entering last season, and hit just .231 with four home runs at a less-than-replacement level with the Yankees last year.
While it’s too early to write off Frazier, that’s not exactly the kind of return you expect to receive for Fulmer, who has a 3.45 ERA in two years, to go along with being named an All-Star in 2017 after earning the American League Rookie of the Year award in 2016. Fulmer has been worth more than 8 WAR during that time, per Baseball Reference. He hasn’t even turned 25 yet.
Don’t let that lead you to believe Fulmer should be untouchable. This is baseball – almost no one is or should be untouchable. But the actuality is that Tigers GM Al Avila is going to find it hard to get the proper return for Fulmer, so the best move is no move at all.
The name you didn’t hear the Yankees offering is infielder Gleyber Torres, the top-ranked prospect in their system. And if you’re going to get a proper return for Fulmer, you shouldn’t stop there. The Yankees might find that a bit unpalatable, but that’s their problem.
Avila’s job is forming the best roster he can, and to do that he’ll have to spend wisely – and that’s not just limited to dollars. For much of the past year, Avila’s been spending his veteran contracts to collect the future-value of prospects. But he only had one J.D. Martinez, one Justin Wilson, one Alex Avila, one Justin Verlander, and one Ian Kinsler.
He only has one Michael Fulmer, too, and that Fulmer is worth a lot on a roster. So you ask a lot in return. A whole lot.
A player’s worth is essentially how much surplus value he’ll bring to a team while under contract. You need to know how long that is, and estimate how much he’ll be worth in WAR, what teams will pay that, and how much he’ll be paid while under contract.
On Twitter in December, @TokarzOnTigers did a lot of that math, so I won’t repeat it here. The most conservative estimate is that Fulmer’s value to Detroit is approximately $90 million. A more likely scenario is $120-140 million.
By definition, prospects are volatile. Even top-ranked ones can fail to pan out. So you have to approach it a bit like an insurance company: find a good comparison group and run the numbers to find likely outcomes.
Fangraphs already did this for us, and found entering 2017 Torres would have been worth $60 million in surplus level. The top prospect at the time – Yoan Moncada – was valued at $107 million.
So with Fulmer, you pretty much have to begin with one of the top prospects in the game, and add more to that, otherwise you’re doing your job poorly.
If other GMs don’t want to offer fair value for Fulmer, then Avila shouldn’t trade him. Period. A rebuild isn’t about going through the actions just to say you did it, it’s about making smart decisions to get back to fun and competitive baseball as soon as possible.
This has been a boring offseason in Detroit, but sometimes the best decisions are the things you chose not to do.
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at email@example.com.