Phillies' Kapler, Smyly recall times they netted superstars for Tigers
Detroit — An offseason pool outing gone awry, a canceled birthday dinner and a surprise in-game clubhouse meeting were discussed as a couple former Tigers prospects told tale Tuesday of the times they were traded for some of the game’s titans.
It must be trade deadline season.
Two players who helped net the Tigers a former MVP and Cy Young Award winner shared their life-changing stories in a return visit to Detroit this week.
Phillies left-hander Drew Smyly and manager Gabe Kapler came up in the Tigers system and eventually fetched players on Hall of Fame trajectories — David Price and Juan Gonzalez — when they arrived in the Motor City.
Kapler, who had played his last game as a Tiger in 1999 in Tiger Stadium’s final hurrah, said he was hanging out in a Phoenix pool during an offseason promotional shoot with other Adidas athletes when he found out he was headed to Texas for the slugger.
Kapler, a Tiger for two seasons before wearing a jersey without a number in center field for the Tiger Stadium swan song in a team homage to Ty Cobb, heard the news from six-time All Star catcher Sandy Alomar Jr.
“He leaned out of his hotel room while we were in the pool, and he said, ‘Hey, I think you just got traded to Texas,’ ” Kapler said. “That was my memory of that.”
Gonzalez, a two-time MVP, was headed to Detroit as Comerica Park’s new centerpiece along with Danny Patterson and Gregg Zaun for a package that included Kapler, Frank Catalanotto, Francisco Cordero, Bill Haselman and Justin Thompson.
Gonzalez’ surefire Hall of Fame career was derailed from there starting with his lone underwhelming season in Detroit, followed by one All-Star bounce back in Cleveland and four unremarkable years after that.
As for Kapler, his Texas stay lasted until the 2002 trade deadline when he was shipped to Colorado for Todd Hollandsworth.
July 31, the trade deadline, also happens to be Kapler’s birthday, so he and his then-wife had dinner plans in Texas before Kapler delivered the news on his 27th birthday.
“We were both really excited about (dinner) and she came to get me for it,” Kapler said. “I was like, sorry… Instead of that, we’re going to Colorado. We just got traded.
“It’s just a reminder that baseball comes first before everything else in your life always. Instead of whatever plans you have, you pack everything up in a 24-hour period and you land in an apartment in Denver.”
Kapler said he drove by The Corner Ballpark during Monday’s off day not realizing he was approaching the refurbished version of a place with many of his fondest baseball memories.
“It was interesting because I didn’t realize I was at Michigan and Trumbull, I just saw lights,” Kapler said. “I thought, that’s weird, there’s baseball being played there right now. I thought wait, is there a minor league team here that I don’t know about, what the hell is going on here? It took me a while to piece the puzzle together. I’m so used to seeing the warehouse.
“I miss and love that old ballpark.”
Smyly’s exit from Detroit on July 31, 2014, was a dramatic one, but not as dramatic as teammate Austin Jackson’s departure.
Smyly had pitched five innings against the White Sox in a day game during the playoff push and was in the clubhouse after Al Alburquerque took over for the sixth inning.
Dave Dombrowski, then the president of the Tigers, delivered the news about the three-team deal, which sent Smyly and prospect Willy Adames — now the Rays' everyday shortstop — to Tampa Bay, and Jackson to Seattle.
“Waking up that day, I had zero thought of getting traded, it just didn’t even cross my mind, that idea," Smyly said. "I guess I was oblivious. I was pitching, I didn’t hear any rumors, or didn’t think it could be me.”
With two outs in the top of the sixth inning, Rajai Davis trotted out to center field to relieve Jackson, who quickly figured out what was going on.
Smyly was 16-12 with a 3.53 ERA in his three Detroit seasons, but has been hit with the injury bug since.
He played two seasons with Tampa after the trade year, but missed the 2017 and 2018 seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery.
After signing with Texas this offseason, Smyly said his form wasn’t there during 13 appearances with the Rangers (1-5, 8.42 ERA). After being released, he signed a minor-league deal with Milwaukee that featured an opt-out, which he exercised last week.
Needing a lefty, the Phillies picked him up. Smyly, 30, paid immediate dividends on Sunday, allowing one run in six innings with eight strikeouts at Pittsburgh in his Philadelphia debut.
“You go back to his time in Tampa and the trade for David Price, it was because the Rays had identified him as a real difference-maker,” Kapler said. “We’re lucky enough to acquire him and maybe the story becomes that he’s now healthy, he’s made some adjustments, and he’s prepared to be at his best. That’s what the hope is for the Philadelphia Phillies right now.”
Added Smyly: “I’m good, but now it’s just nice to have a healthy season, so I’m trying to figure it all out again. I’ve learned a lot of information about myself since then, just trying to apply it to myself and keep getting better.
“The game has changed a lot since I got hurt in 2016. Obviously I missed two straight years of competition, so mechanically I wasn’t my same self that I was before. Things just change over the course of four seasons.”
Back in Detroit this week, Smyly said the memory of pitching as a rookie reliever in the 2012 World Series is on his mind, as well as nighttime strolls in Birmingham and Royal Oak with his now-wife, Eryn.
“We still have some friends that I met over time,” said Smyly, who is likely to pitch next this weekend against Atlanta. “It’s just good memories. We had some really great times here, really great teams.”
Meanwhile, Price would help the Tigers to the 2014 playoffs, where they were swept by Baltimore in three games.
One day short of one year later, Price was on his way out on a deadline eve deal, traded by Detroit to Toronto for pitchers Daniel Norris, Jairo Labourt and Matthew Boyd, the newest Tigers youngster on the trade block.
Boyd started Tuesday night against Kapler and Smyly’s Phillies in what could be his final game at Comerica Park as a young Tigers centerpiece.
In the Phillies dugout this week, there are a couple guys who know how that feels.
Phillies at Tigers
First pitch: 1:05 Wednesday, Comerica Park
RHP Vince Velasquez (2-5, 4.87), Phillies: Velasquez’s 7.04 ERA in two career starts against the Tigers is his eighth-worst against any MLB team. The 27-year-old allowed four home runs in his last start and is back in the rotation for his sixth start after about a month in the bullpen. Velasquez has not thrown over 90 pitches since May 6.
RHP Jordan Zimmermann (0-7, 7.51), Tigers: Zimmermann has not earned a win since Sept. 5 of last year, 16 starts ago. In 16 career starts against Philadelphia, the 33-year-old is 6-8 with a 4.17 ERA. Zimmermann has not struck out more than six batters this season and has not pitched into the fifth inning in three July starts.
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.