MLB front offices expose Detroit Tigers' trade deadline mistakes

The biggest miscue of the Tigers' rebuild: Two years ago, they rebuffed offers from two teams for Michael Fulmer involving two youngsters who are now among the best players in baseball

Anthony Fenech
Detroit Free Press

ARLINGTON, Texas — After a few days of reflection, some phone calls and many more text messages around the league, there's a meme to describe the Detroit Tigers’ early returns at the trade deadline: "Not great, Bob."

At an important trade deadline, the Tigers turned two of their three biggest veteran assets into zero impact prospects. A kind description of the four-prospect collection would be "the best they could do," and an unkind one would be "underwhelming." As a whole, the collection received grades from the scouting community ranging from average to below-average.

In a breakneck final hour before Wednesday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline, the Tigers settled for a low-key package in exchange for arguably the best reliever traded Wednesday, got something instead of nothing for an impact rental bat and were curiously unwilling to realistically engage on their most valuable player.

The names on those deals and non-deals: Triple-A outfielder Travis Demeritte and Double-A left-hander Joey Wentz from the Braves for closer Shane Greene, Double-A right-hander Alex Lange and High-A right-hander Paul Richan from the Cubs for right fielder Nicholas Castellanos and no deal at all for left-hander Matthew Boyd.

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The end result was another missed opportunity, aided by self-inflicted issues in marketing their players, a lack of creativity in finding the best returns for those players and, of course, the shrinking trade market, which has long been the Tigers’ explanation for not bringing back significant prospect hauls.

That last reason played into general manager Al Avila's rebuttal to fans underwhelmed by the returns.

“I don’t know what you mean by underwhelmed,” Avila said in a conference call. “I thought the return was pretty good considering the market for relief pitchers, and considering the competition and everything involved.”

Travis Demeritte was one of two prospects acquired from Atlanta for Shane Greene.

Avila isn’t wrong: The Tigers’ trade efforts have been sabotaged recently by a near-industrywide shift in philosophy in regards to the value of prospects and team-controlled contracts, precisely when they went all-in on a rebuild. Suddenly, few teams — not even most contenders — are willing to give up high-ceiling (and cost-controlled in the long term) prospects for the short-term chance of an immediate playoff run.

But look deeper, past the four newest Tigers prospects — there's potential, but not much — and questions arise about the process that seemingly keeps resulting in returns that are merely “pretty good considering the market,” and not nearly enough to kickstart the rebuild.

Over the past three years, the Tigers — led by Avila, who received a contract extension on July 5 — have shown no sense or feel for timing when moving their players.

Tigers' future and stability, not the past, reason for Al Avila contract extension ]

Two seasons ago, they were aggressively approached about right-hander Michael Fulmer, who was coming off an AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2016 and was the Tigers' All-Star representative in 2017. In what looms as the biggest mistake of their rebuilding process, the team rebuffed an offer for Fulmer involving two young players who are now among the best in baseball: According to multiple persons with knowledge of the talks, the Cubs offered shortstop Javier Baez as part of a three-player package and the Astros offered third baseman Alex Bregman for Fulmer and lefty reliever Justin Wilson.

Detroit Tigers GM Al Avila.

Last season, Baez, 26, finished second in NL Most Valuable Player Award voting. Bregman, 25, finished fifth in AL MVP voting. Both are considered franchise players.

Passing on those deals was defensible: Both players had yet to break out and trading Fulmer — a pitcher who appeared to be a future ace, no matter his injury concerns — would have taken serious gumption, opening Avila up to strong criticism.

But the Tigers, at Fulmer’s peak value, ignored those injury concerns and passed. Fulmer’s subsequent injuries — a knee injury ended his 2018 season early and he underwent right elbow ligament reconstruction surgery in March, shelving him until mid-to-late 2020 – have eliminated him from trade consideration.

In recent seasons, to lesser degrees, they have operated similarly. They could have dealt Greene two offseasons ago, when he was coming off a solid season with three years of team control remaining — he regressed the next season — and Castellanos last summer, in the midst of a career year at the plate, when he could have offered a contender help in two pennant races.

Those decisions led, indirectly at least, to the Greene and Castellanos deals on Wednesday, with Greene going for less than they had asked for and Castellanos departing for a package defined as reasonable only because Avila had boxed himself into a corner over the past year.

Castellanos: Public relations

Nicholas Castellanos, top, hugs and says farewell to Jordy Mercer in the dugout, after Castellanos was traded to the Cubs, on Wednesday.

After the Tigers passed on moving Castellanos at last year’s trade deadline, they were unsuccessful in moving him after the season, thanks to a chilled free-agent market which featured comparable players for less than the Tigers were asking.

Then, at TigerFest in January, Avila was asked about the trade market for Castellanos, who was not in attendance, “due to a previous commitment,” according to a team spokesperson.

“Quite frankly, there has been no interest at this point,” Avila said.

Honest to a fault, Avila’s public admission that Castellanos was receiving no interest did not help his marketability and reached the player, who, after years of being told he could not play defense, was now being told the Tigers didn’t want to offer him a contract extension and no other team wanted him, either.

It was, then, no surprise to Castellanos’ camp when word leaked two weeks before the trade deadline that a contract extension was considered close in spring training, delivering the message to the rest of the league: “Hey, we wanted him, so you should want him, too.”

But by that point, the damage had been done: Castellanos, who switched positions, emerged as a team leader, expressed a strong desire to stay with the Tigers and had played his best baseball, arrived at spring training as a lame duck, struggled through the first two months of the season and was never able to re-establish any sort of trade value.

Greene: A shrinking market

Shane Greene throws to the plate during the ninth inning of the Tigers' 7-2 win over the Angels on July 29.

In Greene’s case, the Tigers had been there before.

They were motivated to trade him two offseasons ago but the offers were underwhelming. So they held onto him; that wasn't an option given his peak value this season — a 1.18 ERA and 0.868 WHIP with 22 saves. They were not going to hold onto him again.

But in moving Greene – who was considered one of the best relievers on the market – the Tigers shot for the stars and missed.

In the hour leading up to the deadline, with the Nationals resisting a deal for either shortstop Carter Kieboom or infielder Luis Garcia and the Dodgers, too, considering the asking price too high, the Tigers asked Atlanta for Demeritte and catcher Alex Jackson, according to multiple persons with knowledge of the talks.

The Braves said no, and with nowhere else to go, the Tigers were forced to settle for Wentz as the highest-potential piece to go with Demeritte.

Though Wentz is ranked higher than Jackson on many prospect lists, the Tigers have made no secret about their need for positional prospects, especially given the apparent whiffs on recent catching draft picks.

It is perhaps no coincidence that in his conference call following the trades, Avila mentioned the possibility of trading some of their pitching prospects for positional prospects in the future.

Boyd: The waiting game?

Matthew Boyd pitches Saturday against the Rangers.

But the biggest missed opportunity from this year’s trade deadline could be yet to come.

Multiple executives indicated Boyd’s trade value will never be as high as it was at 3:59 p.m. on Wednesday. In the midst of a breakout season, the left-hander has three years of team control remaining. Though it remains a possibility that Boyd could stick around to head a rebuilt Tigers rotation, it seems unlikely the Tigers will dig out of this rebuilding without dealing at least one of these veteran for a highly-regarded hitting prospect.

There appeared to be a chasm between what the Tigers were asking for and how rival front offices viewed Boyd’s ability. That resulted in teams recoiling from the Tigers' asking price, cooling negotiations that could eventually have led to an acceptable offer.

“Borderline comical,” one NL executive said of their price on Boyd.

“Impossible to deal with,” an AL executive said of their reluctance to budge.

Why the Tigers were so inflexible is unclear, though some around baseball consider the front office risk-adverse. Avila’s recent contract extension perhaps only furthers that: Why take a chance when you have time to wait?

One executive of a team that talked with the Tigers about multiple players leading up to the trade deadline said they were conscious of not leaking trade information regarding the Tigers. That official cited a situation in the offseason when the Mets pulled second baseman Jeff McNeil — an All-Star this season — from a trade with the Mariners after his inclusion became public.

Still, trade offers leaked out: Budding superstar Gleyber Torres from the Yankees, according to the New York Post. Other requests included two of a team’s top three prospects and even four in some cases, according to multiple persons with knowledge of the talks. Those starting points discouraged negotiations rather than promoting them.

“In Boyd’s case, in my gut, my heart, I didn’t think there was a trade there,” Avila said. “I think it was a little bit overstated, or overplayed, or overpublicized. But really, I didn’t think there was anything close on that.”

Of course, rather than listening to his gut and heart, Avila could have listened to interested teams to find out for sure whether "there was anything close."

Avila said he told Boyd before the Tigers’ current road trip that he was unlikely to be traded. The road trip began a week before the trade deadline.

In the final four days before the deadline, three accomplished starting pitchers — right-handers Trevor Bauer, Zack Greinke and Marcus Stroman — were traded.

Boyd, of course, doesn't have the track record of those players. Then again, his salary and additional years of team control are vastly more valuable. Those factors, along with the Tigers putting a Chris Sale-like price on Boyd — despite skepticism from the scouting community on Boyd's status as an ace — made a deal nearly impossible.

A familiar result

The Tigers stuck to their asking prices and were forced to watch another deadline go by with no big prospect haul, especially when they failed to creatively package their assets.

Packaging Castellanos likely would not have made a difference. But multiple executives mentioned that packaging Boyd and Greene — allowing teams to address two types of pitching needs in one move — could have brought back the kind of offensive prospects they desired.

Instead, they accepted the status quo and moved piece-by-piece, only to get a “pretty good, considering the market” return.

And though it takes two teams to deal, at some point, it becomes Avila’s responsibility to create a better market through reasonable asking prices, not devaluing his own assets and showing a better sense of timing.

It happened with Fulmer. Then J.D. Martinez. then Castellanos.

And now, with nearly all of their trade assets spent, only one remains: Boyd.

They are once again rolling the dice that their bad timing won't prevent them from receiving the haul they desperately need.

Analysis:Scouts' takes on the Tigers' trade deadline prospect acquisitions

Tigers top prospects:Here's how they are performing in the minor league this season

Contact Anthony Fenech at afenech@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @anthonyfenech. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.