Is it better as a general manager to be haunted by the trades you never made or the ones you did?
For Tigers general manager Al Avila, the answer may be the former.
In 2017, with a chance to acquire some of baseball’s most marketable and dominant players, Avila chose instead to hang onto a pitcher whose career has since gone wildly off track.
In a rather damning report on Avila’s ability to maneuver in baseball’s trade market, the Detroit Free Press learned that the GM who just received a contract extension previously refused deals for Cubs shortstop Javier Baez and Astros third baseman Alex Bregman.
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.
If there’s a reason a trade like that hasn’t been able to escape the minds of those in the Tigers’ front office, it’s surely because Fulmer’s 2017 was the last time he showed promise of becoming a cornerstone piece of Detroit’s rebuild. After struggling with a 4.69 ERA during a 2018 season where his strikeouts dipped and walks increased, the 26-year-old righty underwent Tommy John surgery last offseason and has missed all of 2019. Having a once-prized piece of your rebuild on the shelf while Bregman and Baez battle for MVP awards is a merciless type of torture.
View from Chicago
For as devastating as those potential deals are for Tigers fans, it may provide one of the biggest sighs of relief for Cubs fans. Baez has flourished into a fan favorite in Chicago while becoming an idol for Little League players who try to copy his swim moves when avoiding tags on the basepaths.
While Cubs GM Theo Epstein is treated as a hero for bringing a World Series to the North Side, his resume in Chicago is slightly marred by the quality of prospects he’s shipped out for limited returns.
Adding a name like Javy Baez to a list that already includes former Cubs prospects like Eloy Jimenez, Dylan Cease, Gleyber Torres, Tommy La Stella and Daniel Vogelbach would be as close to unforgivable as you could get for Epstein.
Of course, hindsight plays a huge part in that assessment. And if Epstein had been able to acquire Fulmer, Cease and Jimenez may still be part of the Cubs right now — both were traded in 2017 for Jose Quintana.
Chicago was at least able to add Justin Wilson that year, trading Jeimer Candelario and two other prospects for the lefty.
View from Houston
Would Justin Verlander be an Astro if the team had been able to acquire Fulmer?
It’s another fair question. Without knowing what else was involved in their Fulmer offer aside from Bregman, Houston was able to add Verlander for relatively cheap after the Fulmer talks fizzled out.
In 2017, the Astros sent prospects Franklin Perez, Jake Rogers and Daz Cameron to the Tigers for the aging starter. What happened next seems almost predictable looking back now: Houston rejuvenated Verlander’s career — as it’s done with Gerrit Cole, Aaron Sanchez and is expected to do with Zack Greinke — and won a World Series in 2017.
Given what we know about how the Astros integrate pitchers into their team immediately, it makes all the sense in the world they’d want someone like Fulmer to join their rotation.
When you're traded to the Astros, this is what your first meeting with the club is like (via a nonfiction book titled The MVP Machine): pic.twitter.com/EwqD5ZgMBW— Travis Sawchik (@Travis_Sawchik) August 4, 2019
Even still, giving up someone like Bregman is almost impossible to understand in 2019.
In 2017, however, things were a bit different. Bregman was still a year away from being named an All-Star for the first time. He struck out nearly 100 times that season. He didn’t top 20 home runs. But the tools were all there. He was still just 23 years old with his whole career ahead of him.
And the Tigers passed anyway.
View from Detroit
This brings us back to Sunday’s story in the Free Press.
Avila is still in the driver’s seat in Detroit, though it’s rather unclear which direction he’s taking the team. Rebuilds generally take time and careful planning. They don’t happen overnight. Yet at the trade deadline this year, the team made pennies on the dollar for the likes of slugger Nicholas Castellanos (traded to the Cubs for minor league pitchers Paul Richan and Alex Lange) and closer Shane Green (traded to Atlanta for minor league pitcher Joey Wentz and minor league outfielder Travis Demeritte) while not being able to deal Cy Young candidate Matthew Boyd at all.
Maybe some of those prospects pan out and help usher in a new era of baseball in Detroit. But given what we now know about previous deals offered to Avila, Tigers fans will think more about the trades their team didn’t make than the ones they did.
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