DETROIT -- The Tigers have reached the point in their rebuild that their farm system is shaping their big league club, not just in top prospects but in overall talent across the roster. Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning formed the core of Detroit's rotation by season's end, and Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene could arrive sooner rather than later. But don’t expect prospects to be used like in past years as trade bait to help the Tigers stock up on veterans from other teams.
In that sense, it’s the biggest difference between the run of success the Tigers enjoyed a decade ago and the return to contention they’re trying to make now. Former Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski used to note that no player was untouchable in trade talks. Current GM Al Avila isn’t necessarily labeling anyone off-limits, but he’s sounding a much more cautious tone.
“I’d be very sensitive to trade guys that we feel can be part of this winning organization in the future,” Avila said at the Tigers’ end-of-season press conference earlier this month.
This year’s postseason has a few examples of Tigers prospects past. The Brewers won the National League Central in no small part thanks to shortstop Willy Adames, who was originally a Tigers amateur signing before he went to Tampa Bay in 2014 in the David Price trade.
Another member of the Price trade, former Tigers starter/reliever Drew Smyly, made 23 starts for the Braves this season, posting an 11-4 record with a 4.48 ERA, before earning the win in relief for Atlanta in Game 4 of the NLCS on Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium. Corey Knebel, who served as the opener for the Dodgers in Game 1 of the NLCS and Game 5 of their Division Series, is a former Tigers first-round pick who debuted for Detroit in 2014 before being traded to Texas two months later for Joakim Soria.
That’s not to say any of them would’ve been Tigers at this point had they not been traded. The one exception might have been Adames, who was the headline prospect in the Price trade. He was a teenager playing Low-A ball back then, and he won’t be a free agent for three more years.
The Rays traded Adames to Milwaukee in May to make room for top prospect Wander Franco, acquiring swingman Drew Rasmussen and reliever J.P. Feyereisen from the Brewers in the deal. Detroit did express interest in Adames, knowing shortstop could be a need going into 2022, but never came close to finding a match with Tampa Bay.
Asked earlier this month if the Tigers are now deep enough in prospects to consider packaging them for big trades like before, Avila didn’t dismiss the possibility, but downplayed it.
“I’m still very sensitive to that, trading prospects for established players,” Avila said. “I’ve said this all along and in my conversations with [manager] A.J. [Hinch] when we hired A.J.: We’re not looking for a quick win and then we’re out [of contention]. We’re looking to sustain this.
“If you’ve paid attention, we’re kind of overhauling our Minor League system right now, what I would call phase two, and that is a plan for this team and this organization to be sustainable and successful for years to come. Most importantly, that includes players, and we have to be very careful on that.”
That overhaul included the hire of Ryan Garko last month as the Tigers’ vice president of player development. He has already made several changes within the ranks of Minor League coaches and instructors. The end goal is to improve the Tigers’ prospect depth and develop young talent beyond their top picks and international signings.
The more depth the Tigers can build in their system, the more they can consider trading from their system strengths -- not just for established players, but for prospects in other areas where the Tigers need help. However, those areas can change from year to year. What once looked like a glut of pitching prospects when Mize, Skubal and Manning were coming up has thinned out since their arrival in Detroit and since Tommy John surgeries for Joey Wentz and Alex Faedo. Just three pitchers sit in the top 10 of MLB Pipeline's latest Tigers prospect rankings, and all of them were drafted just this past summer.
Until then, free agency could be the simpler route for Avila and Detroit to add veterans in key spots without giving up prospects.