By: Will Burchfield
Among a crop of trade candidates that includes Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez and Ian Kinsler, the Tigers’ most valuable asset may well be Justin Wilson.
The lefty reliever was the hottest Tiger on the trade market last winter and by all indications the same is true today. It’s not hard to understand why — he’s good, he’s cheap and he’s controllable through 2018.
And every team in every year is looking for ways to upgrade its bullpen.
Wilson, 29, is enjoying the best season of his six-year career. He has a 2.36 ERA, a 0.93 WHIP and 12.8 K/9, and has converted nine of 10 save opportunities since taking over as the Tigers’ closer in May.
He’s owed $2.7 million in 2017; that’s about $950,000 prorated over the final two months of the season. He’ll earn a decent raise this offseason as an arbitration-eligible player, but he won’t hit unrestricted free agency until 2019.
The Tigers can shop Wilson to just about any team in baseball.
Who might be the most interested?
There’s a chance a contender with an already staunch bullpen makes a push for Wilson. (You can never have too many relievers, right?) But the Tigers are likely to receive their best offers from ball clubs with playoff hopes and bullpen concerns.
Here are five teams to watch, plus some prospects to keep an eye on.
1. Tampa Bay Rays
Record: 47-43; tied for first A.L. Wild Card.
Bullpen Woes: 4.36 ERA (20th overall), 1.39 WHIP (19th), 16 blown saves (T-2nd).
The Skinny: Wilson is just the kind of player that appeals to the small-market Rays: affordable and under team control. And with five prospects in Baseball America’s midseason top 100, Tampa has the farm system to facilitate a deal. Closer Alex Colomé has been shaky, if generally effective, and things haven’t been any sturdier behind him.
Notable Prospects: The Rays are unlikely to part with either shortstop Willy Ademes (No. 13 overall) or pitcher Brent Honeywell (No. 14) in exchange for a reliever, but outfielder/first baseman Jake Bauers (No. 64) and outfielder Jesus Sanchez (No. 100) are both viable options. The Tigers need to improve the positional depth in their farm system.
2. Washington Nationals
Record: 52-36; first in N.L. East.
Bullpen Woes: 5.20 ERA (30th), 1.45 WHIP (28th), 14 blown saves (T-4th).
The Skinny: No contender is in more desperate need of bullpen help than the Nationals. They’ve gone through a carousel of closers and the only guy who’s proven up to the task – Koda Glover – is out indefinitely with a sore rotator cuff. The pieces are in place for a World Series run if Washington can fortify its pen. Expect them to make a serious run at Wilson.
Notable prospects: Given the Nats’ circumstances, don’t rule out Victor Robles (No. 9 overall). The 20-year-old has all the tools to become an everyday center fielder in the bigs. A more realistic offer, however, would center around right-handed pitcher Erick Fedde (No. 70) and/or outfielder Juan Soto (No. 95).
3. Colorado Rockies
Record: 52-39; second in N.L. Wild Card.
Bullpen Woes: 4.39 ERA (21st), 1.32 WHIP (14th), 8 blown saves (T-28th).
The Skinny: The back end of the Rockies’ bullpen has been strong with All-Star closer Greg Holland. And they have two solid southpaws in Jake McGee and Chris Rusin. But consider two things: Wilson, with his reverse splits, isn’t your typical lefty reliever and Colorado, though comfortably in the second N.L. Wild Card, has to assume the Cubs will make a second-half push. Could the Rockies add Wilson as a preemptive response?
Notable prospects: Raimel Tapia (No. 45 overall). The versatile center fielder has been terrific for the Rockies since being called up in early June, batting .369 over 30 games. The Tigers are interested in Tapia, per Pat Caputo of the Oakland Press, and the Rockies will have a logjam of outfielders when Ian Desmond makes his return from the disabled list. Also worth watching is 1B/3B Ryan McMahon (No. 91), who’s had a great season in the minors.
4. New York Yankees
Record: 45-41; tied for first A.L. Wild Card.
Bullpen Woes: 3.66 ERA (6th), 1.25 WHIP (T-8), 17 blown saves (T-1st).
The Skinny: On the surface, the Yankees’ bullpen looks fine. And the late-inning duo of Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman is as lethal as any in baseball. But things have begun to fray at the seams — look at all those blown saves — and the Yanks have lost a lot of ground in the standings as a result. Their rebuild is ahead of schedule, and GM Brian Cashman may be emboldened to go for it.
Notable prospects: Like the Rays, the Yankees have plenty of trade chips, including seven prospects in the midseason top 100. The top guys are off the table in a potential Wilson deal, but outfielders Blake Rutherford (No. 37 overall), Estevan Florial (No. 71), and Dustin Fowler (No. 89) could be moved. The 19-year-old Florial, who has scampered up the rankings this season, is particularly interesting.
5. Minnesota Twins
Record: 45-43; 2.5 games behind in A.L. Central, 1 game behind in A.L. Wild Card.
Bullpen Woes: 4.83 ERA (26th), 1.45 WHIP (T-27th), 8 blown saves (T-27th).
The Skinny: Inter-divisional trades are always a long shot, and indications are the Twins would rather hold onto their prospects than jump into a title chase too soon. But if Minnesota plays well in advance of the July 31 deadline, the front office may decide to throw caution to the wind in the wide-open A.L. Central. That would mean, first and foremost, shoring up the bullpen behind All-Star closer Brandon Kintzler.
Notable prospects: The Twins have two prospects in the midseason top 100. Both are shortstops. One of them, Royce Lewis, was the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft and won’t be traded. Could that make the other available? Nick Gordon (No. 47 overall) projects as a solid middle infielder in the majors and figures to be expendable within Minnesota’s organization. Perhaps the Tigers come calling.