July 23rd, 2012

Thoughts on Tigers trading Jacob Turner

A year ago at this point, the Tigers considered Jacob Turner just about untouchable.

Six months ago, the Tigers wouldn’t have traded Turner straight-up for Matt Garza, let alone in a package for Garza, as one talent evaluator famously said.

Tonight’s lesson: A half-season can change perceptions. A lot. It’s not the high regard for Turner around baseball that changed (OK, it changed a little, but he’s still highly regarded) so much as the Tigers’ situation to deal him.

When the Tigers refused to offer up Turner to the Cubs last winter, they considered him a potential front-runner for the fifth starter’s job. The competition in Spring Training was his to win, though Drew Smyly was a darkhorse candidate.

You know the rest. By the middle of camp, Turner was shelved with shoulder tendinitis, and Smyly was pitching his way into a job in Detroit. By mid-May, Smyly was looking like the most promising young pitcher the Tigers had. And the Tigers could at least envision their rotation without Turner down the road.

Does that justify trading Turner in a package for soon-to-be-free-agent starter Anibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante? Not necessarily. But it justifies the Tigers changing their stance on listening to offers on Turner.

The thing to consider is the rotation as a whole. Justin Verlander is under contract through 2014, which is also the same amount of time Max Scherzer has before he’s eligible for free agency. Doug Fister and Rick Porcello aren’t eligible for free agency until 2015. Yes, Turner takes a future starter — potentially a front-line one — out of the system, but health permitting, the Tigers might not have a pressing need for one for a while. Even if Sanchez bolts as a free agent this winter, Smyly could simply slot back in.

It won’t be cheap to keep that rotation together. Traditionally, the time to talk contract with top starters is two years out from free agency, not one, so this winter might be the time for the Tigers to talk with Verlander and his agent to feel out the chances for a contract extension. Porcello and Scherzer are both going to become increasingly expensive through arbitration, and Fister’s eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter.

Smyly, though, gives them one good young arm. Dombrowski also pointed to Casey Crosby, whose future as a starter or reliever might have just been answered.

“We do feel we have a couple of young starters who are there in Smyly and Casey Crosby, so we do have a little bit of depth in that area,” team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said on Monday night’s conference call.

Andy Oliver is also still at Toledo, though it’s hard to say if he’ll ever put things together to be considered a big-league starter again.

Depending on how next summer’s draft unfolds, too, the draft pick the Tigers acquired from Florida at the end of the first round could turn into another starting prospect.

Does that justify making this deal? Not necessarily. But if Monday’s reports about the Ryan Dempster trade are true, that the Cubs would get Braves pitching prospect Randall Delgado in return, then the price tag for pitching on the market just went up.

If the Tigers had gone back to the Cubs and packaged Turner with a prospect (say, Brantly) for Matt Garza, they might have pulled it off. But they still would’ve needed a second baseman, and they would’ve had less to offer. They would’ve had Garza for an extra year, but they wouldn’t have had a second baseman.

As for Brantly, Dombrowski said, “We’ve still got a young starting catcher in Alex Avila. You aren’t going to have both of them in the organization at some point, because you usually aren’t going to have two left-handed hitting catchers at the Major League level.”

The Tigers’ depth at catcher in their system helps. The fact that Brantly was regarded as the best of the bunch, far and away better offensively, doesn’t.

Ultimately, what Sanchez does down the stretch — the fact that he has never pitched in the American League makes this part interesting — will go a long way towards determining whether this trade was worth it. How Turner does in the coming years will determine the rest. In the end, though, you can at least see the Tigers rotation without Turner a little easier than you could six months ago.

Does that mean Nick Castellanos could be expendable soon? Hard to see that happening, unless the Tigers suddenly shore up their outfield for years to come. That’s one factor. The fact that owner Mike Ilitch loves star players, and Castellanos has both the game and the personality to become a star, is another.