Last night, I provided my instant reaction to the trade that sent J.D. Martinez to the Diamondbacks for three modest infield prospects. In that post, I considered what many are calling a “very light” return for the slugging outfielder in the context of another star-for-prospects trade made just days ago between the two Chicago teams involving starting pitcher Jose Quintana and suggested that a lesser return for Martinez was appropriate in light of his contract status (expiring), age, injury history, and inconsistent defense. I further suggested that, with multiple transactions still to be made over the next two weeks, it is too early for a referendum on Detroit’s general manager, Al Avila.
Avila is a first-year GM, but he worked alongside previous Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski for many years and is an experienced and well-regarded talent evaluator, so the job isn’t exactly new to him. Yet, in some Tigers fan circles right now, Avila is being pilloried as an unqualified, incapable rookie, while Dombrowski has never been remembered more fondly.
As I wrote last night, even if this trade becomes a blemish on Avila’s resume (the more thorough analyses of the prospects involved in the trade out this morning paint a more detailed picture but don’t really contradict the experts’ immediate reactions), it’s much too soon to declare him unfit for his current position. In addition to the Quintana trade discussed last night, though, there is another trade we can look to as a rough comparison between Avila and Dombrowski: the 2015 Yoenis Cespedes trade.
With the non-waiver trade deadline rapidly approach, on July 31, 2015 Dombrowski traded Cespedes to the New York Mets for two pitching prospects: Luis Cessa and Michael Fulmer. That trade, along with two previous ones that sent David Price to Toronto (for lefty pitching prospects Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd and Jairo Labourt) and Joakim Soria to Pittsburgh (for JaCoby Jones), surprised some Tigers fans, who were not necessarily soothed when Dombrowski described what looked to some like a sudden selloff as a mere “rebooting.” Not insignificantly, these trades immediately cost Dombrowski his job.
In isolation, the Cespedes trade– from Detroit’s standpoint– looks fairly similar to yesterday’s Martinez trade. Both players were on expiring contracts and thus guaranteed only to be rentals for the receiving teams (and an unusual clause in Cespedes’ contract actually made it less likely that the Mets would be able to sign him as a free agent, though Cespedes waived that provision and did remain in Queens). In the first half of 2015 (the split most readily available to me as a rough approximation of a snapshot at the trade deadline), Cespedes had a 121 wRC+ (45th among qualified hitters) and contributed 3.3 fWAR in 366 plate appearances. In the first half of 2017, Martinez posted a 156 wRC+ (would have been eighth among qualified hitters had he played enough to qualify) and contributed 1.4 fWAR in 215 plate appearances.
Cespedes memorably caught fire at the plate upon moving to New York, but he had been a lesser hitter than Martinez was over the same stretch– both in terms of a direct comparison and relative to his in-season peers– in 2017. Without a more detailed and complex analysis of the different trade markets in the different seasons, it’s difficult to say more about the two players’ relative value in this space.
The return for Cespedes– Cessa and Fulmer– was more lauded both at the time and now, in retrospect, than the return for Martinez. Fulmer immediately was highlighted as a significant prospect, and he turned in a full-season performance the following season that earned him rookie-of-the-year honors and some Cy Young votes, and he was named to his first All-Star team this season. (Cessa never played for the Tigers, who shipped him to the Yankees that offseason as part of a package that returned Justin Wilson, the team’s current closer and valuable trade chip.)
We don’t have two years of hindsight from which to assess the future development of Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King, but, from my review of the assessments of these players by experienced prospect writers, it’s hard to see a Fulmer-caliber player among them. It remains too early to render significant judgments about Avila’s capabilities as a front-office leader, and Lugo, Alcantara, and King may have been the best available return for Martinez on the current market. To the extent Dombrowski’s 2015 Cespedes trade is an adequate comp for Avila’s 2017 Martinez trade, though, it’s not one that– in isolation– reflects especially well on Avila.
As I finish writing this this morning, FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron has published a post entitled “The Lessons of the J.D. Martinez Trade,” which, I think, comes in line with what I wrote last night and this morning: in essence, we need to consider the possibility that Avila netted fair market value for Martinez. Cameron concludes:
But without just appealing to authority on every trade — teams absolutely still do make valuation mistakes — it seems like the fact that Martinez got moved for so little might suggest that this is just a pretty lousy time to be selling a corner outfielder. Everyone knows Martinez is good. Everyone knew he was available. And yet, this is what he brought back.
After years of watching valuable players get swapped for short-term upgrades, no one really seems to want rentals anymore. And because one of the best players available happened to also play the position that few teams were looking to upgrade, the Diamondbacks got a star for a pittance. Good for them. Sucks for Detroit.
I recommend reading his full post.
Saving Detroit: Martinez trade triggers premature referendum on Avila – 7/19
Saving Detroit: Michael Fulmer has righted the ship – 6/27
Saving Detroit: Tigers in Retrograde – 6/19
Saving Detroit: Fixing Justin Upton – 5/31
Saving Detroit: Soft in the Middle Now – 5/30
Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief, Part 2 – 5/11
Saving Detroit: Reliever Relief – 5/8