The Tigers have been getting calls and having conversations about Gregory Soto for months. Going into the winter, president of baseball operations Scott Harris set an edict.
“We felt like going into the winter, if we could get a deal that was over the line for us, we should be prepared to take it,” Harris said.
Yes, the Tigers wondered about what might happen if they held on to Soto until the trade deadline, perhaps hoping his stock would rise, maybe dreaming of being able to leverage their two-time All-Star closer for a bigger name midseason.
But Harris and the Tigers clearly felt they got the right value in return Saturday, when they traded Soto and infielder Kody Clemens to the Phillies in exchange for Matt Vierling, Nick Maton and catcher Donny Sands.
Now we will see if the Tigers are correct in their evaluations and if these three players can help the Tigers in 2023 and beyond.
From the Tigers’ perspective, they got three young, controllable hitters who have shown good plate discipline and could have more upside.
Vierling, an outfielder who also played first, second and third in the major leagues, is Exhibit A.
Vierling’s StatCast profile immediately catches the eye: He ranks in the 86th percentile among MLB players in average exit velocity, the 80th percentile in arm strength and the 97th percentile in sprint speed. Translation: He hits the ball hard, has a strong arm and borders on elite speed.
The trick will be seeing if the Tigers can unlock all those tools and help Vierling develop into an MLB regular. Vierling hit only .246 with a .297 on-base percentage and six home runs in 325 MLB at-bats for the Phillies last season. He rose through the Phillies’ system with a reputation for hitting too many of his hard-hit balls on the ground.
Vierling, though, played in 12 postseason games for the Phillies this past fall and has all the ingredients needed to become a productive player. He is a right-handed hitter who batted .295 against left-handers last season, perhaps making him a great platoon option for a Tigers outfield heavy on left-handed bats.
“With Matt, there’s a ton of power and just raw speed,” Harris said. “I think it’s the 97th percentile sprint speed in the big leagues. That’s really hard to find. He also has plenty of athleticism. He was a high-level athlete in high school and has maintained that athleticism all the way to the big leagues.”
In Maton, the Tigers get another intriguing skill set. He’s a versatile infielder who can also play on the grass and has a .330 on-base percentage in 216 career MLB plate appearances. Maton had a 138 OPS+ in his 34 games with the Phillies last season, and Harris said the Tigers were impressed with the adjustments Maton made midseason.
“First of all when you watch videos of these guys, they do it easy,” Harris said. “When you watch Nick take groundballs on the dirt, it’s easy. It’s fluid actions. He has plenty of arm to make plays deep in the hole, which makes us feel like he’s going to be comfortable at third and everywhere else.”
This trade gives us a somewhat clearer idea of what next season’s Tigers roster will look like. Expect to see plenty of platoons and players moving around the diamond. Harris said he expects Vierling and Maton to both be options to play practically any position. Harris said both players will be factors in claiming the Tigers’ vacancy at third base.
“One theme that you’re going to see in Lakeland is we’re gonna get guys reps all over the diamond,” Harris said. “I think these players have a headstart because they’ve already done it in the big leagues.”
Sands, the third player acquired in the deal, should also not be overlooked. He was ranked as the Phillies’ No. 21 prospects and hit .308 with a .413 OBP in Triple A last season. Although he’s been considered a bat-first catcher, Harris gave a glowing review of Sands’ defense. If true, Sands could contend with Eric Haase and Jake Rogers for playing time next season.
Sands, 26, has graded out well in pitch-framing metrics in the past.
“We really like his ability to help our pitchers in the strike zone,” Harris said. “We really think he’s gonna be a strong defensive catcher for us, and when you have a plus defender behind the plate, you want to put them behind the plate as much as possible.”
Acquiring these three players cost the Tigers Soto, their up-and-down closer who has shown flashes of dominance but also frustrating lapses in command. They also lost Clemens, a 26-year-old utility player who hit .145 in the majors last year. Trading Clemens essentially clears space for other players to get opportunities in the infield. Parting with Soto in exchange for these hitters is another example of Harris’ “calculated risk” philosophy. In Soto and Joe Jiménez, the Tigers have traded two key members of last season’s strong bullpen. Harris also said the Tigers have been working hard on adding another left-handed reliever — perhaps on a minor-league contract — to the bullpen mix to help replace Soto.
“The bullpen was an area of strength for us,” Harris said. “But we have to address the area of weakness, too. We’ve done a lot of work to add to our pitching and defense to stabilize this group, and we have to reshape the offensive identity. I’ve been talking about it since the day I got here.”
None of the players the Tigers got in return are guaranteed to produce in the majors next season. But the Tigers have filled their most important needs: a left-handed hitting infielder in Maton, a right-handed outfielder in Vierling and catching help in Sands.
It’s unclear if the Tigers will search for more hitters via free agency. But the roster picture is coming into better focus, with the addition of three players who seem to fit Harris’ long-term vision.
Now we wait and see whether this deal actually helps the Tigers get the quality big leaguers they so desperately need.
“You’re never entirely confident that young players are gonna hit in the big leagues, but you’re a little more confident when you’ve seen flashes of them performing in the big leagues already,” Harris said. “With Nick and Matt, we’ve already seen that in the big leagues, and with Donny he’s performed at a really high level in Triple A with the bat… It increases the confidence that they’re going to be able to help us in ’23 and beyond.”
(Top photo of Matt Vierling: Kyle Ross / USA Today)