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With David Price trade, Detroit Tigers make bid for AL supremacy

Photo: Carlos Osorio/AP

The American League arms race continues. On a wild deadline day that began with the A's trading for Boston's Jon Lester, the Tigers — who eliminated Oakland from the playoffs in both the 2012 and 2013 Division Series — upped the ante by pulling off a three-way trade for Tampa Bay's David Price. In doing so, Detroit creating a formidable rotation fronted by the league's last three Cy Young winners in Justin Verlander (2011), Price (2012) and Max Scherzer (2013).

To get the 28-year-old ace lefty, the Tigers — who at 58-46 (.558) enjoy an MLB-high five-game lead in the AL Central — sent centerfielder Austin Jackson to the Mariners and both lefty Drew Smyly and minor league shortstop Willy Adames to the Rays, while the Mariners sent infielder Nick Franklin to Tampa Bay to complete the deal. As with the Lester trade, for all of the speculation regarding which blue-chip prospects might be the focal point of the return in such a blockbuster, in the end, the Price deal centers around big league talent changing hands. Viewed from that perspective, the Rays have received a surprisingly light return.

In Price, the Tigers are getting a dominant lefty who is pitching as well as ever. Through 23 starts and 170 2/3 innings — both AL highs, by the way — Price has delivered a 3.11 ERA and a career-low 2.93 FIP thanks to career bests in both strikeout and walk rates (10.0 and 1.2 per nine, respectively). Though he was roughed up for four early runs by the Brewers in Wednesday’s start, Price has pitched to a 1.98 ERA in 11 starts since the beginning of June, with what was previously a high BABIP normalizing to .303, 18 points above his career mark but just four points above last year. Until that run, he had allowed more homers than walks, but that's no longer the case; he has walked 23 while allowing 20 homers. Still, his 1.1 homers per nine is on the high side for an elite pitcher.

Price, who is making $14 million this year and has one more year of arbitration eligibility remaining before reaching free agency, joins a rotation where Scherzer (3.27 ERA, 2.99 FIP, 10.3 K/9) has pitched very well but Verlander (4.79 ERA, 4.11 FIP, 6.6 K/9) has not, largely due to declining velocity and years of heavy workloads. In fact, the latter's ERA is the highest in a rotation that also includes Rick Porcello (3.24 ERA, 3.78 FIP) and Anibal Sanchez (3.57 ERA, 2.90 FIP), not to mention the traded Smyly (3.77 ERA, 4.17 FIP). With Scherzer apparently headed to the open market this winter after turning down a six-year, $144 million extension offer in the spring, this deal ensures that the reigning AL Central champions will maintain a star-studded rotation with at least two former Cy Young winners through at least next year.

The deal comes at a price, no pun intended: The team with the majors' fourth-largest payroll ($163.6 million according to Cot's Contracts) is surrendering a considerable chunk of its club-controlled talent. The 25-year-old Smyly, Detroit's second-round pick in 2010, had acquitted himself well in the rotation after spending last season working exclusively out of the bullpen. That said, he's struggled to avoid the longball (1.3 HR/9) and his 7.8 strikeouts per nine represent the lowest rate of his three-year major league career. Additionally, he has been raked over the coals by righties at a .298/.360/.511 clip across 303 plate appearances; by comparison, lefties have hit just .164/.192/.259 through 120 PA against him. Smyly has Super Two status, meaning that he will be arbitration-eligible for the first of four times this coming winter, rather than having just three arb-eligible seasons.

As for Jackson — originally acquired from the Yankees in the three-team blockbuster that brought Scherzer to Detroit in December 2009 — the 27-year-old centerfielder is hitting .270/.330/.397, numbers slightly below his career line of .277/.342/.413. Currently making $6 million with another year of arbitration eligibility remaining, his trendlines are moving in the wrong direction just as he grows more expensive; after averaging 13 homers and 12 Defensive Runs Saved per year from 2011-2013, he's hit just four homers this year and nets out at 0 DRS. His 1.8 WAR prorates to 2.8 over a 162-game season, which would be the lowest mark of his career.

Upon the announcement of the trade, Jackson was pulled from the afternoon's Tigers-White Sox game mid-batter in favor of Rajai Davis. Amid the surreal scene, he received a warm standing ovation from the fans at Comerica Park as well as hugs from his teammates. Via MLB.com:

The righty-swinging Davis, who has started 67 games in leftfield this year and five games in center, could see more time in the middle pasture, which would increase the presence of power-hitting J.D. Martinez in the lineup. In fact, Davis would make for a natural platoon partner with lefty-swinging Ezequiel Carrera, a 27-year-old whom the team is apparently calling up from Triple-A Toledo, where he has hit .307/.387/.422 with 43 steals in 56 attempts. Carrera spent a total of 131 games in the majors with the Indians and Phillies from 2011-13, hitting a thin .251/.306/.339 while playing solid defense in center.

While losing Jackson is a small step backwards for the Tigers, it's a considerable upgrade for the Mariners, who are vying for their first playoff berth since 2011. At 55-52 (.514), the M's are 11 games back in the AL West but just three back in the Wild Card hunt. For Seattle, rookie centerfielder James Jones has been a Replacement Level Killer, hitting just .258/.287/.313 while posting a whopping −10 DRS in 76 games in centerfield en route to −0.1 WAR.

To get him, Seattle parted ways with 23-year-old switch-hitting infielder Nick Franklin, who spent the last four months of the 2013 season as the team's regular second baseman but was bumped back to Triple-A by the Robinson Cano signing. After a hot start, Franklin cooled off to hit just .225/.303/.382 with 12 homers for Seattle; in two stints with the team this year, he's gone just 6-for-47 with 21 strikeouts. Via the New York Post's Joel Sherman, the Rays like Franklin's versatility:

It's unclear exactly how Franklin will fit into the current plans of the Rays, who at 53-55 are still attempting to become just the fourth team ever to climb back to .500 after being 18 games below at one point in the season. They remain eight games back in the AL East and 5 1/2 games back in the Wild Card race, a combination of circumstances via which the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds give them just a 10.2 percent chance of reaching the postseason. Meanwhile, Smyly will slot into a young rotation that also features 24-year-old Jake Odorizzi, 25-year-old Chris Archer, 26-year-old Alex Cobb and 27-year-old Jeremy Hellickson, all of whom are under club control though at least 2016, with Archer and 25-year-old Matt Moore (out for the remainder of the year due to Tommy John surgery), signed to club-friendly deals with options that extend later into the decade in Moore's case (2017-19) and beyond it in Archer's (2020-21).

For Tampa Bay, the key to the deal is the acquisition of Adames, an 18-year-old Dominican shortstop who received a $420,000 bonus in 2012 and is currently in his first season stateside. As the youngest everyday player in the A-level Midwest League, facing competition that averages 3 1/2 years older, Adames is hitting .269/.346/.428. Earlier this week, MLB.com's Jim Callis ranked him third on the team's Top-20 Prospects list, accompanying that ranking with the following:

Though he didn't tear it up in his professional debut [in the Dominican Summer League] in 2013, his advanced feel for the game made Detroit comfortable enough to send him to low Class-A this season as an 18-year-old, and he has held his own.

...Adames has maintained his patient approach at the plate. His bat speed portends average power once he adds more strength, and he could be a solid hitter once he makes more consistent contact.

After seeing time at third base in 2013, Adames has played exclusively at shortstop this year. He has the hands and arm strength to remain at shortstop, though he lacks the quickness desired at the position and could move to second or third base down the road.

That Adames is a few years away — Callis gives him a 2017 ETA — makes him a lottery ticket in this deal. But it's a far cry from a player with an upside of the caliber of, say, the Cardinals' Oscar Taveras or the Dodgers' Joc Pederson or Corey Seager, names that were thrown around in rumors connected to Price. The reality is that after bypassing the opportunity to trade him over the winter in favor of making one more push for the postseason, the Rays may have held onto him too long. Teams have become more reluctant to give up six full years of club control over multiple prospects in exchange for what in this case amounts to a 1 1/3-season rental of a high-priced pitcher who could cost upward of $20 million next year and is likely to seek a deal in the $25-30 million per year stratosphere occupied by Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Clayton Kershaw and perhaps Scherzer once he reaches free agency.

It will take years to see if the deal fully pays off for the Rays. For the Tigers, it will be much easier to measure via the yardstick of whether the team — which has compiled the AL’s highest winning percentage (.566) since the start of the 2011 season while winning three straight division titles — can win a championship for 85-year-old owner Mike Ilitch either in 2014 or 2015. Particularly with the team on a collision course with the well-armed A’s, it should be fascinating to find out.

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