Law: The Tigers cash in by trading Gregory Soto to the Phillies

The Tigers are a bad major-league team right now, so they did what bad major-league teams should do — they traded a decent but hardly elite reliever for young position-player talent, sending Gregory Soto to the Phillies, along with Kody Clemens , for three hitters, led by Matt Vierling. The Phillies are the defending National League champs, so trading prospects and young big leaguers they don’t need to shore up areas of weakness is what they should do … but if my hunch is right on one of those hitters, this might be a lot to pay to add a left-hander to their bullpen.

Soto has made two All-Star teams as a Tiger, probably because he has been their closer. He had 30 saves in 2022, which makes him a guy who had 30 saves, and nothing more, because saves are about as useless a measure of a pitcher as you can find. He walked 12.9 percent of hitters last year, right in line with his career rate, and survived a big drop in his strikeout rate (27.5 percent in 2021 to 22.8 percent last year) with a huge tumble in his home run rate (from 0.99 HR /9 in 2021 to 0.33 HR/9 in 2022), which isn’t the sort of thing that usually changes that much without some alteration in a pitcher’s repertoire. The pitch Statcast categorizes as a sinker isn’t a great one, and his ground-ball rates are just slightly above average, while his slider is his one out pitch and it’s much more effective against left-handed batters. He’s limited lefties to a .277 slugging percentage in his major-league career and has a sizable platoon split over his three-plus years in the majors. He was more effective against righties in 2022, but it was a lot of smoke and mirrors, as his peripheral rates were all worse against them than against lefties. He’s better than a lefty specialist, but he’s not good enough for high-leverage work on a contending team.

The Phillies also got Clemens, who’s probably a quad-A guy as he’s never had the hit tool to profile at a corner and he might just be a first baseman. With all the first base/DH types the Phillies have, I don’t know where he fits.

Matt Vierling celebrates after hitting a home run against the Reds on Aug. 23. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

The Tigers got three players back, and if I were them, I would have been happy to trade Soto just for Vierling, who hasn’t done much in the majors yet through his age-25 season but looks like a breakout candidate after he made some substantial swing adjustments last year. Vierling has always had good exit velocities, but he hit the ball into the ground far too much until 2022, when work he did with the Phillies to get the ball in the air more started to pay off, with his average launch angle going from 6.3 degrees up to 12 degrees and his ground-ball rate dropping from 53.8 percent of his balls in play to 41.4 percent. He also cut his strikeout rate from 2021, although that year was a fairly small sample in the majors. He had some bad luck on balls in play and did pop the ball up more often last year, but he hits the ball hard, consistently, has hit good velocity and has even shown he can handle changeups. He’s played all three outfield positions and should be above-average in either corner — although he’s maybe a 45 in center field — and the Phillies used him a little at second and third last year, as well. The Tigers should just stick him in right field and give him 500 at-bats; they might have a regular, which by itself would more than justify giving up three years of Soto.

Nick Maton is a solid utility infielder who might have a chance to be a regular at second base, although I don’t know if his bat will have the impact for it, even with his surprising power outburst last year; he can hit a fastball but has never shown more than modest doubles power before. Since he bats left-handed, he also has value as a pinch hitter, and he’s been more than adequate against southpaws in the majors in a tiny sample. He’s the sort of player you love to have, although you might not go out of your way to acquire him.

Donny Sands turns 27 in May but he’s a capable backup catcher and right-handed bat off the bench who puts the ball in play a ton with some power. The Tigers’ catching situation is fluid enough that he could sneak into some playing time, especially if Jake Rogers has any trouble returning from 2021 Tommy John surgery.

The return likely comes down to Vierling, but I like his short-term outlook given the adjustments he made last year, and I think the Tigers will come out ahead even if Soto holds his value for two or three years.

(Top photo of Gregory Soto: Brad Rempel / USA Today)


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