At the Trade Deadline this summer, the Detroit Tigers had a mini “rebuilding” period. Yoenis Cespedes, along with David Price, ended up being shipped out of the Motor City after less than a full season’s worth of games with the Tigers. Highlighting the package that returned to Detroit from the New York Mets for Cespedes were two minor league pitchers, Michael Fulmer and Luis Cessa. Fulmer is now a top-ten prospect in the Tigers organization.
Cespedes went over to the Mets, played in 57 games, hit 17 home runs, earned National League MVP votes, all in the process of leading the Mets to the World Series. That brief stint in the Big Apple is over, however, and Cespedes is back on the free-agent market as a result of a nifty clause in his international free-agent contract. Cespedes played in only 102 games with the Tigers before being traded (for the third time in his four-year career), but he was very good during his brief stint in Detroit.
Now, with it quite clear that the Tigers are not actually rebuilding, is it possible that the outfielder makes a triumphant return to Detroit?
The Boston Red Sox tried a similar trade-and-resign maneuver in 2014, when they traded away Jon Lester and then made an aggressive bid to re-sign him. Cespedes was actually involved in the Lester trade that took the starting pitcher to the Oakland Athletics. If the Tigers are somehow able to bring him back, it will have been a perfectly executed move — rent Cespedes out for a few months, pick up two potentially elite arms, bring him back.
It could be that easy, especially if the Tigers want Cespedes back. And they should.
Though the Tigers have added Jordan Zimmermann, Francisco Rodriguez, and will likely add one more mid-tier arm like Doug Fister, the strength of this team is its ability to put up runs in bunches. Detroit needs to surround Miguel Cabrera with as much support as possible while the team plays out the final few years of peak productivity from their perennial batting-title-winning MVP candidate. J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler, and Jose Iglesias provide plenty of support, but Cespedes could return to be the final piece (once again) to put the Detroit offense over the top. The Tigers should also be counting on a return to from from Victor Martinez.
The Tigers were a middling team at the deadline thanks to their spotty starting pitching. They’ve since addressed that weakness by signing Zimmermann and acquiring Daniel Norris (quite good in his eight starts with the Tigers). Bring back another arm like Fister, who excelled while in Detroit, and the rotation is all set. Really, the Tigers, who led the league with a .270 batting average and were second in on-base percentage, don’t need an elite staff. The offense is what makes them go. Why not keep adding to something that is already great?
Cespedes was already having one of the best years of his career before the trade to New York. He was on pace to blow the numbers from his rookie year out of the water. In 102 games, Cespedes slashed .293/.323/.506 with 18 home runs and 61 RBIs. Hitting in a lineup that features Cabrera, Martinez, Martinez, Iglesias, and Kinsler should be very attractive to Cespedes. Should the Tigers find a way to bring him back, their top five could easily be the best in the league.
After playing for four teams in two years, Cespedes is likely looking to settle down with one team, specifically a team that is committed to winning. He clearly elevated his game in the heat of the pennant race for the Mets. The Tigers have shown a big-time commitment to building a winning team, and Cespedes does not seem like the type of player who has to be in a big market to play well. Though he seems to handle the spotlight quite well, if not thrive in it, the Cuban ex-pat gives the vibe of a player who wants to put up good numbers on a winning ballclub. Looking around the league, there are few teams who can offer a better opportunity (or would be willing to take on six years given how raw Cespedes still is) than the Tigers.
Step one for the Detroit Tigers this offseason was bringing Jordan Zimmermann into the fold. The team’s payroll will not actually increase all that much after adding Zimmermann for $22 million per year, as Price was under contract for $19.75 million for 2015. If the Tigers want to, they should have the flexibility to take on one more big contract — Yoenis Cespedes. The market for Cespedes has not yet made itself clear, but the Tigers should feel like the favorites at this point, especially considering their early offseason activity.