The Tigers and Cubs were going in polar opposite directions in 2017. Detroit was heading for a last-place finish that would kick off the massive rebuild they’re only now emerging from. Chicago was trying to defend its drought-breaking World Series title, eyeing another division championship as part of what seemed like a dynasty in the making.
Given their respective competitive windows, they have been looking to natural business partners as the deadline nears this summer. The Tigers were clearly preparing to sell some productive big leaguers; the Cubs were ready to part ways with young talent to bolster their push for another championship. The day before the deadline, they agreed to a deal that sent a pair of veteran role players from Detroit to Chicago in exchange for two young infielders. Seeker Alex Avila and reliever Justin Wilson landed on the north side, while Jeimer Candelario and isaac paredes headed for the Tigers.
Nearly five years later, the Tigers are reaping the rewards of that trade. Candelario, who had recorded the briefest action at the MLB level in each of the previous two seasons, served as the near-ready pick-up. An infield corner player, he had no way of playing on a Cubs team with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizo on the list. But the Tigers could afford to give him a regular run, and he was an everyday player in September.
Candelario has been a regular for most of the time since. He played 144 games in 2018, playing around the league average on both sides of the ball. His 2019 campaign was a disaster as his power evaporated and he was picked and dropped from the active roster a few times throughout the year. It seemed to put his long-term future in question, but Candelario has turned things around in the past two seasons.
The switch hitter returned to appear in 52 of the Tigers’ 60 games during the shortened 2020 campaign. He posted career-best numbers, managing a .297/.369/.503 line in 206 plate appearances. This is a very impressive result, but it would have been easy to dismiss it as an outlier. Not only were those numbers tabulated into an abbreviated schedule, but he enjoyed an unsustainable .372 batting average on balls in play.
To his credit, Candelario largely backed up that strong performance last year. He had a personal-high 626 plate appearances in 149 games, hitting .271 / .351 / .443 with 16 homers and 42 doubles, best in MLB. As expected, a 0.039 point drop in BABIP sent his overall numbers down a bit from 2020. Still, last season’s production was 19 percentage points above the league average (119 wRC+ ), and he did it on a much larger body of work. he had the previous year. He now holds a mark of .278/.356/.458 (123 wRC+) in 832 trips to the plate over two seasons.
Nothing Candelario does is great, but he has become a complete attacking player. His contact rate, hard contact frequency, and average exit speed are all slightly above average. The same goes for his line drive and barrel rates, as Candelario has shown a knack for consistently fielding balls. He was effective on both sides of the plate – .299/.350/.473 as a right-handed hitter; .270/.358/.453 as a southpaw – allowing skipper AJ Hinch to plug him into the lineup no matter the game. And while Candelario wasn’t a great defender in the hot corner, public metrics deemed him competent there. With the best prospect Spencer Torkelson Soon to take on first base duties in the Motor City, Candelario is expected to be plugged into third for at least the next two seasons.
The Tigers’ rebuild has been underway for a few years, so Candelario’s recent production has gone a little under the radar of non-competitive teams. Still, Detroit has played reasonably well down the stretch, and this winter’s signings of Eduardo Rodriguez and Javier Baez – coupled with the impending debut of Torkelson and Riley Green — indicate they hope to turn the corner in 2022. Candelario now looks like a key part of that effort, and he remains under the club’s control until 2023 via arbitration.
Paredes, who was in Low-A at the time of the trade, also remains with Detroit’s organization. He has yet to find much success in MLB, but he is coming off an impressive .265/.397/.451 showing over 315 plate appearances with Triple-A Toledo. He still has two option years left in the minor leagues and could still become a productive infielder himself.
That the deal worked out the way the Tigers had hoped — at least Candelario’s pickup — doesn’t mean it didn’t work for the Cubs. As mentioned, Candelario was going to have a hard time finding playing time in Chicago anyway. The Cubs obviously didn’t become a dynasty, but their acquisitions of Avila and Wilson proved quite successful. The former hit .239/.369/.380 in 112 plate appearances in the stretch, providing strong on-base presence behind Willson Contreras before leaving for free agency. Wilson spent a year and a half in Chicago, posting a cumulative 3.86/3.66 FIP ERA on 72 1/3 frames of relief. Neither player was a franchise star, but they were never meant to be. Avila and Wilson were brought on board to fill specific areas on the roster (backup receiver and left-handed relief, respectively), and they both reasonably succeeded in doing so.
Overall, it looks like this trade served both teams well. Going in different competitive directions, the needs of the Cubs and Tigers aligned. Avila and Wilson were short-term but effective players for Chicago, while Candelario has since become the solid regular Detroit envisioned. After a major rebuild, the Tigers hope to struggle this year. Candelario continuing to perform as he did from 2020 to 2021 would be a quiet but important asset alongside their big additions and top graduate prospects.