The Tigers and Cubs were going in polar opposite directions in 2017. Detroit was headed towards a last place finish that would kick off the massive rebuild from which they’re only now emerging. Chicago was trying to defend their drought-breaking World Series title, eyeing another division championship as part of what looked to be a dynasty in the making.
Given their respective competitive windows, they made for natural trade partners as that summer’s deadline approached. The Tigers were clearly preparing to sell off some productive big leaguers; the Cubs were willing to part 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. Catcher Alex Avila and reliever Justin Wilson landed on the North Side, while Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes headed to the Tigers.
Nearly five years later, the Tigers are reaping the benefits of that swap. Candelario, who had logged the briefest of action at the MLB level in each of the previous two seasons, served as a near-ready pickup. A corner infielder, he had no path to playing time on a Cubs team with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo on the roster. But the Tigers could afford to give him regular run, and he was an everyday player by September.
Candelario has been a regular for much of the time since. He played in 144 games in 2018, performing around the league average on both sides of the ball. His 2019 campaign was a disaster, as his power evaporated and he was optioned on and off the active roster a few times throughout the year. That seemed to call his long-term future into question, but Candelario has turned things around over the past couple 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 over 206 plate appearances. That’s a very impressive showing but it’d have been easy to write that off as something of an outlier. Not only were those numbers compiled in an abbreviated schedule, he benefitted from an unsustainable .372 batting average on balls in play.
To his credit, Candelario largely backed up that strong performance last year. He tallied a personal-high 626 plate appearances over 149 games, hitting .271/.351/.443 with 16 home runs and an MLB-best 42 doubles. As expected, a .039 point dip in BABIP dropped his overall numbers a bit relative to 2020. Still, last season’s production checked in 19 percentage points above the league average (119 wRC+), and he did that over a much larger body of work than he had the year before. He now owns a .278/.356/.458 mark (123 wRC+) in 832 trips to the plate going back two seasons.
Nothing Candelario does stands out as excellent, but he has developed into a well-rounded offensive player. His contact rate, hard contact frequency and average exit velocity are all slightly above-average. So too are his line drive and barrel rates, as Candelario has demonstrated a knack for consistently squaring balls up. He’s been effective from both sides of the plate — .299/.350/.473 as a righty hitter; .270/.358/.453 as a lefty — allowing skipper A.J. Hinch to plug him into the lineup no matter the matchup. And while Candelario’s not a great defender at the hot corner, public metrics have considered him competent there. With top prospect Spencer Torkelson soon to assume first base duties in the Motor City, Candelario should be plugged in at third for at least the next couple seasons.
The Tigers’ rebuild has been ongoing for a few years, so Candelario’s recent production has flown a bit under the radar on non-competitive teams. Yet Detroit played reasonably well down the stretch, and this winter’s signings of Eduardo Rodríguez and Javier Báez — coupled with the looming debuts of Torkelson and Riley Greene — indicate they’re hoping to turn the corner in 2022. Candelario now looks like a key piece of that effort, and he remains under club control through 2023 via arbitration.
Paredes, who was in Low-A at the time of the trade, also remains in the Detroit organization. He’s yet to find much MLB success, but he’s coming off an impressive .265/.397/.451 showing over 315 plate appearances with Triple-A Toledo. He still has a pair of minor league option years remaining and could yet develop into a productive infielder himself.
That the deal worked as the Tigers had hoped — at least the Candelario pick-up — doesn’t mean it didn’t pan out for the Cubs. As mentioned, Candelario was going to have a hard time finding playing time in Chicago anyhow. The Cubs obviously didn’t develop into a dynasty, but their acquisitions of Avila and Wilson proved successful enough. The former hit .239/.369/.380 in 112 plate appearances down the stretch, providing a strong on-base presence behind Willson Contreras before departing in free agency. Wilson spent a year and a half in Chicago, posting a cumulative 3.86 ERA/3.66 FIP across 72 1/3 frames of relief. Neither player was a franchise-altering star, but they were never intended to be. Avila and Wilson were brought aboard to fill specific areas on the roster (backup catcher and left-handed relief, respectively), and they both fared reasonably in doing so.
All in all, it seems this trade served both teams well. Going in differing competitive directions, the Cubs’ and Tigers’ needs aligned. Avila and Wilson were short-term but effective players for Chicago, while Candelario has since developed into the solid regular Detroit envisioned. After a significant rebuild, the Tigers are hoping to contend this year. Candelario continuing to perform as he did from 2020-21 would be a quiet but important asset alongside their big-ticket additions and graduating top prospects.