July 14, 2016
Next two weeks will fix Tigers’ fate;
Buyers or sellers at trade deadline?
By KEITH GAVE
Their schedule says the Detroit Tigers have 71 games remaining in season, but the reality is that their fate in all likelihood will be sealed in the next 16 games ahead of the MLB trade deadline.
They didn’t do themselves any favors by losing five of their final seven – especially winning just one of four in Toronto – heading into the All-Star break. Still, they’re within striking distance of Central Division-leading Cleveland, 6.5 games back. More important, they’re four games out of a wildcard spot.
If they fail to overtake the Indians, and stay ahead of division rivals Kansas City and the Chicago White Sox in the process, then their only option is to beat three of the four teams in the wildcard battle: Toronto, Houston, Boston and the Royals.
An awfully heavy lift either way for a team whose pitching has been mediocre at best, and whose hitting has been woefully inconsistent – with those big bats going silent too often away from Comerica Park.
To be sure, among the optimists there is the argument that the Tigers have yet to play to their potential in a sustained drive, and that it’s just a matter of time before they do. The pessimists among us say show me; it’s now or never for them to do it.
The first five series out of the game should determine whether the Tigers will be buyers at the trade deadline, adding something to bolster their anemic starting rotation, or sellers again. If it’s the latter, then we might be seeing the last of stars like Justin Verlander and Victor Martinez, as painful as it is to even imagine that.
They begin with seven games at home, where they’re 23-16 to date, starting with three against the banged-up Royals and three more against lowly Minnesota, the worst team in the American League. Detroit needs to win five of those six games, because then they hit the road for seven games.
The trip starts with four games at Chicago, where the White Sox are just a half-game back of Detroit, followed by three at Boston. The Tigers have to find a way to return to Detroit with at least four wins before starting a home-stand with three games against Houston, another formidable opponent. Again, they need to win at least two of three.
If the Tigers can go 11-5 before the July 31 trade deadline, they can keep their team intact, perhaps add to it through a trade or two, and keep the window open a bit longer for
a team whose key stars like Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and V-Mart are on the back nine of their careers.
If not, and they anywhere near .500 in these next couple of weeks, then the Tigers should be sellers at the deadline, if they’re smart. And that’s where the hand-wringing sets in for those who worry about the long-term future of the franchise.
Last year at the deadline, with the Tigers fading in the standings, Detroit traded away soon-to-be free agents like Yoenis Cespedes, David Price and Joakim Soria. Owner Mike Ilitch, a never-say-die former U.S. Marine, promptly fired Dave Dombrowski, the best general manager in baseball, who was unemployed for about a minute before the Red Sox hired him.
Dombroski was succeeded by Al Avila, and you have to figure Avila got the hint: If he likes his job, he’s going to live or die with this roster. (Never mind that Dombroski’s trades brought the kind of pitching that could set this franchise up nicely for the coming decade, and Avila could build on it this year by parting with some expensive veterans.)
To make a serious run at it, the Tigers have to get more consistent starting pitching, which ranked 17th in the majors heading into the break with a 4.60 ERA and 20th with .270 average by opposing hitters. Their best pitcher, by far, has been a guy who started the season in the minors. Take Michael Fulmer out of the equation, and the starting pitching stats are horrendous.
With Fulmer, a more dominant (recently) Verlander and a healthy (not recently) Jordan Zimmerman, the rotation is set at the top. Mike Pelfrey, who has gotten little support from his offense, has proven to be fairly reliable as a fourth starter.
But then it begins to unravel. Anibel Sanchez, who started the season as the No. 3 starter behind Verlander and Zimmerman, has been a disaster and probably needs some time away in the minors to find his game and his confidence again. And if youngsters Daniel Norris or Matt Boyd can’t step in and nail down a spot in the rotation, a trade by July 31 is paramount.
It’s a knee-jerk reaction to suggest the Detroit bullpen has been a failure thus far, but that would be ignoring the job closer Frank Rodriguez has done. He’s recorded 24 saves in 26 opportunities, settling down a position that has had fans on frightening roller-coaster for years. But finding a path from an inconsistent starting rotation to K-Rod has been another nightmare for manager Brad Ausmus.
Alex Wilson, Justin Wilson, Kyle Ryan, Shane Greene (a starter who wound up in the bullpen after a hand injury) and Bruce Rondon have been alternately effective in relief, and unstable. None of them has shown to be consistently reliable in holding a lead; Ausmus never knows what he’s going to get from his pen from one day to the next.
If that continues, Detroit may need as much help there as it does in the starting rotation – but a trade may not be necessary. Joe Jiminez, a hard-throwing righthander already touted as the Tigers’ closer of the future, has been brilliant after a recent promotion to Double-A Erie from high-A ball in Lakeland. In 15 innings, he has 27 strikeouts and a 1.76 ERA.
Obviously, it’s a bit premature to expect him to come to the show and continue that kind of dominance. The Tigers would prefer to nurture him, bring him along slowly. They may not have that luxury, however, and it’s not unreasonable to suggest we might see him make at least a cameo appearance in late summer.
Now a final word about the signature of this 2016 Detroit Tigers team: Hitting. They live and die by their bats, and so far they’re not living well. Four players are on a pace for home runs and 100 RBI – Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Nick Castellanos and Ian Kinsler. There’s no question the lineup can score runs.
But while Detroit has scored in double figures nine times so far, its hitters have produced two runs or fewer 18 times, typically against better teams on the road. In other words, they feast on poor-to-average teams at home and the rest of the time they roll over too easily.
So yes, we may not have seen the best from this team yet in a sustained effort. But to suggest it’s only a matter of time is a dangerous assumption. What if we have?