Detroit — The Tigers’ intentions and resolve are never vague, that’s for sure. They’re trying to win a World Series with as many arms as it takes, as many stars as it takes, and there’s nothing delicate about it.
The arms escalation reached stunning heights Thursday as the Tigers pulled off a trade that was ruthless, bold and unconventional. They acquired David Price, one of the top pitchers in baseball, to put alongside several of the other top pitchers in baseball, and essentially announced there’s no sense going halfway on this.
Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski gave up two starters, centerfielder Austin Jackson and pitcher Drew Smyly, in a three-team trade that carries some risk, especially with lingering concerns about the bullpen and the offense. But stockpiling arms is a risk worth taking, and the Tigers are built on their star-packed starting rotation, which now boasts the last three Cy Young winners — Max Scherzer, Price and Justin Verlander, a veritable embarrassment of pitchers.
When Dombrowski had a chance to add another golden arm, he didn’t hesitate and, frankly, he couldn’t hesitate. It made for a bizarre, tense day at Comerica Park, as rumors swirled and the 4 p.m. trade deadline approached. In the seventh inning of the Tigers’ 7-4 loss to the White Sox — at approximately 3:53 — the game was stopped and manager Brad Ausmus sent Rajai Davis to centerfield. Jackson saw him coming and hesitated slightly but he knew, and so did the crowd, which cheered him one final time.
“It’s kind of sad,” Jackson said. “My heart didn’t drop, but it was just kind of like, you know it’s your turn.”
And that’s how the Tigers are playing it, willing to sacrifice almost anything to achieve their goal as quickly as possible. The rival Oakland A’s keep ratcheting the competition too, building the best record in baseball but still landing star pitcher Jon Lester earlier in the day.
Dombrowski said it was difficult to deal good major-leaguers, as well as prized minor-league prospect Willy Adames. But with the Tigers in the midst of a nearly decade-long hunt for a world championship, everyone knows the stakes and the urgency. And in case anyone forgets, Dombrowski, with the backing of motivated owner Mike Ilitch, reminds them.
“The question we asked ourselves was, what gives us the best chance of winning the world championship this year?” Dombrowski said. “We still have to get there, we know that. And we thought adding David Price to our rotation would give us the best chance to do that.”
That’s the story, although not the whole story. Jackson was somber but understood the rationale, as he heads to Seattle as part of the three-way trade. Smyly was more dejected, blind-sided by the deal that sends him to Tampa Bay.
This is the business side of it, and the Tigers are trying to be smart while still chasing a title. Price, 28, is one of the premier left-handers in the game, and he’s under contract through 2015. The Tigers know they might lose Scherzer, who hits free-agency after this season, so Price is a pricey piece of insurance.
That’s one hedge, and so is this: Verlander hasn’t been his normal dominant self for a while. With five top starters, including Rick Porcello, the Tigers will have a fascinating choice if they reach the playoffs, as expected. One would go to the bullpen, and that fanciful notion of Verlander in a relief role could resurface. The Tigers already acquired reliever Joakim Soria, who has struggled in three outings but should end up being valuable.
When Dombrowski got a call late Wednesday from Rays GM Andrew Friedman, rekindling trade talks that began two weeks earlier, he knew what to do. That morning, Dombrowski said he estimated the chances of landing Price at “zero percent.” But the man is relentless, one of the savviest dealers in baseball, and he gets deals done because he’s not afraid to do them.
Dombrowski said the A’s trade for Lester — after they added two other starting pitchers last week — wasn’t the impetus. But the two teams lately have measured themselves against each other, and they’ve gotten borderline gluttonous with the pitching.
Detroit has eliminated Oakland in the postseason three times — 2006, 2012 and 2013 — and the A’s are desperate to break through. Known for their savvy frugality under GM Billy Beane, they follow the tenets of Moneyball, which is slightly different than the Tigers’ tenet of BigMoneyball.
“A couple weeks ago, I was sitting with the coaching staff and I said, ‘You know what, if we can get David Price and Joakim Soria, we’re gonna get ’em and we’re gonna go for it,’ ” Dombrowski said. “We’ve played well, but I think we can play better. When I saw Oakland got Lester, I wasn’t thrilled, but it didn’t really make the difference in this deal because we were already moving forward on it.”
The Tigers will move forward with an uncertain centerfield combo of Davis and minor-league call-up Ezequiel Carrera. Jackson had been hot the past month in the leadoff spot, and his departure will hurt. And those nagging bullpen woes remain.
But teams positioned for postseason runs generally are loaded with starting pitching, and there’s no such thing as an overload.
“The way you look at it is, it’s tough to score runs,” Dombrowski said. “And there’s not a lot of (hitting) upgrades out there. I think we’ll score enough runs. But when you get into the postseason — if you can get into the postseason — and you go against good pitching, offense is tough to come by.”
The Tigers have waged that battle a few times over the years, and with Price, they’re doing what they often do. They’re arming and aiming for more.
A look at the players involved in Thursday’s trade between the Tigers, Rays and Mariners:
To Tigers from Rays
Born: Aug. 26,1985 (Murfreesboro, Tenn.)
High school: Blackman (Murfreesboro, Tenn.)
Drafted: by Devil Rays, No. 1 (1st round), 2007
Debut: Sept. 14, 2008
To Rays from Tigers
Born: June 13, 1989 (Little Rock, Ark.)
High school: Little Rock (Ark.) Central
Drafted: by Tigers, No. 68 (2nd round), 2010
Debut: April 12, 2012
Position: Shortstop, third base
Born: Sept. 2, 1995 (Santiago, Dominican Republic)
Drafted: Signed as international free agent, July 2012
To Mariners from Tigers
Position: Center field
Born: Feb. 1, 1987 (Denton, Texas)
High school: Billy Ryan (Denton, Texas)
Drafted: by Yankees, No. 259 (8th round), 2005
Debut: April 5, 2010
To Rays from Mariners
Position: Second base, shortstop
Born: March 2, 1991 (Sanford, Fla.)
High school: Lake Brantley (Altamonte Springs, Fla.)
Drafted: by Mariners, No. 27 (1st round), 2009
Debut: May 27, 2013