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LYNN HENNING

Henning: Tigers must get hot fast to stave off trades

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — Friday night at Comerica Park was different in atmosphere and in substance from most season second halves the Tigers have greeted these past 10 years.

You could feel it, metaphorically, in the dugout as manager Brad Ausmus' team took batting practice. It was hot and uncomfortable. Sticky, you could say, which matched life for a Tigers team that was nine games out of first place after the Tigers beat the Orioles, 7-3, on what seemed like Perspiration Night at Comerica Park.

Typically, the Tigers are revved for their 2-1/2-month closeout. They're either in first place or close to it. The question, during most Julys, is: When will front-office general Dave Dombrowski make his annual summer trade coup?

But this is 2015. Detroit's baseball landscape has changed.

"We've got to play well, period," Ausmus said as he took a seat in a dugout that might as well have doubled as the team sauna. "The whole second half."

There would be the substance, the unambiguous mission, for a 49-48 team that will begin thinking of 2016 if there isn't an uptick in the Tigers' ways.

Ausmus repeated Friday what Dombrowski told media Sunday in Minnesota. The team is still in a playoff chase, at least for a wild-card spot, and so scripts haven't changed. Win. And win regularly. It's the only way a club that has won four consecutive division titles has any shot at a fifth, or even the consolation prize of a wildcard play-in option.

What the front office can't say is they are seasoned baseball people. The owner, Mike Ilitch, is likewise not a man who prefers fantasy to reality.

And so how the Tigers approach the annual summer flesh fest preceding a July 31 trade deadline depends mightily on what happens in these next couple of weeks.

Pitching shuffle

The "buy or sell" debate has been raging in Detroit for some time. But it seems unlikely the Tigers will view trading players as an either-or decision. A personal belief is they could make moves both to acquire, and to shed, depending upon how the market and specific needs shake out between now and July 31.

The reason they will try to add a pitcher is as relevant to 2016 as to the second half of 2015. The Tigers stand to lose starters David Price and Alfredo Simon to free agency in the autumn.

That's 40 percent of the rotation. Expecting to fill an offseason shopping cart with two attractive starters is ambitious. It can be done, but Dombrowski doubtless would love to add a starter this month who could help in 2015 and at least through 2016. It is why some of us wonder if Detroit might try its best to lasso someone like Jorge De La Rosa (signed through 2016) from the Rockies.

Ironically, the Tigers could decide to deal a starter, namely Price, who is regarded as July's top target should Dombrowski make him available.

Two factors could spur Dombrowski to trade Price. If in 13 days the Tigers are a dozen or more games from first place, they might decide to face facts and swap Price. That is, if the market indeed presents Dombrowski and Ilitch with a deal they can't refuse.

The Tigers would need something in the vicinity of a top prospect, or two good ones. Otherwise, they should hang onto Price, if for no other reason than they stand to gain an early draft pick in 2016 once they make a qualifying offer to Price and he, as is expected, signs elsewhere.

An early draft pick, in the 30-40 range, which is where compensation choices typically fall, is always a gamble. But it's a fairly secure one for a team that already likes what it got with this year's compensation chip: left-handed power hitter Christin Stewart.

Outfield dilemmas

Another discussion, popular among fans and media, centers on outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. He likewise is headed for autumn free agency. Unlike Price, he won't fetch draft-pick compensation because of language written into his first big-league contract, with the A's.

The Tigers would love to sign Cespedes to an extension before he hits the free-agent market. They stand to lose Rajai Davis after his contract expires in three months, and when there is no sign Steven Moya is ready for the big leagues, and with no one other than Tyler Collins likely to provide help in 2016, the Tigers would appreciate having Cespedes on hand.

But there also is a good chance Cespedes will welcome the autumn auction block. He is 28, he has impressive all-around skills, and he could clean up as his retail price conceivably soars amid the offseason bidding.

Nothing, of course, says the Tigers couldn't trade Cespedes and then attempt to buy him back this autumn. But that's not a high-percentage bet. So, it comes down to Cespedes being assessed this month in the same manner Price's fate will be decided.

If the Tigers minus Miguel Cabrera can play well enough in July to hang in the playoff hunt, their team will stay intact and Dombrowski will attempt to further steel it with some of his patented summer shopping.

But if the team slides — and that prospect is in the stars every bit as much as a resurgence — Ilitch and Dombrowski must, and will, practice some long-term prudence.

They will at least listen to offers that, depending how the market swings, could turn Detroit's baseball attention to 2016.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

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