Henning: Tigers chose wisely, despite Indians’ surge

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Seven weeks ago the Tigers and Indians were about to go their separate ways in 2015.

The Tigers would sell blue-chip talent in the final 48 hours ahead of a July 31 trade deadline. The Indians, even as other teams pleaded for them to put a prized pitcher or two on the block, decided to stay put.

The standings that day:

The Tigers were 50-52, in third place, 11.5 games behind the front-running Royals, and 3.5 out of a wild-card spot. The Indians were in last place, at 47-54, and were 14 games to the rear, and six games behind the Twins for the second wild-card spot with seven teams in front of them for a postseason berth.

Now switch to Thursday’s scorecard and to an Indians team that was only four games from a wild-card playoff ticket, with just three teams in front of them for the spot.

The Tigers and Indians had traded places. The Indians (72-72) were in third place, having gone 23-13 since Aug. 7, while the Tigers (67-78) were dead last in the American League Central.

The Tigers had slid to 17-25 since owner Mike Ilitch agreed in late July with then-general manager Dave Dombrowski that Detroit should essentially say goodbye to the 2015 playoffs. Reluctantly, the Tigers would trade David Price, Yoenis Cespedes, and Joakim Soria for six young players who might, in future years, help a Detroit team do what didn’t appear feasible this season.

Did the Tigers give up too quickly?

Should they have instead followed the Indians’ route and stayed put, even if Cleveland made some subsequent waiver trades that jettisoned Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, trimming payroll as, ironically, those farewells didn’t compromise Cleveland’s second-half surge?

The answer is an unequivocal no.

And the reason why is pitching.

Indians’ staff better, for starters

The Indians on Opening Day looked like the team they’ve finally become in these past five weeks. They had a great rotation, a presentable bullpen, and in some views (here, for example) loomed as a potential division winner in 2015.

The Tigers, as they fled Florida for Comerica Park, were stacking up quite differently.

They had two new starters in Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene who weren’t guaranteed quantities. More ominously, they had a one-time ace in Justin Verlander who had just hit the disabled list for what was destined to be nearly a three-month exile.

They also had their annual bullpen problems. And that weak link, never more devastating than in a July 10 loss at Minnesota, was about to contribute to Dombrowski’s firing as it became a factor in the Tigers deciding (prudently, it seemed) to bag 2015 and think about a better future with better pitching.

Consider some statistics, then and now.

Entering the season’s second half, the Indians had the 14th-best pitching among 30 big-league teams. The Tigers, conversely, were 27th.

An Indians team with young starters, minus uncomfortably high salaries, stood as Cleveland’s best hope and resource for future seasons and for whatever might come the Indians’ way in 2015, paltry as those visions might have been on July 31.

The Tigers had an opposite problem. They had elite players in Price and Cespedes who were three months from becoming hyper-expensive free agents and who showed no high-percentage promise that they could either be afforded, or signed, by the Tigers.

To a lesser extent, the Tigers had the same circumstance with Soria, their bullpen closer.

A separate and unique problem for Detroit is that the trade mart and Detroit's empty cupboard all but forced the Tigers to trade a couple of high-retail players. Even as Ilitch and Dombrowski preferred to add pitchers who might help the Tigers do exactly what the Indians have since done, the Tigers had earlier dealt so many marketable minor-league prospects, and failed to develop more inventory, that Detroit had nothing it could practically offer in pursuit of a desperately needed starter and reliever.

And so the Tigers, while having at least a mathematical shot at making things interesting in the second half, realistically were staring at a dead-end alley. Neither the playoffs, nor any shot at crafting better days ahead, were in the cards — unless they made a swath of trades Dombrowski pulled off in his final hours as GM.

Not much of substance, not anything that should lead to second-guesses, has changed for the Tigers since July 31. They were 27th in pitching then, they are 28th now.

The Indians, though, were always capable of a turnaround that finally kicked in during these late summer weeks. Their 3.73 ERA, as ESPN’s Buster Olney pointed out in a Thursday summary of Cleveland’s reversal, is third in the American League since the All-Star break.

Tigers had nowhere to go

The Tigers no doubt would have better numbers had Price and Soria remained. And certainly those stats would have been much healthier if the team had been able to follow through on plans to add another pitcher or two at the deadline.

But the ability to trade was a non-option. And when Price and Soria had been not enough to offset a 27th-place standing in overall pitching during the season’s first half, the Tigers made a pragmatic, virtually mandated, decision to sell.

The Indians, meanwhile, saw their young arms align and their playoff push reinvigorated by resources that all along in 2015 ranked as being deeper and more durable than Detroit’s.

Also factoring into Cleveland’s comeback: Francisco Lindor, the sparkling rookie shortstop, who in 82 games is batting .317, with nine home runs and an .835 OPS.

The Tigers weren’t going to deliver that kind of lineup infusion from an energizing rookie anymore than they ever, from April into September, were honest bets to match the Indians’ pitching.

It left two teams, in decidedly different circumstances that last week of July, staring at different sets of responsibilities.

For one team, it is working out, even now, as playoff seats are being arranged and as the Indians at least can dream of October.

For another team, now in last place and more concerned with a daunting future, July offered no sensible options on a season that from early spring appeared star-crossed.

Smart mid-season strategy, Indians. Smart — if lamentable — strategy, Tigers.