Henning: Tigers reach fork in road at All-Star break

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Justin Upton

Toronto —  Mathematically, they’re fine. Fine enough, anyway, to at least justify thoughts of a second-half playoff push and perhaps trade for a starting pitcher, as once upon a time was the Tigers’ custom in July.

Realistically, the Tigers probably aren’t that caliber of team. And because reality must be part of their 2016 picture, all because future seasons and their viability depend upon common-sense strategies this summer and beyond, the Tigers will at least listen this month to trade offers, particularly those that can’t in good conscience be refused.

They looked Sunday in a 6-1 loss to the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre much as they’ve looked for much of 2016. As a team that has too little pitching, too irregular of an offense, and too many additional pock marks to expect they can legitimately contend for the postseason.

And so one instant, and probably emotional, response would be to begin selling pieces immediately, much as the Tigers decided last July when they dealt David Price and Yoenis Cespedes for pitchers who are helping now and who are expected to boost Detroit’s starting rotation for years to come.

If only it were that easy.

It is not. The Tigers front office also understand this. Contracts that are too heavy to move, no-trade clauses that could thwart potential deals, and trade timing that might, for some players, be better this autumn or next July than now, are all influencing the Tigers’ short- and long-term thinking.

Tigers general manager Al Avila is taking the high road. Necessarily so. His team is 46-43 and while not a good bet to catch the first-place, pitching-strong Indians, the Tigers are at least within spitting distance of a wild-card spot.

But, again, facts will govern the Tigers’ thinking, with Tigers owner Mike Ilitch expected to trust the advice of his front office.

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Do the Tigers gamble this month and avoid potentially wise deals — or, more dangerously, spend prospects on pitching help — for a low-percentage chance at winning a wild-card ticket and a one-game shot at playing in a division playoff series?

Based on this team’s current cosmetics, that’s a scary spin of the roulette wheel. This isn’t a playoff team, not as currently configured, unless pitchers who showed during the Tigers’ first 89 games that they can’t craft anything close to consistency in a rotation or bullpen undergo a transformation.

Tale of two plans

It’s a storybook scenario closer, perhaps, to fantasy.

And yet the team, for now, at least publicly, must consider itself a contender.

“We’re hoping that our starting pitchers, which is key for us, get healthy and back on track,” Avila said, “and we’re hoping we can be a bit more consistent with our overall play: our starting pitching, our relief pitching, and our defense, all have to be a bit more consistent.

“If we get the starting pitching back on track,” said Avila, who has two-fifths of his rotation on the disabled list in Jordan Zimmermann and Daniel Norris, as well as outfielder J.D. Martinez, “and if we begin to play more consistently all around, there’s still a good chance to win, all because we still play so many games against Cleveland, Kansas City, and the White Sox.

“There’s still time to heal some of the injuries we have and to get going. Now, time eventually does run out. But our hope is to get back on track and get back into the playoffs. And, really, that’s what we’re focused on.”

It is a noble and responsible statement. At least as of Sunday.

It also ignores separate scenarios the Tigers front office must and will keep in mind.

Mike Pelfrey

What can’t be said publicly is the Tigers have a plan, as well as a mandate, to change their team on two fronts.

They must begin to get younger and more athletic. And they must trim payroll from the $200-million-plus they’re carrying in 2016, which was a last-gasp, over-the-top, one-year push by Ilitch to squeeze from this roster a potential World Series team.

Results speak for themselves. The payroll surge, though admirable when a generous owner so desperately wanted, and no doubt deserved, a baseball parade in Detroit, is proving game-by-game, week-by-week, to have been more of a prayer.

The Tigers will listen to trade offers for their marketable stars until the interleague trade deadline expires on July 30. They will be open to waiver deals thereafter, assuming their playoff picture does not dramatically improve.

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But the greater trade drama is likely to unfurl at different periods during the next 18 months, with far more potential for deals to be made this coming offseason, next July, and during the autumn of 2017.

The reasons, again, are tied to contracts, players’ current and future stock, and the degree to which replacement parts might surface in the minors or be part of trade packages Detroit is offered.

Player situations

Victor Martinez. Ian Kinsler. Justin Verlander. J.D. Martinez. Justin Upton. Jordan Zimmermann. Mike Pelfrey. Cameron Maybin. Francisco Rodriguez.

All of the above could be names mentioned as early as this month when Avila begins talking earnestly with other GMs. Each player has unique conditions that make a trade this month far-fetched or, more to the point, not as favorable as a deal could be later this year, or in 2017.

Victor Martinez

Victor Martinez: A switch-hitting maestro who has the brand of game-changing bat a team hunting for more offense would love to add. Except for three hang-ups: He essentially is a 37-year-old designated hitter, exclusively, which means he is attractive to teams only in the American League.

He also carries a contract that pays him $18 million this season, next year, and again in 2018. It doesn’t mean in an era when teams are making money and often become intoxicated with playoff thoughts that Martinez is immovable.

But chances he would be moved are constrained by another reality shared by him and by Verlander, as well as Miguel Cabrera, who is all but chained to Detroit because of the nearly $250 million owed on his eternal deal. All are players with at least 10 years of big-league experience and have been with their team for at least five seasons. Players with 10-and-5 protection cannot be dealt unless they consent.

It isn’t a plausible notion, the idea Martinez could be traded now. Next July, if a man who looks as if he’ll hit perpetually is still swinging a wicked bat, perhaps. That remaining contract could be digestible, or at least more so than it is in July, 2016. Martinez might also welcome a chance in 2017 to play for a true playoff contender, assuming the Tigers are in roughly the same stead then.

But this July? Not much chance the planets will align.

Verlander: Like a lot of teams itching for a long October run, the Red Sox are hunting for starters. Verlander would make sense. He is pitching well at age 33, he loves the autumn stage, and no one has a better bead on the kind of difference Verlander can make during a playoff run than his old GM, Dave Dombrowski, who now runs the Red Sox.

Verlander could be tempting. For both parties. He has a heavy contract, for sure — $84 million owed through 2019, with a long-shot vesting option for 2020 — but that’s money not likely to scare off the Red Sox, or Dombrowski. Or, for that matter, other teams.

But would he approve of a deal, if, say, the Red Sox decided Verlander was a fit rather than other pitchers who likely are high on their shopping list? Maybe, all because Verlander, again, thrives on pitching in the postseason.

It’s possible something might work out that two teams and a pitcher could find agreeable. But it would appear on July 11 to be a long-shot.

Ian Kinsler

Kinsler: He is 34, has 16 home runs, and is batting .290. He is a splendid baseball player with a contract that’s somewhat friendly. Kinsler makes $14 million this season, will draw $12 million next year, and in 2018 has a team option that will pay him either $12 million or result in a $5-million buyout.

The Tigers, though, have no clear answer for replacing Kinsler if they were to deal him, unless a young prospect became part of a package. Moreover, there are few contenders who have deep needs at second base.

The combination suggests Kinsler will remain in Detroit until at least next season.

J.D. Martinez: He is signed through 2017 when he becomes a free agent. The Tigers could fetch a sexy price for Martinez given his past three seasons and dynamite numbers since he joined Detroit.

Martinez, though, is healing from a fractured elbow. He is on track to play again soon, probably in three weeks — just after the non-waiver trade deadline. Would teams be tempted to give the Tigers full value now? Or, would a more attractive package arrive this autumn, or even next July, as was the case a year ago when the Tigers dealt Yoenis Cespedes for the super-talented Michael Fulmer?

Upton: The Tigers realize Upton could become a free agent at the end of next season. If he doesn’t opt for free agency, he is bound to the Tigers through 2021 to the tune of $22-million-plus per season.

Because he is 28, a team could be interested as Upton heats up and begins to resemble a brand of hitter anticipated. But it’s far more realistic to think Upton will rebound in 2017 and next July he will have regained luster pretty much forfeited by a tough start to 2016, and by a potential six-year contract few clubs would even begin to consider.

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Zimmermann: He has a full no-trade clause through 2018. Much of his zeal for signing with the Tigers is he lives in Wisconsin and is a 50-minute flight from Detroit. He also is on the disabled list. Whatever cachet he carried during an amazing April has dropped significantly because of a sour May-June run and a five-year contract worth $110 million.

His status could change in the future, but there’s no practical way in which he could be marketed this summer.

Pelfrey: This would have been laughable even a few weeks ago, and to some extent still is. But Pelfrey has been pitching fairly well of late. A team looking for a fifth starter could get Pelfrey inexpensively, at least in terms of a trade price. The Tigers owe him $8 million in 2017 and would always listen. A couple of strong post-All-Star starts could make him at least an option.

Maybin: You cannot rule it out. Maybin is attractive. He has an affordable option for 2017 ($9 million or a $1 million buyout). The Tigers also have a center fielder they’re grooming at Triple A, JaCoby Jones, whose future wasn’t compromised when he was pulled from a game Saturday at Triple A Toledo for not hustling.

But, again, the Tigers aren’t expected to deal Maybin when they have no real center-field options. Jones is not close to being ready for Detroit, while Anthony Gose, who has gone AWOL at Triple A Toledo, has all but played his way out of the organization.

Rodriguez: He could easily have made the American League All-Star team with his 24 saves. He also has the honor of being the first dependable Tigers closer in years.

His allure is real and could earn a bonanza for the Tigers, who in all trade conversations this month, will ideally shoot for packages on a par with last July’s deals: young and strong arms, quick feet and quicker bats, with contracts that are manageable.

But baseball, of course, doesn’t easily allow for such deals, even when teams are half-drunk with playoff dreams.

In most cases, and this will be particularly true with the Tigers, clubs won’t be interested in trading for fat contracts unless the Tigers accept a fair amount of contract blubber.

And if the Tigers are merely hoping to unload a contract, even for a helpful player, not much can be expected in return unless the Tigers eat a substantial amount of cash as ransom for getting even a half-decent prospect.

It will be a long process, this retooling of the Tigers, which, privately anyway, might have moved closer to commencement.

Expect it to happen more energetically, and more steadily, during the next 18 months. Any bold or dramatic reconstruction has a greater chance to happen in stages, with the heavier flesh-peddling more likely in 2017 than in July 2016.

Twitter @Lynn_Henning

Tigers leaders at the break


Batting average: Victor Martinez, .305

Home runs: Miguel Cabrera, 18

RBI: Cabrera, 53

Hits: Ian Kinsler, 103

Runs: Kinsler, 71

Strikeouts: Justin Upton, 112

On-base: Cabrera, .370

Slugging: Nick Castellanos, .534

OPS: Cabrera and J.D. Martinez, .878


Wins: Jordan Zimmermann and Michael Fulmer, 9

ERA: Zimmermann, 3.95

Innings: Justin Verlander, 117.1

Strikeouts: Verlander, 120

WHIP: Francisco Rodriguez, 1.08