Henning: Resurgent Tigers in limbo at deadline
When they pulled into the Westin Copley Square hotel Sunday night in Boston, a few hours after the White Sox had twice punched them in the gut with walkoff wins at U.S. Cellular Field, the Tigers — Al Avila’s front office — got ready for a week of meetings and phone calls. And decisions.
Stick with the existing roster and players about to be released from the disabled list’s chains?
Buy an affordable bench soldier or, maybe even a pitcher if the price happened somehow to be right?
Sell? Particularly when a market thin on pitching might make a couple of Tigers prizes — Justin Verlander, Francisco Rodriguez — especially valuable treasure for a contender eager to hand the Tigers a parcel of helpful prospects?
The specter of selling was real as the Tigers got ready for a three-game set at Fenway Park against a Red Sox team that looked as if it was getting serious about first place in the American League East.
And, of course, true to 2016 and to a baseball year that has featured the Tigers changing personas by the week, the Tigers swept the Red Sox and the team had pogo-sticked its way back into playoff consciousness.
It can’t be denied. Not when the Tigers are 4.5 games behind first-place Cleveland. Not when Jordan Zimmermann, J.D. Martinez, and Daniel Norris are days or even hours from rejoining the team after their disabled-list stints.
The danger for Avila, a general manager who must at some point begin paring payroll and rejuvenating an aging roster, is that the Tigers could easily tease their way past Monday’s trade deadline. A team’s 54-48 record, and simple arithmetic, could compel him to pass on some alluring trade offers.
And still this Tigers team could miss the playoffs, or get for their labors nothing bigger than a one-game, wildcard play-in opportunity.
That’s why the front office chewed so deeply this week on roster realities, playoff possibilities, and potential trade offers of all flavors. Tigers chiefs are obliged to look not only at 2016, but to seasons ahead.
Officially, the team’s stance hasn’t changed. Avila has said and continues to say the Tigers will probably hold onto their poker hands and neither buy nor sell. But nothing can, or has been, ruled out, all because the trade mart – and even a weekend Tigers series against the Astros – can alter a team’s profile and strategies.
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus has a stake in all of this, of course. He wants to win as badly as Tigers owner Mike Ilitch wants, at age 87, to cash in on any valid championship potential.
Ausmus was asked after Wednesday’s 4-3 toppling of the Red Sox if he thought a series sweep at Boston might have changed the front office’s minds about trading for roster help ahead of Monday’s deadline.
“The more we win going to the deadline,” Ausmus said, “it certainly doesn’t hurt.”
The Tigers have been linked nationally to one possible buy-up scenario: trading for Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy.
It seems improbable and even implausible. The Tigers have two catchers in James McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and while neither offers Lucroy’s combination of bat and defense, the idea Detroit would trade any of its young blue-chippers, particularly when Avila has all but taken a vow to keep them, smacks of fantasy.
But trade scenarios — of any construct — are not easily dismissed in any year as July’s deadline nears. And this summer’s market looks as if it could induce some fairly stunning swaps ahead of Monday’s 4 p.m. closing bell.
Avila’s ongoing position is that the Tigers will probably stand still and take their chances with a team that’s about to reassemble with Zimmerman, J.D. Martinez, and Norris. Perhaps as significantly, the Tigers bullpen looks as if it has found a sturdy back-end alignment with Rodriguez, Shane Greene, and a finally healthy, seemingly grown-up Bruce Rondon acting as if he’s about to become the acetylene torch the Tigers long believed they might wield in Rondon.
Did a three-game sweep at Boston, when three games were won by a grand total of four runs, change a team’s thinking, perhaps detrimentally if big and helpful long-term trades suddenly became nullified by a team’s mathematical playoff chances?
Avila isn’t yet speaking about final decisions or motivations. And mostly, because he can’t. There are three days to ponder trade conversations, three more weekend games ahead against a playoff contender in the Astros, and a few more days and hours to deliberate about what is best for a Tigers team that hasn’t yet cemented an identity in 2016.