Wojo: Trades could give Tigers their best shot

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

The Tigers aren’t good enough, not as presently constructed. They may be playoff contenders in the literal sense, but not in the logical sense. They can’t win this way, not with this battered starting rotation.

The easy solution is to let it play out, hope the heavy hitters get hot, hope Jordan Zimmermann gets healthy, hope the rest of the American League Central gets sloppy, and hope you at least can grab a wild card. In that scenario, there’s no gambling, no buying and no selling, just a simple acknowledgment this is who the Tigers are, for better or worse.

I’m not buying it. I’m not buying the not-buying angle. Yes, the Tigers are kidding themselves if they believe one big acquisition by the trade deadline saves their season. But they’re kidding themselves more if they believe they can stay in contention without doing anything.

Basically they have two weeks to figure it out, starting tonight in a three-game series against the Royals. The current group has to show it’s worth further investment, financial and emotional. GM Al Avila has said he doesn’t plan to make major moves, but if he’s counting on clarity by July 31, I’m afraid that’s unlikely. The Tigers are 46-43, 6 1/2 games behind the Indians and four games out of a wild-card berth. They’re lucky to be that close, frankly, with all their pitching issues.

Last season, Mike Ilitch authorized Dave Dombrowski to trade three big pieces — David Price, Yoenis Cespedes, Joakim Soria — as the Tigers limped to the deadline. It turned out to be the right call, landing exceptional rookie Michael Fulmer, as well as young pitchers Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd. Still, it had to be a tough call, going against Ilitch’s nature and the very fiber of how the Tigers have been run for a decade, with a spend-now, worry-later mentality.

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I doubt a sell-off will happen again, partly because the Tigers have a lot of players with hefty, unattractive contracts, and they surely don’t want to surrender affordable key guys such as J.D. Martinez or Ian Kinsler. The idea when they made the deadline trades wasn’t to position themselves as contenders in two or three years. It was to give them flexibility to retool for this season, right now, and it makes no sense to ditch that strategy.

By subtracting those pending free agents last year, they were able to add Zimmermann, who was terrific early and shaky lately, and is about to come off the disabled list. They added Justin Upton, who was horrible early and improved lately, and has to be better in the second half. They also added Francisco Rodriguez, who has been superb, and Mike Pelfrey, who slowly is turning a disastrous season into something workable.

Borderline call

The pat answer this time of year is to stand pat because so many teams are jumbled together, nobody wants to reveal plans prematurely. Most likely, the Tigers will be a few games over .500 and a few games out by the end of the month, and Avila will face a tricky decision.

Trading for a veteran starting pitcher could be risky and costly. But if you don’t try something, you could be wasting another $200 million payroll, and squandering breakout seasons from guys such as Fulmer, Nick Castellanos and Cameron Maybin.

The Tigers farm system is still far from stocked, but they have a few shiny pieces, including reliever Joe Jimenez, starting pitcher Beau Burrows and outfielders Derek Hill and Christin Stewart. If Jimenez isn’t ready to help the big league club, perhaps he can help in a trade. Same for outfielder Steven Moya, who won’t have much of a role when Martinez returns from injury.

Plenty of teams will be hunting for starting pitchers, but there appear to be affordable options: Rays teammates Drew Smyly and Jake Odorizzi; A’s teammates Rich Hill and Sonny Gray; Jeremy Hellickson of the Phillies; and Julio Teheran of the Braves.

Stoking the home-field fires

The Tigers do have some advantages over others.

As always, they have a desperate, determined owner and a loyal fan base. They have older stars — Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Victor Martinez, Kinsler, Rodriguez — who won’t get a lot more opportunities, which pushes the organizational urgency. And looking at the schedule, they have 42 of 73 games at home, more than anyone in the division.

Their 1-11 record against the Indians is abominable, but if you’re so inclined, you could consider it encouraging because it means they’re 45-32 against everyone else. It’s enough to make you think more is possible.

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The lineup is still deep and dangerous, despite the occasional droughts. But the Tigers have to crank up the concentration level and stop committing baserunning and defensive gaffes.

That’s my chief complaint with Brad Ausmus, whose job is on the line. It’s not his handling of the bullpen or his lineup machinations. It’s that his team has too many inexplicable mental lapses, and if that’s a function of his easygoing demeanor, I don’t know how he fixes it.

To answer your angry question before it’s asked: No, I don’t think firing Ausmus before the end of the season would accomplish anything. His future should be decided in the offseason, and likely will hinge on whether the Tigers land in the postseason.

As it stands now, they’re not getting there. But stances and standings change quickly in baseball, and there’s no shame in shopping for help. The Tigers need it, and now must prove they deserve it.