Detroit — The Tigers hang around and hang around, and here we are in mid-June and they’re still hanging around. It’s been fun, even fulfilling at times for fans, getting to see younger, faster players.
But reality has a nasty way of intruding, and it’s likely on the way. It was on display Sunday against the Indians, when the Tigers had a chance to win the series, but no real chance in the pitching matchup — Cleveland two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber versus rookie spot starter Artie Lewicki
The Indians rolled, 9-2, and expanded their lead to five games over the second-place Tigers (31-36), and yes, it’s unexpectedly weird to talk about the standings more than a third of the way into the season. The Tigers play spirited baseball under Ron Gardenhire, are a pesky team at home and just endured 18 games in 17 days with a respectable 10-8 record, despite a batch of injuries.
But nobody is letting the illusion of contention become a delusion, and the plan hasn’t changed. Now is when contenders start shopping, and rebuilders start affixing price tags. General manager Al Avila said he expected it to heat up shortly after the amateur draft, which concluded a few days ago. It appears to be a buyer’s marker, with more teams eager to sell and restock with prospects. The Tigers are one of those teams, and that’s why the next six weeks are the most important of the season.
The reality is, we’ll learn which Tiger veterans are marketable, and which are unmovable. Francisco Liriano (when healthy) and Mike Fiers are experienced starters that could help a contender. Jose Iglesias could be the plug-and-play shortstop for a team in need. Closer Shane Greene has had his ups and downs, but when he’s good, he’s really good.
And understand, the list could keep changing. Remember last year, when Justin Verlander was untradeable because of his contract and inconsistency? Then he returned to dominance, and in the final minutes of August's waiver deadline, the Astros finally offered prime prospects, including Franklin Perez, who is No. 1 in the Tigers system now. The Astros and Verlander got their World Series rings, and there was no turning back for the Tigers.
'Good things happening'
So for guys like Iglesias and Greene, the stock might rise and fall, based on performance. Veterans such as Miguel Cabrera and Jordan Zimmermann are virtually impossible to deal because of their contracts. There are two other intriguing possibilities — Michael Fulmer and Nick Castellanos — although I wouldn’t trade either. With Fulmer’s youth (25) and strong arm, he’s still a cornerstone. Beyond that, his struggles after offseason elbow surgery would reduce whatever bounty the Tigers could get, although he was stellar his last outing.
Castellanos is developing rapidly as a leader and a hitter (.321), but remains adventurous in right field. With the increased use of analytics and defensive metrics, he might not be as valuable a trade piece as you think.
Amid the impending conjecture about who could go, it helps that the Tigers have found pieces that will stay. Reliever Joe Jimenez and third baseman Jeimer Candelario are the two most notable.
“We have some young guys being a big help,” Avila said last week. “The advances by Joe Jimenez have been tremendous, very happy with that. There’s a lot of good things happening that we’re happy with, but of course we have a long way to go.”
It’s a long way from Lewicki to Kluber, although it wasn’t that long ago the Tigers had several Klubers. It can’t be easy for the Tigers to embrace the future when their recent past is still slapping them in the face. Verlander and Max Scherzer have been ridiculously dominant, and might be the Cy Young favorites in each league. Verlander leads the majors with a 1.45 ERA and has 113 strikeouts and 20 walks. Scherzer is 10-1 with a 1.95 ERA and has 133 strikeouts and 19 walks.
Am I making you weepy yet? Sorry, but don’t forget J.D. Martinez in Boston leads the majors with 21 home runs and 54 RBIs. Oh, and Justin Upton has 15 home runs and 40 RBIs with the Angels, which would easily lead the Tigers in both categories.
'A matter of timing and destiny'
Asked if it was difficult to see Verlander have so much success after trading him, Avila didn’t hesitate.
“I’m very happy for him, I love the guy,” Avila said. “We tried to push the envelope and held on as long as we could, but there was no way to stop it when it comes. The time was right for him to go somewhere else and for us to rebuild. In essence, it’s all a matter of timing and destiny. I don’t feel bad about that. What I do hope is, in the near future here, we develop another Verlander or somebody similar.”
Last week, the Tigers grabbed a possible ace, drafting Auburn pitcher Casey Mize No. 1 overall. The team will be cautious, but Mize could be in the majors fairly quickly. You also wonder when slugger Christin Stewart, who has 13 home runs for Toledo, will be brought up.
There will be moves, and many in baseball expect the trade market to percolate long before the July 31 non-waiver deadline. It’s a tricky situation for the Tigers, because the better their veteran players perform, the more the team might win, but the easier it’ll be to deal them for the right price.
In the meantime, the Tigers will keep hanging around, by goose or by gander, through injuries and skepticism. No way did anyone expect to mention the standings on June 10, and who knows, we might not mention it again. The Tigers are about to wrap up 18 of 21 games at home, and the unforgiving road beckons.
“We’ve played well for a long stretch against some good teams,” catcher John Hicks said. “We’ve believed in ourselves since day one, although not a lot of other people did. There’s a lot of the season left, and we’re by no means where we want to be.”
And by no means where anyone figured they’d be, crafting an alternate reality that’s interesting to watch, however long it lasts.