It was momentarily bright, then predictably gloomy. And as the Tigers staggered to the All-Star break, a few things became clearer.
This rebuild will be every bit as tedious as expected. There are no shortcuts. There are no guarantees. And there won’t be much help at the trade deadline.
Sorry if that’s what you’ve been hungering for, but in this market, with this roster, it’ll be more bust than boon. At least we’ve confirmed this about the Tigers: They have no untradeable players, and that includes Michael Fulmer and Nick Castellanos.
The unfortunate flip side for GM Al Avila is they don’t have many tradeable ones either, certainly not as many as they’d hoped. All the debate about Fulmer, 25, might be moot, although even with his struggles — 3-9 record, 4.50 ERA — he’d be coveted, under four more years of team control. Avila still should hold firm and either demand a ton or keep him.
A month ago, the Tigers were 36-37 and stirring interest for their spirited play under Ron Gardenhire. Twenty losses in 25 games later, they’re 41-57, although the record really doesn’t matter. What matters is virtually every possible trade chip has faltered, making it much more difficult for Avila to go prospecting before July 31. Outside of All-Star Joe Jimenez, most of the younger pieces have faltered too — notably Fulmer, Jeimer Candelario and Matt Boyd — and reminded us that building-block development can be painfully slow.
Where are the buyers?
The Tigers have lifted their farm system from near the bottom to the middle of the pack, but the next leap will not be as easy. The veterans that might draw trade interest have periodically been injured or ineffective, which is unlucky timing for the Tigers. Shortstop Jose Iglesias and starters Mike Fiers and Francisco Liriano might be decent chips, if healthy, but center fielder Leonys Martin and closer Shane Greene stumbled after hot starts.
Fulmer still throws as hard as almost any pitcher in baseball, and although I wouldn’t deal him, the possibility has become more palatable the more he has struggled. You’d listen if a team like the Yankees was willing to give up a premier prospect or two, but that seems less likely now, with only two more starts before the deadline.
It’s a similar situation with Castellanos, who has developed into a menacing hitter — .305, 15 home runs, 56 RBIs — but is a liability in right field. Because the top four in the American League — Red Sox, Yankees, Astros, Indians — seemingly are set, there will be fewer would-be contenders to bid.
Remember the last-minute bounty Avila got for Justin Verlander last summer, which landed the Tigers their No. 1 prospect, pitcher Franklin Perez? Not happening, which is no surprise. This season was going to be a wobbly bridge to the future no matter what, but the Tigers surely hoped they’d have something to sell.
They’ll need some luck to boost their rebuild, and it wouldn’t hurt if the Yankees (62-33) and Red Sox (68-30) remained in mortal combat in the AL East. The team that doesn’t win it will be stuck in a one-game wild card, so the stakes are enormous. And surely the Yankees realize they blew it last year, passing on Verlander, who sealed the World Series for the Astros.
Maybe the Yankees would be willing to pay more for Fulmer to avoid the same mistake, and to shore up their rotation beyond Luis Severino, underperforming Sonny Gray and oft-injured Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia. And then maybe Red Sox GM Dave Dombrowski would make a move to match, especially after losing starter Eduardo Rodriguez with an ankle injury.
Murmurs persist that the Yankees, desperate for a starter, have been eying Fulmer, who could be the best option (short- and long-term) in a light crop of candidates — Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ, Chris Archer, Kevin Gausman. More likely, the Yankees will kick the tires on Fiers and Liriano.
One report had the Tigers interested in Yankees hitters Clint Frazier, 23, and Tyler Wade, 23, which doesn’t seem enough for Fulmer. Sorry, the Yankees don’t get to set a lower price because Fulmer has scuffled. Avila gets to set the price because there’s no urgency to deal, not like last year with Verlander, Justin Upton, J.D. Martinez and Justin Wilson.
Once you pick the rebuilding path, you have no choice but to be patient. Just ask the last three world champions. The Royals won it all in 2015 after posting a losing record in 17 of 18 seasons from 1995-2012. The Cubs won it all in 2016 after a five-year stretch in which they averaged 93 losses. The Astros won after famously enduring three seasons of at least 106 losses, when they stockpiled high draft picks.
That’s the pain and pattern a lot of teams are resigned to following — too many in the AL — although the Tigers are hoping to avoid the extreme. They’ve made progress in the minors and now possess five of the top 100 prospects in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline — starting pitchers Perez, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo and Beau Burrows, and outfielder Christin Stewart.
Heavy on young pitching, weak on young position players, the Tigers have a ton of work ahead. There are sobering examples all around them in the cataclysmic Central, where Kansas City is burrowing back into a rebuild and the Twins might do the same. The White Sox were supposed to be the next great ashes-to-flashes team and got all sorts of prime prospects by trading Chris Sale and others. Today, the White Sox may be teeming with young talent, but they’re 33-62 and crafting their sixth straight losing season.
Avila hasn’t wavered in his approach, and hasn’t sugarcoated the raw realities of a rebuild. In case anyone didn’t get the message, it sharpened the past month, and should be abundantly clear when the trade deadline comes and goes.