Niyo: Tigers’ choice is more than just buy or sell

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — D-Day is fast approaching for the Tigers, and for Dave Dombrowski, the team’s president and general manager, the looming decisions must feel bigger than simple transactions.

Likewise, as this baseball season has gone sideways in Detroit, the internal discussions surely run deeper than a debate over buying or selling.

But whatever the verdict that emerges from Tampa, Fla., in the next 48 hours or so, on the diamond and from behind closed doors, where the Tigers brass met to plot a strategy in advance of Friday’s trade deadline, it could have a far-reaching impact.

Because the larger question isn’t about whether or not the Tigers will pull the plug on their flailing playoff pursuit by trading away the likes of David Price and Yoenis Cespedes and possibly others.

It’s about whether or not they’re ready to scale back the big-spending era of baseball in this town, one that has produced four consecutive division titles, three trips to the American League Championship Series and a World Series appearance, not to mention attendance figures and TV ratings that annually rank among Major League Baseball’s best.

The last time billionaire owner Mike Ilitch spoke publicly, he laughed off that sort of speculation. Ilitch, who turned 86 last week, showed up to the news conference announcing Victor Martinez’s four-year, $68 million extension last November, and when asked if that was a sign he was still willing to go for broke, so to speak, he pretended to reach for his wallet while joking, “Yeah, I’m OK. I’ve got some 20s in here.”

But son Chris Ilitch is in charge of the family’s day-to-day business operations, and with the $650 million downtown arena project the obvious priority, what that means for the Tigers payroll going forward is uncertain.

Reign not sustained

Same goes for Dombrowski, whose contract is set to expire after this season. The fourth-longest tenured GM in baseball, Dombrowski has declined to discuss his future publicly — and to be fair, his last four-year extension didn’t come until August 2011 — but there are no indications a new deal is in the works.

For much of the last decade, the Tigers have been outsized spenders in pursuit of a World Series title that has eluded Ilitch. As Steve Quinn, the Tigers chief financial officer, speaking at a Crain’s Detroit Business event last week, put it, “We have an owner with a bucket list with one item on it.”

That’s why, even after letting Cy Young winner Max Scherzer walk in free agency last winter, Detroit’s 2015 payroll again ranks in the top five for the seventh time in eight seasons. The Tigers reside in the 12th-largest media market in the U.S., yet have averaged a payroll advantage of nearly $50 million over the rest of the AL Central the last four years.

But that division reign is about to end, courtesy of the Royals, who went to the World Series as a wild card last October and now lead the Tigers by 111/2 games. The Royals also added an elite starting pitcher last weekend, trading for Reds ace Johnny Cueto, and reportedly are looking to add more help before the deadline.

The Tigers, meanwhile, are looking like they’re beyond help, no matter what the standings say. More than two months ago, manager Brad Ausmus acknowledged his team had “underachieved” as it reached the 40-game mark with a 23-17 record. But since then, the Tigers are 25-33 (.431), putting Ausmus on the hot seat and the team four games behind the Twins for the final wild-card spot entering Monday’s games.

And though they’re talking confidently now about Miguel Cabrera returning to the lineup in mid-August, the offense really isn’t the problem. It’s the pitching. The Tigers starting rotation owns the second-worst ERA (4.51) in the AL, while the bullpen (4.10) is third-worst. The team ERA in July was 5.58 before Monday night’s game.

Time will tell

All of which leaves them at a crossroads, one that has the rest of the league watching and waiting, even as the manager tries to talk fans — and maybe some of his bosses — in off the ledge.

“I mean, let’s not jump off the cliff here,” Ausmus said hours before his team got crushed 11-1 by the Red Sox in the weekend finale.

The Tigers could plow ahead, banking on the stars aligning — Justin Verlander among them — and the opposition coming unraveled. They could try to pick up a starter to replace a shell-shocked Shane Greene — now Buck Farmer — in the rotation and another reliever to help the tattered bullpen.

Or they could do the responsible thing and start retooling for next season, selling off some pieces to replenish a mostly barren farm system and help reshape next year’s roster.

Dombrowski seemed to indicate Monday the Tigers are leaning toward the former, and given their track record, that wouldn’t be a surprise. (“The Tigers are never sellers,” Price said Monday.”) Nor would it be a shock if that’s simply a stalling tactic, buying time for the team on his way to market with Anibal Sanchez, Price and Verlander starting the next three games.

“If I was in his shoes, that’s what I would do,” Price’s agent, Bo McKinnis, said on MLB Network Radio on Sunday. “Because this team was set up to win, and it’s just kind of hard to throw in the towel.”

Harder still, though, to figure out where this is all headed if they don’t.

The half-dozen pending free agents — Price, Cespedes, Joakim Soria, Alex Avila, Alfredo Simon and Rajai Davis — account for more than $53 million in salary this season. Include Joe Nathan’s $10 million team option and that’s a lot of money scheduled to come off the books in 2016.

Yet, the Tigers already are committed to spending $102 million for five players next season: Cabrera, Verlander, Martinez, Sanchez and Ian Kinsler. So finding inexpensive, major league talent — pitching, mostly — is imperative if they’re going to control costs while remaining competitive.

And the easiest way to do that, well, it’s also the hardest to swallow. But the time to do it is almost here.