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Niyo: Tigers sinking closer to point of no return

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Jordan Zimmermann walks off the mound after giving up a home run to Todd Frazier during the fifth inning of Detroit's defeat Sunday.

The longer they look like that, the less time they’ll have to look like this.

That’s the message the Tigers hear from the media, if not their manager. And if you were listening closely, that has been the message all along from the front office, going back to the end of last season.

But then came a new labor contract, which only made Al Avila’s tough job more difficult. And then came the passing of owner Mike Ilitch, which added even more uncertainty. And by the time spring training rolled around, with the trade market dormant, Avila, the Tigers’ GM, was busy trying to explain how he’d ended up in “a situation where we felt we should wait a little bit longer.”

How long?

That remains the $200 million question. But the way this season is going, with the Tigers scuffling again near the end of a brutal month of travel, the answer might not be far off.

The beginning of July? That’s what J.D. Martinez guessed when pressed recently, trying his best to explain the unspoken sense of urgency in the Tigers’ clubhouse.

“Because if not,” Martinez added, “there’s a good chance that a couple of us might not be here.”

That hunch is hardly a leap in logic, given what Avila was saying last fall, or even this winter. And it was confirmed once more by MLB Network’s Jon Morosi, who reported Friday that the Tigers would “revert” to last November’s stance that “all veterans will be available in trade.”

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Martinez, who’ll be a free agent after this season, and new closer Justin Wilson, who has just one more arbitration year before he’s a free agent, likely would be at the top of that list. So would second baseman Ian Kinsler, who has only a club option for 2018 remaining. But others could be shopped as well.

“None of us are blinded to that,” Martinez said. “We all know what’s gonna happen.”

If they let it, that is.

And that’s really the bottom line, as the Tigers arrive in Kansas City, fresh off an embarrassing showing in Chicago and trying desperately to salvage something from this 10-day, 11-game road trip. Or in other words, trying to give Avila and ownership a reason not to do what the organization knows it needs to do at some point, shedding salary – staying under the luxury tax is a “priority” from here on out, the GM insists – and “looking at ways to make the organization leaner and younger.”

Tough decisions await, but the team is in danger of making them much easier to justify to a fan base that’s losing interest in this current bunch. (Attendance has dropped for the fourth consecutive season at Comerica Park.)

The starting pitching has been sporadic, at best, the hitters aren’t producing as promised – the 49 strikeouts in Chicago were the most for the Tigers in a four-game series since 1913 – and there’s not much Brad Ausmus, a lame-duck manager, seems able to do about it.

Especially not if his high-priced stars continue to struggle. Justin Verlander insists he’s getting closer to finding his groove, but he’s sitting with a 4.87 ERA and 1.40 WHIP through 10 starts, the last one disintegrating thanks to a puzzling three-homer inning in Houston. Miguel Cabrera hasn’t been healthy all spring, and his numbers reflect it, with a .257 batting average and a .773 OPS. His WAR right now: 0.0.

Kinsler’s on the disabled list right now and J.D. Martinez, who was on a tear after coming off the DL three weeks ago, is bothered by that same sore foot again. Justin Upton was hot in April and has gone cold in May, while Victor Martinez has done the opposite.

Meanwhile, the Tigers’ pitching staff has allowed 70 home runs through 50 games, led by Jordan Zimmermann, who says his trusted slider has abandoned him, and Anibal Sanchez, who finally was exiled to Toledo.

Zimmermann, in the second year of a five-year, $110 million contract, owns the worst FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) numbers in the A.L. and the second-worst ERA. And after Sunday’s self-described “terrible” outing in Chicago, where he served up three more homers and seven runs in five innings, he, too, acknowledged the elephant in the room.

“They brought me over here to be a big-time pitcher,” he said, “and I’m not doing that right now.”

As for what the Tigers will do from here, it’s still anyone’s guess. They’re four games under .500 as they get ready to start a three-game series against the Royals, who own the A.L.’s worst record. And there’s time to get things going, certainly, with a friendlier schedule in June and the heavily-favored Indians still idling in second place behind the Twins in the A.L. Central.

But time is running out. And as Avila said in a recent interview with 97.1 The Ticket, to stick with what you’ve got, “you have to feel good about it going forward. And if that’s not the case, then you turn the corner.”

That intersection, it seems, is fast approaching.

John.Niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter @JohnNiyo