Even during those early spring camp days last March, when Marchant Stadium’s grass was lush, the sun was bright, and a team’s plans for 2017 were idyllic, there was a deep, unswerving belief that the Tigers’ most important month would not be April, or October.
It would be July.
The Tigers were destined for a bruising year. You could feel it coming on just as you know when a cold is about to slam home. The team had talent. But it wasn’t deep enough, young enough, fast enough, or blessed with sufficient arms to make it an industrial-strength contender.
And so, here the Tigers are. At the trading post. Two weeks from the July 31 deadline.
Al Avila for weeks has acknowledged as much. And just so there would be no misunderstanding in Baseball Land, the Tigers general manager said it again Monday when he was interrogated on MLB Network’s “High Heat” program.
“We have been receiving calls from clubs that are interested,” Avila said, “and I have made some calls also. Our players are aware of this. If the right deal is there, we will move forward and make a trade.”
Business is picking up. The Cubs called last week to inquire about Verlander, all before deciding White Sox starter Jose Quintana and his lengthy, affordable contract beat the pulp out of Verlander and the $56 million he is owed through the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
The Cubs sent a passel of trophy prospects to the White Sox and Quintana was headed across town.
Monday confirmed just how hot trade fires were burning four days after the Quintana deal. Various national pundits — Buster Olney, Jon Heyman, Jon Paul Morosi, Bob Nightengale, Ken Rosenthal, Marc Topkin, etc. — spent portions of their day writing about clubs and crushes they have on specific Tigers talent.
The list begins with closer Justin Wilson, and extends through J.D. Martinez, Alex Avila, Verlander, and even the supposed Anointed One, Michael Fulmer, who Al Avila has made clear is going nowhere unless it’s in exchange for the baseball prospects equivalent of Fort Knox’s vaults.
What we know 14 days from the July 31 deadline (waiver deals can be arranged later, but never mind — they’re complicated):
■ Justin Wilson: The Nationals, who don’t want to become the 2013 Tigers, are still looking for bullpen fortification after raiding July’s traditional warehouse, the Oakland A’s, Sunday for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson.
Another team Topkin and others are reporting as being fixated on Wilson is the East’s sudden contenders, the Rays. It is assumed the Astros and others could also get involved.
As ESPN's Olney wrote Monday about Wilson: “His value is so high right now, that officials think Detroit will capitalize on his standing in the market and move him. Just about every contender could use him in one form or another.”
Avila is sitting stone-faced at the poker table as Wilson’s cachet climbs. And while the Tigers aren’t keen on spinning off their first, no-sweat closer since, it seems, Guillermo Hernandez won a Cy Young Award, the Tigers have bullpen arms on the threshold (Joe Jimenez, Jairo Labourt, Bryan Garcia, and others) and would be nuts to turn down the kind of gold-plated position prospect they stand as one example to get for Wilson.
■ J.D. Martinez: Notice that Martinez Monday was voted American League Player of the Week following a typical string of games in which he billy clubbed baseballs against and over fences. He not only is a power hitter (16 homers since returning from injury in May), he is a good hitter. And those kinds of players tend to make front offices dream of what a person with that kind of dynamite in his swing might do in an October playoff game.
The Tigers cannot sign Martinez to a long, expensive extension. Not in their current situation. Not when a luxury tax is pounding them and when young prospects are desperately required. They’ll spin off Martinez, almost certainly, in the next days or hours for a stash that beats any draft-day compensation they’d get next June after Martinez signs a free-agent deal this autumn.
Olney’s Monday take on Martinez: “He would present an incredible weapon for the Dodgers, whose struggles against lefties last year are well-documented. Other teams that are possible: Cubs, Cardinals, Diamondbacks, and Rockies.”
■ Alex Avila: It is known multiple teams already have nibbled on Avila. No surprise there. Avila can catch, play first base, rip a ball into the seats, or, as that final, iconic Avila at-bat displayed during Sunday’s 11th-inning rally to beat the Jays, he can judge a pitch with accuracy a micrometer can’t match. He is a .352 career on-base man, with power, and when that same man can play two positions, one of which is as critical as catcher, you want Avila, probably at a premium.
Dad and son understand realities here. Avila is about to be dealt. His consolation: He might find himself in another World Series.
■ Justin Verlander: It was reported Monday by Morosi that the Tigers have eased trade demands on Verlander and would consider ingesting some of his remaining money for an appealing return.
This makes sense. The Tigers could easily view any such balance as a modest price for the kind of prospect they theoretically would land.
And while Verlander can veto any deal because of his 10-and-5 pedigree (10 years in the big leagues, five with the same club), it is known he absolutely wants to pitch in the postseason and that just about all of the postseason contenders are places he and fiancée Kate Upton would find agreeable.
Do not underestimate how ardor for particular players can climb as those deadline trade hours tick away and front offices get drunk with playoff potion. Do not sell short possibilities Verlander will be working elsewhere after a dozen years burnishing the Tigers brand.
■ Michael Fulmer: Of course he’s untouchable. And of course the Tigers would trade an untouchable for a trade package they’d find irresistible.
It’s within the cards. Fulmer is 24 years old and is 24-carat gold. Young, powerful, affordable. But Avila will listen, all because he must. It’s nice to have a stud pitcher to count on every five games. It’s nicer yet to have multiple players, some of who will perform every day, helping to form a team nucleus. Ask an ace pitcher to put a team on his shoulders and he’ll direct you to his agent and to a free-agent calendar.
It can also be assumed any platinum package offered the Tigers for Fulmer will include a prospect pitcher who, if not Fulmer’s match, might be quite the horse.
Thus, you listen. If you’re Avila, you know Fulmer’s stock has soared and split and that it very possibly can bring, right now, maximum value.
You think about this and all the other possibilities that suddenly are taking on substance during these waning trade days. You talk. You wait. You entertain any and all bidders late arriving at the table.
And then, if it all makes sense, you make trades that can help a team in transition. You make those deals hoping to return all the faster to better days only young talent, in quantity, can deliver.