Henning: Wild card within grasp for Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
The return of Victor Martinez at DH protects Miguel Cabrera, which makes the Tigers' middle order a serious threat.

Step away for a couple of weeks and it's always a kick to see what has changed — and what hasn't — with a certain baseball team from Detroit.

A few discoveries before, and after, the plane landed Monday.

Playoffs within reach for a Tigers club that's now intact

A team familiar with winning the American League Central could make it five in a row. But percentages probably favor a wild card for the Tigers, which would be no putdown, especially when Victor Martinez and Justin Verlander pretty much will have been absent from the first half.

The healthier left knee of Martinez and Verlander's return to the rotation are two huge reasons why the Tigers still look like a playoff team. Martinez guards Miguel Cabrera and makes the lineup's mid-order lethal as it pushes deeper into the batting order a game-breaker on the level of J.D. Martinez.

Lots of folks wonder about Verlander, but the view there has not changed: Verlander should be good for 15-18 starts and 100 innings or more of generally sturdy work as he re-adjusts to life following his right triceps strain.

Dave Dombrowski will need to pull his customary July deal for a starting pitcher

This isn't news. The Tigers' front-office swami generally treats baseball's July 31 (non-waiver) trade cutoff the way parents view a Kroger store at 11:55 p.m. when they need a gallon of milk for the kids' morning cereal.

It's a deadline necessity.

Even more than in some past years when he dealt for Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez or David Price, Dombrowski absolutely requires a starter, and not only for this season.

It looks as if Price is all but sure to welcome free agency in November, which likely is how Alfredo Simon is viewing autumn. Two potential starters leaving Detroit's rotation means Dombrowski, who already is down a starter due to Shane Greene's retooling at Triple A Toledo, will be chasing help not only for a playoff push but also, ideally, for help next season, if not beyond.

The Tigers have been studying the Reds (Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, presumably) and have had their bird dogs planted elsewhere as Dombrowski, with as much certainty as can be expressed June 24, prepares for another adventure in summer swaps designed to push Detroit's baseball season deep into October.

Trade chips the Tigers might offer are mounting

Dixon Machado is an imminent everyday big-league shortstop enjoying his apprenticeship at Toledo. The Tigers could move him to second base, or even third for those who don't believe in Nick Castellanos. But the premium on shortstops means top value is at his primary position, which, as the Tigers happily assess today, is in the long-term hands of Jose Iglesias.

Machado is their No. 1 trade prize heading into July. It is possible another club, enamored of Steven Moya's left-handed bat, immense size (6-foot-6, 235 pounds), and ability to knock a baseball into Canada, will decide a 23-year-old outfielder has so much potential demolition in his swing that Moya could become part of a package.

More likely, it would seem, the Tigers would include some combination of young pitching in their probable bid for a starter: Buck Farmer, Angel Nesbitt, Joe Jimenez, Confesor Lara, Paul Voelker, etc.

They could toss in a catching prospect (Grayson Greiner, perhaps, or even current big-leaguer Bryan Holaday), also, if an inquiring club insists on warehousing some potential help there.

What matters is that, once again, Dombrowski has enough prospects to swing a deal. And when you're Dombrowski, it generally means getting something meaningful done in July.

Not easy, handling a tough sophomore season for Castellanos

The Tigers could send him to Toledo for rest and rehabilitation. Chances are it would be a short stint that might be tonic for a 23-year-old who really has been laboring.

The counter-argument is this: Castellanos probably will begin to hit, and soon. His track record and skill set suggest it's inevitable. He simply is enduring a brutal first half that wasn't in the picture when his rookie year, by and large, was quite good.

But this isn't an indefinite audition. He has to show life ahead of the All-Star break, at the latest, or the Tigers will decide Toledo could be the sound option for a third baseman whose funk is likely to be short-term.

Castellanos today is very much on the line. He could be in Toledo by next week if he doesn't show signs of a turnaround in this weekend's home series against the White Sox.

His replacements: Andrew Romine, and very likely, Machado, who can play three infield positions, as if opposing teams pondering trading for him next month see him as anything other than a shortstop.

The bullpen needs Bruce Rondon — and not only for a playoff push

In studying those Tigers starting pitchers eligible for free agency, Price and Simon, it's easy to forget another pitcher is in line for autumn freedom: Joakim Soria.

The Tigers will need a closer ahead of next season. That pitcher, based on today's projections, would be Rondon, who has the power pitching package teams most often seek in blasting ninth-inning batters.

Rondon, of course, was set during spring camp to become part of the Tigers late-inning mix. But a year after he had Tommy John surgery, here came biceps tendinitis. That led to extended work in Florida and then to a rehab session at Toledo.

Rondon has been fairly ugly at Toledo, if you go by his ERA (7.11), which in this case is a number that should be trashed. In his last five games, he has allowed no runs and two hits, while striking out five and walking one, and on Wednesday he was recalled from his Mud Hens tune-up and today will report to Detroit.

Even if imperfect, Rondon, who struck out the side in his last shift at Toledo, should be of immediate, if bumpy, back-end help. And as much as he'll work to build a better bullpen in what still looms as a playoff race, he will be understudying for next season in his nominal status as the next closer.