Wojo: Tigers too close to not go after some pitching

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Tigers starter David Price, a pending free agent, was solid again in Thursday’s win as he didn’t give up an earned run in eight innings.

It's about to get real hot, real quickly. And in case anyone doubted it, fate just twisted again.

The Royals lost star outfielder Alex Gordon for eight weeks with a groin strain, countering the loss of Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera for six weeks with a calf strain. The truth is, the straining has just begun.

Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski is about to face the most important stretch of his 13-year tenure, and Brad Ausmus is about to get his managerial chops severely tested. The news from Kansas City is another reason Detroit can't give in to frustration and bail at the trade deadline, and I highly doubt it will. Barring a sudden collapse, the Tigers should be determined buyers before July 31. They need at least one starting pitcher and one reliever, and it won't be easy to land them with a depleted farm system.

Dombrowski has put Ausmus in a tough position, saddling an inexperienced manager with a dreadful bullpen. What's the biggest complaint about Ausmus? That he leaves starters in too long, which may have led to that breakdown last week when David Price thought he was out after six innings, and Ausmus thought he was still in.

When trying to coax innings out of struggling starters to avoid a fateful bullpen call, a manager can appear indecisive and inconsistent. And it's true, Ausmus has not ruled with a firm enough hand. The Tigers play too casually at times, evidenced by an unacceptable spate of missed signs and pickoffs.

Yet they're still in contention, 2½ games out of a wild card as they began a crucial four-game road series against the Twins on Thursday night, and 7½ games behind the Royals. They're treading slightly above water primarily because two key pieces are proving to be much more than flashes in the pan. (By the way, why can't Dombrowski ever find flashes in the 'pen?)

J.D. Martinez and Jose Iglesias are All-Stars, rescuing a lineup that has missed Cabrera and Victor Martinez. The offense has heated up, which brings us back to where all the troubles began, on the mound.

Buying only viable option

The Tigers won't win anything the way they're pitching, with Price the only reliable starter. If Dombrowski doesn't acquire help, he's effectively pulling the plug without actually dealing anyone away. But Dombrowski's overriding strength is his boldness in times of need. He almost always hunts down pitching, and there are a lot of names available, big and small, from Cole Hamels to Johnny Cueto to Scott Kazmir to Jonathan Papelbon to Jeff Samardzija.

The problem is, Dombrowski doesn't have a lot of trade chips after liberally (and rightly) dealing prospects. And because so many teams are bunched close to the wild-card spots, few may be willing to surrender. It should be mentioned, for the 579th time, the World Series participants last year, the Giants and Royals, were wild cards.

The fanciful hope is that Justin Verlander finds his command and Shane Greene returns from the minors with confidence intact and Anibal Sanchez and Alfredo Simon smooth out their rough patches. But adding someone is really the only viable option, because selling off pieces makes little sense.

Price is a pending free agent, and the return on half-season rentals is lower. Same with Yoenis Cespedes, Simon or Joakim Soria. With Price, the compensatory draft pick if he leaves in free agency might be as valuable as a prospect or two.

The notion the Tigers can restock and contend quickly again is a bit far-fetched. In many ways, they've become like Mike Ilitch's other team, the Red Wings, who have reached the playoffs 24 straight years. The Tigers are trying to do it a fifth straight year, still seeking a World Series championship to validate the expense.

It's getting harder to sustain, as their pitching riches dwindle. In past seasons, the Tigers bolstered their roster not merely to make the playoffs, but to improve their chances of winning it all. That was the idea behind acquiring Doug Fister, Sanchez, Price and Soria. They were worthy additions, much better than when Dombrowski tries to subtract.

Tigers prospects still bright

You really want to retool and collect prospects? You mean like the time Dombrowski traded Fister for Robbie Ray, Ian Krol and Steve Lombardozzi? Ray has contributed in Arizona — and Detroit got Greene for him, but ultimately, surrendered a major asset for little. That's the unpredictable nature of prospects.

And that's why the next three weeks could define Dombrowski's tenure, and could determine Ausmus' future. Ausmus hasn't proved to be some strategic whiz, and his players have too many mental lapses. But to be fair, it's hard to fully judge a manager when his bullpen is so flawed.

Dombrowski has crafted a highly successful run, with five playoff appearances and two AL pennants. But with all the resources at his disposal, he'll be measured by championship or no championship.

Fans might wail and rail about the inconsistencies, but emotion can't drive the next moves. Some of the numbers are ugly but high-end talent remains. The national perspective always seems to be brighter for the Tigers, and Bovada in Las Vegas gives them the fourth-best odds to win the AL, behind the Royals, Astros and Yankees.

There's nothing overly formidable about that group, especially with Gordon out. Of course, some figured the Tigers would be doomed without Cabrera, and they've played better the past week.

More than halfway through the season, there's still no clarity on what the Tigers are. That should be unsettling for Dombrowski and Ausmus, but it shouldn't be unsolvable. This is a sport where contenders get reshuffled every week, and as long as you're in it, you're obligated to stay in it.