Wojo: Trades provide Tigers much-needed hope, time

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Dave Dombrowski

Detroit — In the old sell-buy equation, it’s now official — the Tigers are selling hope and buying time. And although they haven’t headed down the prospecting path in a while, it appears Dave Dombrowski knows his way.

The Tigers did what they had to do Thursday and got pieces they needed by trading ace David Price, rebooting and restocking at the same time. The Blue Jays sent three promising lefties to the Tigers, including top prospect Daniel Norris, in a deal that fit each team’s needs.

Considering Price is a pending free agent, Dombrowski did well, by most accounts, selling as aggressively as he usually buys. Based on established parameters around the league, I like the haul. It’s similar to what the Reds landed for rental ace Johnny Cueto, and Dombrowski still has another big chip — Yoenis Cespedes — he can peddle.

Closer Joakim Soria also was dealt, sent to the Pirates for minor league shortstop JaCoby Jones. That doesn’t remotely qualify as a haul, which is the hazard when shopping players who might be gone after two months.

The fruitfulness of Dombrowski’s efforts can’t be fully measured until we see what he gets for Cespedes, who reportedly is being pursued by several teams as Friday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline approaches. He was in the lineup Thursday night in Baltimore, but things change quickly this time of year.

A week ago, the Tigers were steadfast in their intent to push for the playoffs. Today, despite being 3 1/2 games out of a wild-card spot, they’re playing it out. That might anger some fans, but the reality is, the Tigers have gasped much of the season and a decision had to be made regarding their pending free agents. The direction — chosen by Dombrowski and owner Mike Ilitch — was prudent, to restock by unloading short-term talent, even if it’s star talent.

The main debate no longer is whether the Tigers chose the right path. It’s whether Dombrowski chose the right players to acquire. The stakes are immense, because this isn’t a direction Ilitch will want to take again, not with a solid core of young and experienced players.

Up and down sides

The encouraging news is, the return on Price appears substantial, a deal consummated at about 3 a.m. Thursday, according to Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos. Dombrowski was pleased with the result, naturally, and Norris will take Price’s spot in the rotation Sunday against the Orioles.

“We regard him as a premium guy and close to pitching in the big leagues,” Dombrowski said. “He’s going to pitch for us now, but I can’t tell you he’s 100 percent developed at this point.”

Dombrowski knows the risk in swapping knowns for unknowns, so all hyperbole should be tempered. In a wild trade-deadline week, conflicting motivations collided, as they always do, and premature winners and losers were declared. This time, the Tigers got to see how the other half lives, when you’re forced to justify the loss of an established star for the hope of youth. Frankly, Dombrowski had little choice, and it helps when you acquire multiple hopes that throw hard with their left arms.

Norris, 22, is the key, a fascinating figure known to throw a mid-90-mph fastball, and perhaps better known for living in a 1978 VW camper during the offseason in Florida, where he surfs and shaves in the woods with an ax. If he needs to bring the VW here, of course he can live in his van down by the (Detroit) river. He was Toronto’s No. 1 prospect, top 20 in all of baseball, and for Dombrowski, he was the deal-sealer.

The other two lefty starters — Matt Boyd, 24, and Jairo Labourt, 21 — are promising, too, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to see Norris and Boyd in the Tigers rotation next season. It also wouldn’t be a stretch to see any or all three struggle, as Norris and Boyd have in brief stints with the Blue Jays.

An intriguing start

This is how it works, and it’s why the Tigers generally have disdained the prospect-collecting approach. Teams never are ecstatic surrendering their best pitcher, but the Tigers were facing the near-certainty Price would be gone for nothing more than a compensatory draft pick. Dombrowski said contract talks with Price’s agent never got far, with the gap too big, so Price departs precisely a year after arriving.

Speaking of gaps, the Blue Jays and Tigers were separated by a mere game-and-a-half in the wild-card standings, but the Jays had to go for it. They haven’t made the playoffs in 22 years and have the best offense in baseball, but were dogged by poor pitching.

The Tigers have spent nearly a decade going for it, and their pitching was simply too weak to justify it again. I generally hate the strategy of selling off stars and rebuilding (oops, rebooting), but the Tigers could regroup fairly quickly, and their farm system was the most-depleted in baseball.

The hope is, they dealt a 29-year-old lefty star for a potential 22-year-old lefty star. The problem is, that’s far, far from a guarantee. Norris had 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings last season, the best ratio in the minors. We know how Dombrowski and the Tigers love live arms, and now they have some young live ones with sizzle.

It’s an intriguing start down an uncharted path for the Tigers, with more moves likely ahead. It’ll take some time to gauge the benefits, but time is one of the commodities the Tigers are purchasing these days.