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McCosky: Can Tigers squeeze one more run out of aging core?

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Miguel Cabrera

Detroit – Something Brad Ausmus said before the game Sunday.

It was a question about the Indians’ recent dominance over his club. Someone asked if it was simply a matchup issue?

“I don’t know if it’s a matchup thing or a maturation thing,” he said.

He was referring to the Indians’ pitching staff coming of age, which is their clear edge at this point. But it resonates perhaps more deeply in reference to the Tigers.

Maturation. The Indians in 2016 appear to be hitting their peak. They are like that ready-to-pick grape, not unlike the Royals of 2014. That’s where the Tigers were in 2012 and 2013.

Now? Perhaps they’ve been on the vine a little too long. They’re overripe. Not quite raisins, but closer to that than wine.

Miguel Cabrera (33), Victor Martinez (37), Justin Verlander (33), Anibal Sanchez (32) -- even Francisco Rodriguez (34) and Ian Kinsler (34), who clearly have plenty of juice left – are past their peak maturation point.

Cabrera won a batting title last season and he’s still capable of carrying the offense, but only for stretches, and those stretches aren’t lasting as long as they used to. He’s no longer the Triple-Crown threat he was just a couple of years ago.

There will be times when he looks like his old self, driving balls into gaps and clearing fences. And there will be times like this weekend when he’s rolling over every pitch and grounding out meekly to the left side of the infield.

Martinez is still capable of hitting .300 from both sides of the plate. He’s still a power threat, as he showed Sunday with his two home runs. But his knees are shot. He can no longer run and he can no longer play every day. His playing time has to be smartly managed in order for him to maintain his production.

Verlander is still a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, but he’s not an ace in the way Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner or Jake Arrieta are now. He’s not in that Cy Young conversation any more.

As for Sanchez, you can see now why all those articles were written in spring training about him being the key to the rotation. Had he been able to get back even close to form, had he been able to be a dependable No. 3 starter, the whole landscape of this team might look different right now.

Building a sturdy bridge

We’ve talked for two years now about the window closing on this team, but that brushstroke is too wide. Obviously, the high-priced nucleus of this team is past its prime. General manager Al Avila and his staff were well aware of that entering last season.

That’s why the deals were made last July to acquire Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, Michael Fulmer and JaCoby Jones. That’s why Avila held steadfast against trading those players or any of the top prospects last winter, and why, if it’s up to him, he won’t deal them at the deadline this year.

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To think of it in terms of windows closing is short-sighted. To do so is to overlook the broader scope of what Avila’s been trying to do.

Goal one, as always, is to win the division and get to the postseason. That’s why they acquired Justin Upton, Jordan Zimmermann, Rodriguez, Cameron Maybin, Justin Wilson and Mark Lowe – all without losing players they considered top prospects.

That’s the short-term mission. Make another run with this core group, which is obviously nearing the end of its 10-year reign.

The long-term mission, operating simultaneously, is to lay the groundwork for the next 10-year reign.

The core pieces of that team are expected to include Fulmer, Boyd, Norris, Jones, Joe Jimenez, Dixon Machado, maybe Christin Stewart, Mike Gerber and Dominic Ficociello, and certainly Zimmermann, J.D. Martinez, Shane Greene, James McCann, Nick Castellanos, Jose Iglesias, Steven Moya and Upton, though he can opt-out after next season.

Michael Fulmer

And to keep the window from slamming shut and to avoid the painful process of enduring 100-loss seasons in order to rebuild, Avila hopes the likes of Cabrera, Martinez and Verlander have enough left to build a sturdy bridge between the two.

The point is, Avila isn’t throwing away the season, nor he is mortgaging the future. Can you do both successfully? Can they squeeze one more run, one more glass of wine out of this aging vine?

It doesn’t look very promising right now, certainly not in the wake of last weekend.

Looking up at the top of the division is daunting. They are a .500 team, seven games behind the Indians, against whom they are 0-9. But they are only 2.5 games out of the wild-card spot. The truth is, it may not take much more than a few games on the good side of .500 to steal a wild-card spot in the bunched-up American League.

Ausmus understands this. The team’s inconsistency, its two steps up-three steps back dance has been frustrating and tiresome, for sure. But the reality is, if the Tigers can continue to tread water, continue to hover above the .500 mark, and manage to stay healthy, they can be in a position to make a serious run in August and September.

But does this core group have it in them? Ausmus has been proactive about resting players, especially Martinez, and trying to keep them fresh and productive. It’s not easy to do with the limited resources he has on the bench.

Still fight in the dog

Nothing is lost right now. The players understand that. I don’t question the overall battle level of this team. Kinsler, Cabrera, Martinez, Verlander – these are proud men who have produced at an elite level for a long time. There’s no rollover in them.

I do, though, wish there was less acceptance of failure. Less, “It’s baseball.” Less, “It is what it is.” More, “This is on us. We’ve got to do something to change this.”

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Certainly you cannot dwell in the past when the season is 162 games long. I get the “turn-the-page” mentality. But all the pages are starting to look the same. I would like to hear somebody acknowledge that they have it in them to be active participants in rewriting the script.

We are witnessing the early stages of a team in transition. But this engine is still powered by the expensive and aging, and still capable, core group. If the Tigers can keep their head above water come August, and Cabrera, Martinez, Kinsler, Verlander and company are relatively healthy and fresh, I believe there’s another run in this group.

Maybe they can get another starting pitcher at the deadline. J.D. Martinez will be back and healthy by then. Hopefully Fulmer’s innings will be properly rationed and he will be pitching every five days. It’s in them.

Remember this. They will play 35 games against Central Division opponents from Aug. 1 through Sept. 29. They play 33 of their final 57 games are at home.

You can quit on this baseball team now and no jury would convict. It’s been tough to watch. But it’s not dead yet.

Twitter @cmccosky