Paul: Tigers will struggle to find starters at trade deadline

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Chris Archer

Will the Tigers be buyers or sellers?

That's not the question. They're much more equipped to be in the hunt, at least for a wild-card berth, than they were a season ago.

The question -- er, problem -- is, what's to buy?

The Tigers, for once, don't need much help in the bullpen, especially with Double-A phenom Joe Jimenez getting close to joining the big club and, for my money, making an immediate impact.

And the offense, it's just fine, especially considering J.D. Martinez should be back not too long after next week's All-Star break.

The issue, clearly, is starting pitching.

The Tigers have two really good starting pitchers right now, rookie Michael Fulmer and Justin Verlander, and another pretty good one, Jordan Zimmermann, whose neck injury isn't that severe, and should be on track to return the fifth day after the All-Star break.

Fulmer's been great all year, and is on a historic run of nine consecutive starts of allowing zero or one earned run. He's also at 92 innings for the season, when counting his time at Triple A, and the Tigers desperately want to keep him under 160 for the season. That means they'll look for every opportunity they can find to skip his turn during the second half.

Verlander's also been really good most of the season, is healthy, and appears to be his vintage self. That's really good news for the Tigers.

Far more concerning is Zimmermann, who started off his five-year, $110-million contract like a true ace, but hasn't been nearly as good since coming back from a groin injury.

But let's assume those three will be just fine into September and October.

Then what? It's not pretty, and making it prettier is a daunting task.

Weak class

In past years, when the Tigers wanted a stud pitcher for the playoff push, Dave Dombrowski usually went and reeled one in via a blockbuster, whether it was Doug Fister (great!), Anibal Sanchez (great!), David Price (great!) or Jarrod Washburn (uhhh ...).

New general manager Al Avila will have his work cut out for him this summer, as will his peers across baseball.

Usually, impact players moved at the trade deadline -- Monday, Aug. 1, this year -- are free-agents-to-be. The problem there is that this winter's class of free-agent starting pitchers is an unbelievably weak group, especially now that Stephen Strasburg already re-upped with the Washington Nationals.

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Four pitchers got nine-figure contracts this past offseason, led by David Price, who signed for seven years and $217 million with Dombrowski and his new team, the Boston Red Sox.

Who's gonna get even a fourth of that this winter?

Seriously, the class might be led by Fister -- assuming he continues his nice bounceback with the Houston Astros -- Bartolo Colon, Rich Hill and Hisashi Iwakuma. Groan.

The only guy among those four that plays on a definite selling team is Hill, signed to a one-year, $6-million contract by the Oakland A's.

Given the dearth of options, there will be gobs of suitors for the former University of Michigan left-hander.

After that, all eyes will be on the Tampa Bay Rays, who lost their 50th game Wednesday night. They're in definite sell mode, and have the arms to move, including lefties Matt Moore and Drew Smyly, and right-handers Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi. None of them are having great years, but they all still have tremendous upside -- and very friendly contract situations, especially Archer, who's locked up for the next three years at about $20 million. The Rays would be hesitant to move him, but certainly will listen on Archer, while actively shopping the other three.

Most of the rest of teams out of contention don't have diddly to sell, unless the Atlanta Braves want to shop Julio Teheran, which they shouldn't.

There's another way buying teams can go, and given there figure to be way more teams shopping for selling pitching than selling starting pitching, a team like the Arizona Diamondbacks should definitely field offers for Zack Greinke. Yes, he just signed a six-year, $206.5-million contract, but Arizona is a mess, and just recently drew the smallest crowd ever at Chase Field. Greinke only has a limited no-trade clause -- and even then, he would be due a $2-million bonus if he is dealt.

The Red Sox, perhaps with bigger starting-pitching issues than the Tigers, would make more sense, fiscally, for Greinke than the Tigers, who already have a $200-million payroll that is way out of whack for this market size.

Trade bait

The Tigers also don't have the best of farm systems, at least compared to teams like the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Dodgers, among the contenders that also need starting pitching.

Sure, the Tigers could dangle Jimenez, though he's so important to the immediate future. Outfielder JaCoby Jones is so important to the not-so-distant future.

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You're pretty much down to Steven Moya, who is boosting his stock with every homer he hits, or every hit he gets off a left-handed pitcher, and will be expendable once Martinez returns.

That's pretty much it, unless the Tigers want to subtract from the major-league roster, and that probably would prove counterproductive.

The best-case scenario for Detroit, obviously, is for lefty Daniel Norris to come back from his oblique strain and pitch like he did last year for the Tigers after the trade from the Toronto Blue Jays.

That's far from a certainty, though, given this is now the third different injury -- not including cancer -- Norris has had since coming to Detroit.

Anibal Sanchez isn't a starting pitcher anymore, which is horrific news considering he's still got another year on his contract, for $17 million. His last spot start, against Cleveland this week, should be his last. His confidence is shot, and, likewise, is the front office's confidence in him.

Matt Boyd is the other option, and the Tigers have seen mixed results from the lefty this season. He should pitch again at some point soon for Detroit, so long as both Norris and Zimmermann are sidelined, and the Tigers can get by with him in the interim.

If Boyd learns not to overexpose his dandy change-up -- heck, let's face it, even if he doesn't -- he's still a far better stopgap than Sanchez.

But are Norris and Boyd enough to get the Tigers to the postseason for the fifth time in six seasons? Almost assuredly no, and definitely not if the Big Three suffers even one more DL-bound injury, no matter how minor.

The Tigers' deficit to the Cleveland Indians -- 6.5 games -- isn't impossible to erase. The Tigers once trailed the Chicago White Sox by 8.5 games in May, and that gap was gone in a flash. And I have some significant doubts whether the Indians' very talented but also very young rotation will hold up as the innings mount in the heat of August and September.

But the Tigers will need reinforcements.

And squint all you want, it's hard to see where they're going to come from.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter @tonypaul1984