Mensching: Tigers might be good but not good enough
The bill for all those division titles the Tigers won is coming due, and the price is high.
Detroit has a good enough baseball team to compete — for now — but not good enough to make you believe they’re a true contender, and it’s only going to get worse.
Years of drafting and developing poorly, all but whiffing on the international free-agent market, trading away the young talent that does turn out, and handing out ill-advised extensions have been put on the club’s credit card.
For a while, it worked, giving Detroit baseball fans some of the best memories in the franchise’s century-plus history with a first-ballot Hall of Fame batter, an MVP pitcher, and multiple playoff appearances at Comerica Park.
But there’s no iconic World Series winning year to encapsulate it, and now the path to anything but an unfulfilling, frustrating future isn’t an easy one.
All that, and attendance is still down by nearly 2,500 per game from 2015 and is on pace to be nearly 8,000 per game fewer than in 2013. It should only get worse.
Good, but not good enough will go on the Tigers’ epithet for this decade — and that might be the best-case scenario.
The Tigers sit 6.5 games behind the division-leading Indians at the All-Star break, not an insurmountable distance if you believe the home team can play better than it has — and the advanced stats agree that this is a .500 club playing just above .500 ball.
Fangraphs gave them about a 1-in-4 chance of making the playoffs and a 1-in-6 chance of earning the wild card.
With a decimated rotation, repeated mistakes on the basepaths, a defense that ranks in the bottom half of the league, and an inconsistent offense that disappears at the worst times, it can be pretty hard to reach the conclusion the Tigers are better than their record says.
There’s always the wild-card discussion to be had, but Detroit’s four games back of the second spot there. And unlike Detroit, all three teams above them in the standings have a positive run differential.
So if the Tigers are going to make a real playoff run, they need to get better.
Except that’s not easy.
They have an aging core, expensive contracts that run for years, and problems with fundamentals that aren’t going to fix themselves.
When you watch the Indians and Tigers on the same field, you see the future and past, and it doesn’t take a trained eye to see why Cleveland has dominated Detroit this year.
Not much can be done about it, neither.
Unless something changes, more teams than not will feel like they’re in the running to make the playoffs, if they can just get that one needed piece of the puzzle. So they’re probably not going to sell.
That’s the position the Tigers are in, too.
As has been often noted, the trade market is not made for the buyers. You’re going to give up a lot to get a little. Detroit couldn’t have picked a worse year to have issues with starting pitching and no depth to solve any issues that arise.
They’re just going to have to score more, if they can find a position to upgrade. The outfield is an issue, but it’s hard to bench Justin Upton, Cameron Maybin or, when he’s back, J.D. Martinez. The infield is pretty set, as well. A catcher who calls a better game, and ideally hits, may be the best bet.
Life’s not easy when you have a payroll at its max and and a farm system ranked near the bottom of the league.
Given everything, selling again may be the best bet. That’s not an easy thing to sell to fans or ownership paying $200 million for the roster.
Except unlike last year, it’s hard to come up with the names of players Detroit can move. Utility player Mike Aviles and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia are the only free agents after this year. It’s still unclear what Aviles even brings to the team or why he was signed in the first place.
Ian Kinsler and Francisco Rodriguez would likely garner interest, but if the front office believes it can reload and compete next year those are not players you trade.
The best-case scenario is the Tigers find a way to spend themselves out of their issues this year, and it will still lead to an unfulfilling October, at the cost of mortgaging the future even more than it is.
Avila suggested earlier this season he won’t make any moves at the trade deadline. It’s easy to see why he might think that when both decisions look bad. But indecision is a decision itself.
Good, but not good enough. That’s the one spot you don’t want to be, but that’s where the Tigers find themselves yet again.
Get used to it. It’s going to be like this for a while.
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.