Tigers in position to put up a fight for postseason
Detroit — Wave the white flag?
Am I reading this right? The Tigers are 46-43 at the break, 6½ games behind the Indians in the American League Central Division, four games out of the second wild-card spot with 73 games left. And yet, it seems a loud majority of Tigers Nation wants to quit on the season, liquidate, sell off the expensive parts, and turn the last two and a half months into a development camp for younger players?
Is that what we do around here now? Surrender at the All-Star break? Who believes enduring two and a half miserable months of meaningless baseball is preferable to letting this team fight to the finish?
For those rooting for the Tigers to sell off their assets, I ask, to what end? Please understand they don’t have the same trade chips they had last year. There is no David Price or Yoenis Cespedes — star players in a free-agent season — to flip for top prospects like Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd.
Mike Aviles is the only true free agent-to-be on the roster. Cameron Maybin ($9 million) and Francisco Rodriguez ($6 million) have club options for 2017.
Players such as Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Justin Upton, Anibal Sanchez, Ian Kinsler and Jordan Zimmermann are tethered by their contracts and/or by their length of service, which gives them the right to veto a trade.
Those aren’t the types of players who generally get dealt for top prospects at the trade deadline. It’s hard to imagine a contending team willing to take on a contract like Verlander’s or Martinez’s and give up top prospects for the privilege.
The Tigers probably could get a fair return for J.D. Martinez, who will be a free agent in 2018, but why would they trade one of their young foundation pieces?
It was about a month ago, in the visitors’ dugout at U.S. Cellular Field, general manager Al Avila said he did not expect to be a major player at the trade deadline — as a buyer or seller.
“This is the team we are counting on to win,” he said. “If we have to make a minor move here or there, we will look into it at that point.”
Honestly, despite the continued ups and downs that came in the subsequent weeks leading to the break — losing five of six after winning six straight — I don’t believe his position has changed. If anything, the Tigers being over .500 and still in the hunt probably reinforces his inclination to stand mostly pat.
“First of all, we have a huge payroll, one of the biggest in baseball,” Avila said. “And we have a team that is set position by position. We aren’t going to replace any of those guys, position player-wise.”
Pitching still delivers optimism
The pitching, in particular the starting pitching, has been the biggest obstacle to the team’s success. With Sanchez faltering, with Norris and Zimmermann on the disabled list, and with the club carefully monitoring Fulmer’s workload, Avila will look to add another veteran starter.
But he’s made it clear he’s not moving any of his top prospects. There won’t be a John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander-type deal. But, Avila’s going to keep his eyes and ears open and cellphone charged. And he will deploy his army of scouts to beat the bushes and rustle the tall grass and see what, if anything, shakes out.
Quite possibly nothing will. What then?
The Tigers are optimistic Norris and Zimmermann could be ready soon after the break. In fact, barring an unforeseen setback, they may be ready to pitch the fourth and fifth games back. So the rotation will be Verlander, Mike Pelfrey, Fulmer, Norris and Zimmermann.
With the exception of Fulmer in place of Sanchez — which has proved a massive upgrade — it is the rotation the Tigers envisioned before spring training. And if Zimmermann returns to form, he, Verlander and Fulmer comprise a competent front end.
The bullpen, like the rest of the team, has been up and down. But since Shane Greene and Bruce Rondon have emerged as back-end options, the pieces finally seem to be in place. In fact, the bullpen has been very good late in games, evident by the Tigers record of 34-5 when leading after six innings and 42-1 when leading after eight.
Manager Brad Ausmus has done a masterful job distributing the workload and keeping arms fresh despite his starters rarely going beyond six innings. Alex Wilson, as usual, has logged the most innings — 372/3. But everybody else is in the low 30s or less. Rodriguez has pitched 30⅔ innings, Greene 31, and Justin Wilson 33⅓.
That aspect of it is in perfect shape.
The offense, already one of the most potent in the American League, is going to get a boost when J.D. Martinez gets off the disabled list, which could happen by the end of July.
Think about it, they are fourth in the American League in average, fifth in slugging percentage and OPS and seventh in runs scored, despite not having Maybin the first month, despite Upton’s funk, which he seems finally to be coming out of, and despite a subpar first half (by his standards) by Cabrera.
No gain selling now
Certainly there is nothing to suggest this team is primed to make a World Series run. Nor is there anything to warrant a midseason surrender. All you want is a chance to compete in October and all you need to do is get into the dance.
If they don’t make, so be it. But commit to the fight. There’s nothing to be gained by selling off assets now. Teams are built for a 162-game war. This team, especially, with its veteran core, is conditioned for it. There are 73 games left. Of those, 32 are against Cleveland, Kansas City and Chicago.
This race is still wide open.
To give up and condemn this team to failure at the All-Star break — what is that? Where’s that Detroit vs. Everybody spirit? Seems like it’s lost some gravitas. Detroit’s worst enemy these days may be its own defeatism.
Commit to the fight. It would be far nobler to go down swinging, nobler to let these old dogs chase one more bone, than to turn tail and run. And it would make for far better theater.
If there is a mandate to trim payroll and get younger, do it in the offseason.
The commitment to this team and this season, in terms of payroll and everything else, already has been made. See it through. I promise you, the Ilitch family did not shell out $200 million to run a development camp at the end of the season.