Seattle – My name is Chris McCosky. I am a sports reporter and have been covering the Tigers since the second half of the 2014 season – full-time on the beat since the winter of 2015. Other than the usual sleep-depravation and irritability, I am of sound mind and aging body.
What follows is a list of things I believe to be true about the current state of the Detroit Tigers.
1. The organization isn’t presently deliberating whether to be sellers at the trade deadline. That decision has long been made. If a team came to them today with a suitable offer for J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Justin Wilson or just about anybody else, they would certainly make the trade.
Going back to the end of the 2016 season, general manager Al Avila announced that the club’s business model was changing, that the days of big spending and exceeding the luxury tax are ending. It is imperative, to ownership, they get their payroll back in line with their market size.
That process, however gradual, however glacial in pace, is underway.
It has been known across the league for nearly a year that some of the more expensive Tigers players were available, even a couple of the iconic ones. It was also known they aren’t giving them away. It’s not a fire sale. The Tigers want fair market value in return.
And surprise, surprise, teams haven’t been willing to lose two or three of their top prospects for aging and expensive players.
Thus far, there have been no deals to be made.
That the Tigers have fallen into a deep funk here in June doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t hasten their urgency to make a deal. It hasn’t, at least not to this point, altered their asking price.
2. So why hasn’t Avila announced this? Why hasn’t he publicly declared the Tigers will be sellers? He doesn’t have to, for one. And for another, what would be the point of it? Not that he is working with a lot of leverage to start with on some of these players, but there’s no sense in putting the club in a position of dealing from a point of desperation and weakness.
Also, by not making a public declaration, it keeps the situation fluid. If the Tigers somehow manage a reversal of fortunes here in the next two weeks, if they can somehow run off a string of wins, with the way the wild card race is bunched up, it lessens the pressure to sell cheap.
The Tigers have 91 games left entering play Thursday. They are one of 11 teams in the American League within 5.5 games of a wild card spot. This impacts the situation two ways:
One, as Jordan Zimmermann pointed out the other day, they are still technically in striking distance. Understanding, though, how hollow that sounds in the midst of a season-high five-game losing streak and being seven under .500 for the first time since the end of 2015.
Two, if this many teams stay in contention for another couple of weeks, there may not be too many sellers on the market.
Prudent to let it play out and see how things look in the middle of next month.
3. The Tigers’ front office isn’t delusional. They believe the club can get hot and play its way back into contention for a playoff spot, just as it did a year ago. They can make things fun and interesting come September.
But I don’t believe they have any grand illusions about this team’s capability of making a long playoff run or sustaining playoff viability going forward.
So, as was stated at the start, they are listening. If there are trades to be made, trades that will help replenish their prospects pool, trades that will lessen the burden of their future payroll, they will pull the trigger.
I suspect J.D. Martinez will be dealt, though I have already tried to state my case for keeping him as a building block going forward. I suspect Justin Wilson will have as much value to a contending team as Martinez, if not more.
Teams will kick the tires on Kinsler and perhaps shortstop Jose Iglesias.
There will be intrigue over Justin Verlander. He has veto power over a trade, but he has made it clear he wants no part of a rebuilding process. The remaining years and money on his contract ($78 million, three years) won’t be a deterrent to a team like the Cubs or Dodgers or even the Red Sox or Yankees – if they think that’s the one missing piece to a championship run.
I can’t see the Tigers trading Miguel Cabrera. He’s 34. He’s been laboring through back and hip flexor pain. And he’s owed $184 million over the next six years, not counting two $30 million mutual option years on the back of that.
4. Manager Brad Ausmus, though he is not culpable for this mess, may end up taking the fall if things don’t turn quickly. He has in fact done impressive work the last couple of years plugging holes, baling water and keeping this rickety boat afloat.
Firing Ausmus would be nothing but a public relations-fueled, eye-wash move aimed solely at quieting a loud and angry portion of the fan base. And Avila, to his credit, has not shown a disposition for making moves for public-relations reasons.
To think changing managers will “re-energize” this baseball team is folly.
That would presume that Ausmus has lost this clubhouse, lost respect of the players. It would presume the team is playing without energy.
Those presumptions are false. This team competes hard every day. (Teams always look lethargic when they are not hitting. Hard to show a lot of energy walking back to the dugout after making an out.)
They have adopted, to varying degrees, Ausmus’ stoic, forget yesterday, don’t worry about tomorrow, win today approach. And it has served them well.
Fans see his calm demeanor in the dugout during the game, they hear his sarcasm and dry wit in interviews, they form judgments based on the fact he went to Dartmouth – none of it has anything to do with how he leads the team or how the team responds to his leadership.
Ausmus has this team properly motivated and prepared on a daily basis. His in-game decision-making has improved markedly over the last four seasons. His baseball intelligence, a mix of new age analytics and old-school sensibility, has won the praise and respect of the likes of Buck Showalter and Jim Leyland.
Changing managers won’t make anybody pitch or hit better. Changing managers won’t prevent injuries, won’t keep key players off the field for long stretches. Nothing has damaged this team more than the latter.
And changing managers won’t help if the Tigers do ultimately tear down this roster and start fresh.
One of Ausmus’ demonstrated strengths is the way he works with and develops young players – Nick Castellanos, James McCann, Daniel Norris and Iglesias are just a few who have benefitted.
All of that said, if this losing streak goes much deeper, Ausmus may take a sacrificial bullet.
As Ausmus has often said, baseball isn’t always fair and just.